The love and happiness of the McKenna family has expanded once again and I have again become an uncle. Kellan Lucas McKenna is a perfect bundle of joy and I am looking forward to meeting him in the coming weeks. The addition of a new nephew to my life has me once again waxing philosophically about being an uncle and guiding boys through life.
All of these thoughts and decisions are theoretical as this McKenna household has a distinct deficiency in Y chromosomes. To be honest, I always figured that this is how my life would unfold. Having grown up with 2 brothers and surrounded by mainly boy cousins, I always assumed my family life would be destined to be overrun with girls. I like to call it “My Life as a Sitcom” (Tagline: Even the cat is a girl!) So with the birth of another McKenna male and the end of the NFL season fast approaching, I have been seriously considering if I had a son, would I let him play football.
Full disclosure, I spent 7 years of my life playing tackle football. Not only that, but I had to convince my parents to let me play football. Despite being the biggest boy in my class since 1st grade and our school having a football team starting in 4th grade, it took 2 years to convince my parents that I should be allowed to play. In the end, my pediatrician sealed the deal when he told my mom that while tackle football probably was not ideal for my growing body, if I wanted to play in high school, I would need to start playing before then.
Interesting how at that time, the bigger concern was for bones and muscles and no concern for head injuries. The possibilities of head injury and permanent cognitive damage would be the main worries holding me back from letting a son of mine play. At a glance it would seem to be a no brainer. Risk of debilitating brain trauma in the near or distant future versus overinflated, fleeting glory in a mindless game. But in fact, the decision is much more difficult than one might imagine.
I distinctly remember that by the time I had played my final snap and hung up my helmet and shoulder pads for the last time, I was ready to be done. But as I have gotten further away from competitive sports, I miss it greatly. There is an indescribable feeling of being on a football team. First and foremost there is the competition itself. But there are also more subtle aspects to relish about being on a football team. As a group for months on end, you have pushed yourself to your physical limits in the sweltering sun, driving rain and freezing cold. You have banded together against the odds and intimidating opponents and come through successfully on the other side. You have woken up early and stayed at school late to practice, study film and lift weights.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but football instilled important values in me. Determination, self-confidence and self-reliance. And while I suppose that these characteristics were already inside of me and probably would have come about regardless of having played football or not, I firmly believe that playing football went a long way in solidifying these principles.
The most physically exhausted I have ever been in my life was not at the end of a 36 hour on-call stint as a lowly pediatric intern or waking up yet again at 3am to tend to a wailing infant, but as a high school sophomore in the middle of the second of triple summer practices. I wanted to pass out. I half considered pretending to swoon so as to be able to opt out of the current drills and sit down and rest. But I didn’t and probably once a week I still think of that moment and I am forever grateful that I didn’t let my team down and more importantly, let my self down, by giving in and letting myself drop to the ground. I stuck it out. I dug down deeper than I thought I had in me. And I came out better for it in the end. Football prepared me to be a better resident, a better dad, a better person.
Since that time, I have never faced a situation and thought about giving in again. Not the night I admitted 13 pediatric patients on-call all by myself, not last week when I was climbing up a mountain and my hiking boots literally disintegrated. You might say it is okay to turn back and call it a day or ask out of that one extra admission, but I won’t take that out you are handing me. I am going strap my helmet on and get to work. All thanks to football.
Admittedly, these virtues come with a price. Head trauma is a real problem for the sport of football. No matter how hard they try to make the game safer, in the end the purpose of football is for two people to stand on opposite sides of a line and attempt to impose their physical will on the other person. I came out unscathed. I never had a concussion and I never really remember having taken a significant blow to the head.
Maybe I was lucky. Maybe it was because I “only” played in high school where the game is not as fast and the players are not nearly as big. Maybe it was because I was “only” a lineman and was not really prone to devastating hits of receivers and backs going over the middle of the field to catch the ball. So playing high school football is probably okay, right? Maybe not.
A study from a few years back out of Lafayette indicates that the most sustained head trauma on the football field occurs on the offensive and defensive lines. While there are rarely glaring, “highlight-reel” hits, the persistent knocking of heads play after play after play provide the biggest opportunity for problems.
One of the most frightening things I have ever experienced was the concussion of one of my teammates. He was wide awake on the sideline and yet it was like he was playing a really dumb joke. He kept asking the same question over and over again. The scariest part was when I talked to him in class a few days later, he had absolutely no recollection of the game. Multiple hours of his life, gone. Blank forever. And he was a lineman too. He didn’t take a big scary hit, he was just playing on the defensive line. The risks are definitely there, even in high school.
Everyday it seems that another former NFL player commits suicide, dies tragically or has their life disintegrate before our eyes. When further examined, each brain has evidence of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). The easy conclusion is that football caused this condition and this condition led to the destruction of each man. Yet, this is biased, anecdotal information at best right now. The relatively small amount of information currently gathered without any case controls is only one minute view of the problem. There is much more work to be done, even though the current picture looks grim.
Someday, my nephews Alexander or Kellan (or their parents) very well might come up to me and ask me if they should be allowed to play football. I used to think that my answer would come easy and be directly from my pediatrician. But as the days have gone by, as more information has been gathered and as I get more and more invested in the well-being of my nephews, the answer is harder to come by. There is so much good that comes from team sports and specifically from football. I have lived it first-hand and am the better for it. Up until this point I have been fortunate and not seen any of the downside.
For myself, the benefits were worth the risks. If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would do it in a heartbeat. But that is the decision for myself. When it comes to the health and well-being of two other precious and perfect, next-generation McKenna Boys,
the answers are much less clear. Thankfully, I still have a few years to determine my final answer.