This Game Can Kill You

The last thing my high school football coach said to me on the bus after my final game was “Regret’s a son of a bitch.”

We had just gotten crushed on the road by Catonsville on a Friday night in the pouring rain and our season ended with just a single win. I was cold, tired, and ready to get the hell off the bus. He stopped me at the door to look my in the eye and deliver that message.

Now, five years out of high school, I am full of regret.

Towson High School, located just outside Baltimore, Maryland, is the opposite of a football powerhouse. Two games into my sophomore year, I was called up to varsity.

I was a terrible football player. And there is no false modesty about that. A blocking tight end that was not very good at blocking. Lacking all of the necessary skills for football: speed, quickness, burst, strength, and anything else you can think of to describe a successful player, I didn’t have that either.

I especially lacked aggressiveness. Arguably the essential attribute in a sport like football and I didn’t have any. I couldn’t overcome my instinctual reluctance to throw my body into contact. Turns out, self-preservation does not help the running game.

The little hesitation of “don’t want to do that” is what football coaches call fear. Cliché? Well, high school football is football reduced to its most cliché. Coaches would tell us constantly about “being a man” and “toughing it out” and if we were banged up to “Rub some dirt on it.”

High school coaches are like that because high school football is more about toughness and overcoming that instinctual reluctance — or fear — than skill or talent. At least, that was the case at Towson. What mattered most was winning the individual battle against the guy across the line of scrimmage from you. Being tougher than him. More powerful than him. More violent than him.

That is how football games are won and lost.

Before high school, I had never played organized football. Had never lifted weights seriously or been apart of a conditioning program before I walked into the gym at Towson the summer after 8th grade. Four days a week for two hours a day of lifting and running in the summer heat.

Two-a-days began two weeks before school started. During the year, practice was held rain or shine from 2:45 to 5 p.m. with four days a week of full contact.

We didn’t throw the ball much at Towson. Not during practice and not during games. Run play after run play. Ground wars. Trench battles. A high frequency of collisions — at vastly lower intensities than the upper levels, of course, but collisions nonetheless.

And when you are on a bad team, practice had a tendency to descend into a pattern of angry coaches yelling: “Again. Same play. On the ball.” That cliche “Get it right, do it light. Do it wrong, Do it long” was a mantra we heard often. Didn’t help us any.

I remember one practice from my freshman year, a sophomore linebacker charging in on blitzes and slamming his head into mine. Play after play. Again and again.

Run left, run right, it didn’t matter, he was hitting me in the head with the front of his facemask that entire practice.

How could I block that? How could I prevent him from getting past me? How could I physically stop him from making contact with my head? His aggressiveness and willingness to be violent was so vastly superior to mine I had no way of doing anything but taking the contact. Again and again.

My sophomore season, I saw four kids leave the field in ambulances. Three during games and one during a practice. The last one came on that rainy night at Catonsville.

I knew there were risks to playing, but I can’t recall considering the risks and deciding they were worth taking when I started playing at age 14.

I remember my coaches wishing they had one more chance to strap on the pads. One more Friday night playing a rival school. Regret’s a son of a bitch, right?

But we never heard about the damage they had done to their bodies.

We watched videos about heads-up tackling to avoid head and neck injuries and were warned about dangerous habits during practice. I had friends break arms, another break his jaw, and there were plenty of teammates in the “walking wounded” brigade. I knew this was a rough sport.

I didn’t know I was risking my life on each play.

Andre Smith, 17, of Bogan High School in Chicago collapsed after the final play of the game Thursday night. He died on Friday, October 23. (Early reports indicate Smith suffered a head injury, but it is yet to be determined if his death was the result of an on-field injury.)

This year, four high school football players have died after suffering on-field injuries. In 2014, five high school players died as a result of an on-field injury.

Friday, September 4, Tyrell Cameron, 16, died as a result of injuries sustained during a punt return while playing for Franklin Parish High in Louisiana.

Wesleyan Christian School linebacker Ben Hamm, also 16, died on September 19, a little over a week after making a “routine tackle.”

Quarterback Evan Murray, 17, died of massive internal bleeding caused by a lacerated spleen following a hit on Friday, September 25, while playing for Warren Hills Regional High in New Jersey.

Kenny Bui of Evergreen High School in Washington, died on Friday, October 2 after suffering a head injury. He was a senior and 17 years old.

And I didn’t know about the long-term consequences of football.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a progressive degenerate brain disease that is found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma. The disease has been found in 96 percent of former NFL players studied and in 79 percent of all football players examined.

At the CTE Center at Boston University, CTE was found in the brain of an 18-year-old high school football player. This is the earliest evidence of CTE ever found.

“That brain is supposed to be pristine. It’s supposed to be perfect,” Dr. Ann McKee, Director of the BU Neuropathology Core, told PBS Frontline. “It’s still laying down tracks. It’s still developing. And this brain already had signs of very serious deterioration in it.”

A conversation about doing away with football at the high school level is long overdue. I don’t want to tell anybody they shouldn’t play football, that’s not my place. But we need a long conversation.

It would be irresponsible to continue to let young people play and not tell them the full consequences. It would be irresponsible for former players to downplay the dangers of a violent game. Yet knowing more about the dangers won’t stop the injuries, concussions, and deaths.

I can’t blame any kid who still wants to play. I understand the desire. Football is what we do in America. The game is intertwined with our culture, especially the American high school experience — even at non-football powerhouses like Towson.

But high school students are not adults. They aren’t even able to sign up without a parent’s signature. The decision to continue high school football shouldn’t be theirs to make.

If we let them play, we have to grapple with the knowledge that we as a society allow children to play a sport that can kill them.

I quit football after two seasons. That rainy night in Catonsville ended up being my last game. I had no desire for another year.

I left without suffering an on-field injury. But I’m terrified about the amount of damage I did in two years.

I was never diagnosed with a concussion while playing, though I took my fair share of hard hits. I worry about the many hundred sub-concussive lower impact hits I took. The ones that “can most dramatically impact and alter the integrity of a brain” with damage done, not all at once, but “in doses.”

That is what scares me. The damage to my brain that accumulated without me even knowing.

I keep coming back to one thought: What the hell was I thinking?

Regret’s a son of a bitch.