Vantage Points
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Vantage Points

“Rollerball” movie poster, Copyright, 1975

Football’s Dystopian, Fringe Future

Although studies show the numbers of players, spectators, and watchers are steadily declining, we cannot dismiss the possibility that football will continue to survive in some form; not in spite of its violence, but precisely because of it.

“The game, the game: here we go again. All glory to it, all things I am and own because of Roller Ball Murder.” — Jonathan E., “Rollerball Murder.”

For over a decade now, youth football participation has declined. More and more parents are pushing their kids into other sports that do not risk or compromise bright futures due to brain trauma or permanent, life-altering injuries. But it’s not just concussions and CTE that is causing this trend.

Parents read the news, and beyond the issue of head trauma and suicide, they see reports of football players involved in violent crime, substance abuse, domestic abuse, firearms, and after their careers are done, declines in workplace productivity and satisfaction.

Add to all of this the recent spate of football player deaths, from a variety of causes, some revealed and others hidden from the media, and there are some serious questions to be asked and answered.

This decline in the numbers of kids going into football has several logical results, the most significant being that more and more high school programs are closing down, most of the time for good.

In August, 2018, I predicted football would slowly begin to fade from prominence and would eventually disappear from what I called “the bottom up.” I explained that the slow, certain end of football as we know it would start on the high school level, as more and more kids stopped playing the game, and that this trend would eventually begin to negatively impact college football, and so on. And that prediction has been accurate.

I wrote that one didn’t need to review pages of statistics; all one had to do to see that this trend was true was to go out to any youth football field in your neighborhood or at your local school and take a look around. If you find anyone out on that field, speak to some of the coaches and parents. In many places, the number of kids signing up to play youth football has plummeted. And these numbers have continued their downward trend.

I argued that the concomitant result of fewer young kids playing football was that fewer teenagers will play football in middle school or high school. Indeed, even in my home state of Texas — where football remains nearly akin to a state religion on Friday nights — the numbers of kids playing high school football is slowly but steadily declining. Even Texas Monthly, the unofficial “State Magazine of Texas,” agreed.

Looking back now, that was nearly five years ago.

And the numbers have continued to decline.

And yet, as I noted, die-hard football fans still scoff at the notion that football will ever die. The problem is, their arguments rest on false assumptions, like the person who looks at the minute hand on a clock and believes because they can’t see it moving that it is sitting still. But they come back in 30 minutes and notice it has turned a full 180 degrees.

The sure, steady decline of the game is occurring at a pace too slow for people to notice if they aren’t paying close attention. They see the NFL and college football still appearing to go strong, but they continue to ignore what’s going to happen in a few years when fewer and fewer kids play football. The college players they’re watching right now were in middle school just five years ago, in 2017.

As the Texas Monthly article above notes, eventually, high schools won’t be able to field full teams, and the schools that are able to do so will have fewer good athletes. Schools are shuttering their programs at a higher rate than ever before.

The result of high schools closing their football programs, I argued, is that the talent pool for college programs will start to dry up. The pipeline will slow to a drip. This will result in a smaller number of kids going on to play college football. Eventually, college football teams will begin to suffer the same fate that high schools are already suffering. And the numbers back this up; going back to the 2000 season for example, on average, about one college football program has closed each year.

I posited that college football first, then the NFL, would eventually become another version of what has happened to NASCAR, but for different reasons: The smaller pools of talent will all go play at the best programs, the number of which will assuredly dwindle. Eventually, the NCAA and NFL will consist of 4–5 dynasties that vie for the top spot every season. This is already happening. And this the way it works in NASCAR; only about half a dozen drivers in any starting field have a realistic chance of winning any particular race or the overall championship at the end of the season.

Like NASCAR, the entire situation will become boring. As a result, fan interest, viewing, and attendance will decrease. And this self-perpetuating decline will continue until the game eats itself out of existence, or at least to a small, insignificant shell of its former self.

And as stated, this is already happening. Do we have any proof?

Yes, we do. Let’s look at some data.

For instance, in 2021, college football attendance dropped for the seventh consecutive year. The per-game national decline of 1,629 fans in 2021 was the steepest ever, a 3.93% drop from 2019. The 2021 numbers include attendance at home, neutral-site and bowl games.

More than half of the teams in the final AP Top 25 saw attendance declines, including eight of the top 10 programs. For the seventh straight year, a majority of FBS conferences (seven of 10) declined in attendance. Compare that to 2010 when only the Pac-12 saw fewer fans attend games among the major conferences.

These numbers don’t lie; the 2021 FBS per-game average nationally — 39, 848 — was the lowest average attendance since 1981 — 40 years ago.

This continues to be the state of the “game” as we approach a new season. Fewer and fewer kids are playing in high school. More and more high school and college programs are closing down. Fewer and fewer people are attending college football games.

Most critics that pay attention to these numbers argue that football will eventually cease to exist in any form. This is the most aggressive view. They contend that we are too enlightened as a society to continue feeding and consuming a spectacle that is akin to the Roman gladiator games. They believe that recent developments in medicine and science that prove that even multiple sub-concussive impacts to the head can cause permanent and life-altering injuries and neurological disease cannot be ignored by thinking people. It’s an argument that appeals to science, math, and logic. This is their argument, and it rests on sound logic.

But what if there is something about football and the people who consume and continue to follow it that these critics are missing? What if this phenomenon were so strong with some fans that instead of leading to the end of football, it actually helped it survive? What if the violence of football, the bone-jarring, head-to-head impacts, players being taken off on stretchers, and the string of untimely and CTE-caused football player deaths actually ended up being the primary reason football survives?

That is the question: What if football survived — not despite its violence and the havoc and death it wreaks on its players — but precisely because of it?

“When an hour is gone, I’m still wheeling along, though we have four team members out with broken parts and one rookie maybe dead. But the other team is even worse off.”

In 1973, University of Arkansas creative writing professor and author William Neal Harrison wrote a short-story called Rollerball Murder. It was set in the year 2018, which at that time was forty-five years into the future. And chillingly, much of Harrison’s view of the future has become reality.

It is the story of a man named Jonathan E. No last name. Just an initial. Jonathan E. is the best professional player in the game of Rollerball. He tells the story in first-person, through his own eyes. In this future, dystopian-before-dystopian-was-a-word world, there is a single world government, run by massive corporations and their shadowy executives, which controls the only six departments that are necessary to both take care of and control the world population: Energy, Food, Transport, Communications, Housing, and Luxury. Books have disappeared, people read very little, and they obtain what “knowledge” of history and other subjects that still exists from computers that are controlled by the government and the corporations.

The game of Rollerball itself is deadly; indeed, players die, sometimes more than one in a single game. It is a brutal affair:

“Their best player turns in my direction, exposes the ugly snarl inside his helmet, and I take him out of action. In that tiniest instant, I feel his teeth and bone give way, and the crowd screams its approval.”

And yet, the rollerball stadiums are packed to capacity and over 2 billion more people watch on television. The single world government has made wars obsolete, and rollerball is the only “sport” permitted by the government. The government knows that without wars, the populace needs some kind of outlet for its most primal urges and tendencies. Rollerball is that outlet. The people are able to live vicariously through the player-combatants like Jonathan E., who is the most famous and popular player in the league.

“The years pass and the rules alter — always in favor of a greater crowd-pleasing carnage — and no rookie, no matter how much in shape he is, can learn this slaughter unless he comes out and takes me on in the real thing.”

Rollerball Murder paints a bleak picture of the future. Jonathan, although highly-paid and wealthy, knows his days are numbered. He knows that at any moment, his career, indeed, his life, might end on the playing field. He has somehow managed through an 11-year career to avoid serious injury, but he feels his luck will soon run out.

“The most powerful men in the world are the executives. They run the major corporations which fix prices, wages, and the general economy, and we all know they’re crooked. And they now run all the universities, which provide the farm system for Roller Ball Murder.”

He knows he’s a pawn in a much bigger phenomenon, but he is trapped in his role, by the government, his team, the fans, and the fact that since he was a teenager, he has done nothing else. Ironically, he has become a victim of his own murderous skills. As rollerball becomes more and more dangerous, and as more and more players die, he has no other choice but to continue. And he believes it’s just a matter of time before he becomes a victim of those same murderous skills being used against him in a game.

“Although the owner compliments my play, I don’t tell him all that’s inside me; that I’m tired of the long season, that I’m lonely and miss my wife, that I yearn for high, lost, important thoughts, and that maybe, just maybe, I’ve got a deep rupture in my soul.”

As the season wears on, Jonathan eventually approaches his team owner, Mr. Bartholemew about having dinner. He has some things he wants to talk to him about. And over the dinner, Jonathan tells Mr. Bartholemew he’s beginning to have serious doubts about his life and the direction in which it’s headed. Mr. Bartholemew reminds him that roller ball has made Jonathan extremely wealthy and powerful. But Jonathan disagrees. “I don’t think I really have any power,” Jonathan says, still groping. Mr. Bartholemew deftly changes the subject and the issues are dropped.

“A hollow space begins to grow inside me, as though fire is eating out a hole.”

“Before the next game, the dreary late-season pall takes us. We hardly speak among ourselves now, and like soldiers or gladiators sensing what lies ahead, we move around in the sickening surgical odors of the locker room.”

In the end, Jonathan slowly begins to lose his memories, short and long term. His hold on reality begins to weaken. His thoughts become clouded. But he continues on to the final championship game against New York. The story ends with the Houston and New York teams standing for the corporate anthems and Jonathan unsure of his survival.

Rollerball Murder was made into a Hollywood movie in 1975 called Rollerball, starring James Caan and directed by Norman Jewison. It stayed mostly true to Harrison’s book. About the only difference is that in the final championship game against New York, the audience gets to learn what happens to Jonathan during the final game. After the league has changed the rules to remove any penalties or time limits, Jonathan E. is the last man standing — all other players have been taking off the field after crippling injuries or killed — and Jonathan scores the game’s only point, untouched by any opponents. The movie ends.

Rollerball made $30 million at the box office, a high sum in 1975. But a strange thing happened; Jewison was contacted multiple times by people requesting that he sell them the “rights to the game” so that real Rollerball leagues might be formed in the United States. In response, Jewison was outraged at this prospect, and regarding the violence in some sports, he stated, “The entire point of the movie was to show the sickness and insanity of contact sports and their allure.”

But maybe Norman Jewison was overlooking something. Maybe all the critics of football are overlooking something about the nature of violence in sports, especially American football.

What could it be that they’re overlooking?

Football fans are desensitized to violence. Many football fans like violence. And many football fans want violence.

How do we know this? Let’s count up the proof.

Even though I’m excited for the start of the year, we need to be honest about the fact that football is a violent sport, and many things that people like about it, including me, is the violence. It’s not just violence in the abstract, it’s people’s lives who are tremendously impacted by this,” says Charles Camosy, a professor of Christian Ethics no less, at Fordham University.

As Professor Camosy accurately notes, the fact that football has rules does not alter the fact that it is violent. This is an important baseline precept to start from so the reader can follow me as this moves forward: Violence is violence, at least to brains and bodies.

Although we can contrast and make a distinction between criminal violence (a violation of the law) and “sports violence” (violence permitted within the confines of a sport’s rules), the brain doesn’t know the difference between criminal violence and sports violence. The brain doesn’t know the difference between illegal and legal violence.

For instance, the brain can’t tell the difference between a blow to the head delivered by a robber wielding a two-by-four as opposed to a blow to the head delivered by a strong safety wielding a football helmet; it’s all the same to the brain. The only difference is we send the robber to prison, but we praise the strong safety.

So I think you get the picture; a blow to the head is a blow to the head. Violence is violence.

And new research has indicated that fans gain more pleasure and excitement when viewing “non-scripted violence” (which is a cornerstone of football) than when they watch sports without any physical violence. A recent peer-reviewed health study — one of the first of its kind — explains that football fans are indeed desensitized to violence, and as a result, its impact on current and former players.

The study, entitled, “North American Football Fans Show Neurofunctional Differences in Response to Violence,” was coauthored by six doctors and will be referred to hereunder as The Daniel Study after its chief author.

The Daniel Study examined neurofunctional differences between fans and non-fans of football while the test subjects viewed violent imagery; in a nutshell, football fans react differently to violence than non-football fans do. Participants viewed images of violence in both football and non-football settings while high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data were acquired from their brains.

The results were that football fans showed diminished activation in brain regions involved in pain perception and empathy when viewing violence in the context of football compared to more broadly violent images. Non-fans of football showed no such effect for the types of violent imagery and had higher activation levels and emotional responses than football fans for the specified brain regions. Simply put, football fans have reduced emotional responsiveness toward violence.

Why? Repeated exposure to violence alters both behavioral and neurological responses toward violent materials in otherwise healthy individuals. For example, frequent exposure to violence, such as that in video games or movies, may lead to the habituation of violent behaviors and more pro-violent urges or attitudes. Violence in the media serves as a model for behavior through observational learning, creates the potential for aggressive behaviors, and reduces emotional responsiveness toward violence. This last factor serves to reduce empathy in those that are exposed to violence.

The attitudes of individuals watching the game impacts the violence experienced by those playing the game. Concerning football, it has been shown that repetitive brain trauma in players is a significant factor in the development of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), neurodegeneration, depression and suicide risk. This brain trauma is a significant concern for football players at all levels, who are exposed to large numbers of repetitive head impacts.

As a result, concussions and sub-concussive blows to the head commonly found in football can be considered to be an urgent public health burden which requires a policy response either from the government or football’s governing bodies. However, making rule changes can be difficult because most fans oppose any such changes.

Additionally, previous research has indicated that fans gain more pleasure and excitement when viewing non-scripted violence in football than when they watch sports without physical violence. This effect may also help to explain why fans are resistant to rule changes that increase player safety, but also reduce the amount of violence during play. This resistance may be driven by repeated exposure of fans to violence in football, with concomitant neural and behavioral manifestations.

Empathy serves as a way for one individual to take the perspective of another person. This ability to take another’s perspective predicts the usage of prosocial behaviors such as sharing and helping. Studies have found that increased exposure to media violence predicts lower rates of empathy. These lower rates of empathy are also associated with pro-violent attitudes.

Examples of pro-violent attitudes include beliefs that weapons such as knives or guns are fashionable or that it is acceptable for parents to encourage their children to fight. To further explore this connection, researchers tracked adolescents for over a year, recording their violent media usage, aggression, and empathy. This connection between increased violent media consumption contributing to lower levels of empathy has been replicated in numerous additional studies, showing that empathy serves to control and limit aggressive behaviors.

Using MRI, the Daniel Study researchers demonstrated neurofunctional differences in individuals exposed to violent videos. Participants viewed a short video of either violent or non-violent nature, followed by a set of images depicting painful bodily harm. Participants that viewed the violent video beforehand showed reduced activation in the anterior mid-cingulate cortex and anterior insula, two areas of the brain commonly found to be active while encoding emotionality and pain. These results highlight short-term effects of violence exposure and empathy in the brain, but other studies have examined the long-term effects.

Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), doctors grouped individuals by video game consumption, creating non-violent game players and violent game players. Participants viewed images of both violent and nonviolent nature. Participants that frequently played violent games showed a reduced P300 amplitude (the brain’s responsiveness to a sudden or unexpected stimulus) while viewing violent images compared to the group that played nonviolent games. Researchers attribute these findings as causal; individuals exposed to violence show neurofunctional differences that may cause desensitization toward violent images and decreases in empathy.

The Daniel Study concluded that exposure to football alters the neural response to violence. Many fans have opposed rule changes that promote player safety because they see this as changing the game (and the violence) they enjoy. Thus, football finds itself caught in an unenviable position, with certain segments of society calling for rule changes to increase players’ safety while many fans, who help fund the multibillion-dollar industry that is college and professional football, may view violence differently than the individuals calling for change.

The study predicted that repeated exposure to football, a violent contact sport, would reduce the neural activation of areas responsible for emotion regulation, perception of others’ pain and empathy in regions of the brain such as the amygdala and anterior cingulate.

To test this hypothesis, individuals were recruited and grouped based on their history of consuming football-related entertainment. While in a high-resolution MRI scanner, participants viewed two types of violent images: (1) images of general violence (someone being struck with a fist), and (2) images of football-related violence (a rough tackle). Brain activation during this task was measured and compared across the two groups (football fans vs. non-football fans) and between condition (general violence vs. football violence).

Test subjects that identified themselves as football fans exhibited decreased activation (to both types of violence taken together) in multiple regions of the brain when compared to non-fans. A between-groups contrast of non-fans versus fans confirmed significant differences between the groups in their responses to violent imagery. Football fans showed a much lower response to violent images in many parts of the brain that have been implicated in emotion regulation, the perception of others’ pain (empathy), and the neural origin of violent behaviors. Of particular interest is that the fan group showed less activation in these areas, which may mark a decreased empathetic response that often comes with increased exposures to violence.

Areas responsible for perceiving pain in others showed less activation in football fans when viewing football-related violence, such as a tackle or an aggressive collision between two people. Non-fans, however, perceived this football-related violence much the same as non-sports-related violence, such as an assault or robbery. These findings support the conclusion that increased exposure to violence (sports-related or not) should reduce activation in neural regions responsible for empathetic responses.

Decreased activity in these brain regions has also been observed in individuals with a higher probability of participating in violent or impulsive behaviors. Non-fans, then, perceive both sports violence and general violence as being equally painful while football fans perceive all violence to be relatively less painful and specifically football-related violence to be less painful than general violence. Within the fan group, the hippocampus also showed less activation for violence in general compared to non-fans.

It’s possible that football fans don’t perceive recipients of tackles or collisions to suffer any pain. However, it may be just as possible that football fans show less activation in brain areas responsible for perceiving pain in others because of their repeated exposure to football-related violence. Likewise, non-fans may be discouraged from football because they perceive players to be subjected to painful treatment, or perhaps their empathetic responses are due to their infrequent exposure to football.

The researchers concluded by outlining further avenues of research:

First, a concern raised by the current experiment for all levels of football is the ability of football fans to recognize the violent aspects of football and react to that violence in a way similar to those that have not been desensitized.

Second, if it is indeed desensitization due to constant exposure to violence in football, one needs to investigate the possibility that this same type of desensitization is also occurring with coaches, trainers, and the medical staff who are collectively responsible for player health and safety. Players are largely considered to be the worst protectors of their own health; especially when it comes to the most competitive levels of football.

According to the NFL Players’ Association, the average career length of a professional football players is only 3.3 years, which leaves very little time for a player to realize their professional and monetary goals. With that in mind, it is not hard to understand why players often feel that they have no other choice than to play through the pain and are also reluctant to self-identify as having incurred an injury, especially of the type that requires removal from play. The combination of a players’ desire to stay on the field at all costs and the desensitization of coaches, trainers, and medical staff may contribute to a dangerous environment for the long-term health and safety of players at all levels of football.

Third, there is a distinct possibility that fans may become less loyal to football if additional rule changes are implemented which increase player safety and decrease the overall violence associated with the sport. Previous researchers have noted that on the field violence, especially unscripted on the field violence, is the most enjoyable part of the viewing process for many football fans. While recent rule changes to decrease the incidents of concussions have been met with resistance from fans, it is an open question as to how far these types of rules can go before fans start to become less loyal.

In conclusion, the Daniel Study shows neurofunctional differences between fans and non-fans of football. Key areas of the brain respond differently when viewing violence, and for fans, these areas of the brain responded less to violence in the context of football.

This research firmly establishes that football fans are desensitized to violence and have a reduced emotional and empathetic response to it. And many more like and want violence to remain a part of football.

All of this is relevant to the overall hypothesis: As long as there are people who like the violence of football, there is always the chance that football, in some different, regionalized form, will survive, despite the falling numbers of kids playing in high school and college.

And so the questions become, if football does survive in some different form, what will it look like, and who will form its fanbase?

Football has a few examples that provide a vision of what it might become over the next few decades. For instance, boxing and what it has morphed into, and its various recent offshoots, are a good example.

At one time during the 20th century, it could be argued that boxing was the most popular sport in the world. Remember how huge boxing used to be? Joe Louis? Muhammad Ali? Joe Frazier. George Foreman? Mike Tyson? The sport was so big that individual matches had their own names. For instance, remember The Rumble in the Jungle?

Flash forward to present day and ask yourself: “What’s going on with boxing these days?” The fact is, boxing has steadily declined over the past three decades to a shell of its former self.

You get the picture.

One of the nasty, hidden truths about boxing was a thing that was called dementia pugilistica. Dementia pugilistica is now called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the past decade or so, we all know what CTE is. And today, boxing — for all intents and purposes — is dead.

Sure, every once in a while there will be an isolated, massive pay-per-view fight between two mostly unheard-of fighters, but the vast majority of the population isn’t paying attention or watching boxing anymore.

But that small group of outliers that is watching? These are the type of people who give some hope to boxing and the “sports” that have mutated from it. Stick with me on this now, because this phenomenon is the one thing that also gives football hope.

Although boxing has declined, what has arisen from its ashes? Mixed martial arts (MMA). Ultimate fighting (UFC). No holds barred. (NHB). All “sports” that are violent, and at their core offer that sort of unscripted but expected violence the Daniel Study discussed above. The core group of fans that follow and consume this hand-to-hand combat are passionate and rabid. They like it precisely because of its violence. And it’s these same kinds of fans that will likely continue to follow and consume football, no matter what the medical science says about its long-term effects on players and their families.

As I noted in my longform piece, Bring in the Gladiators, football at its highest levels — the NFL and NCAA Division One — is already a highly corporatized, billion-dollar industry, but at its core, it’s a violent affair where the players live out short careers (NCAA-four years; NFL average career of three years) for the entertainment of people who would never play the game at that level of speed and violence themselves if given the chance. They would never in a million years go down to the locker room, put on the pads, and go out on the field themselves. Why? Because they don’t want to get killed or seriously maimed or brain damaged. They are people of relative financial security, even wealth — who live vicariously through the young men on the field, who come mostly from underprivileged upbringings.

This is one of great paradoxes of this phenomenon — the football fan lives vicariously through the player, witnessing the player’s delivery or receipt of a brain-rattling hit, without ever having to receive such a hit himself. The fan derives the adrenaline rush of seeing it, but as the Daniel Study notes, he has no ability to empathize with the player on the receiving end. The fan has watched this kind of thing happen so many times he is fully desensitized to it. And yet he yearns and thirsts to see this violence play out again and again.

This is the person who will form the fanbase of whatever football mutates into in the future. And it is the same type of person who formed the fanbase in Rollerball. Football’s violence and the people who like that violence, may end up saving it, in some form.

What does all of this portend? If football survives in some form, it becomes regionalized to those places where it is entrenched in the culture and fabric of everyday life, especially during the fall, like the south and southeast. Its fanbase mirrors the fanbase of mixed martial arts and its offshoots, affluent people watching men from underprivileged backgrounds participate in a “sport” the spectators would never take part in themselves.

It hangs on in these areas through its total social omnipresence: As I’ve observed before, when someone has been following and consuming a product their entire lives, — regardless the toll it takes on the producers of the product and the ethics of the people that consume it — it’s very difficult for the consumers to give it up, especially when it’s the biggest part of their social lives for six months out of the year.

And given the uniquely American capacity for denial, the ingredients are there for football in some form to exist into the future. First, there will always be a certain part of the population who like violence. As the Daniel Study shows, football fans are desensitized to the violence inherent in football. As a result, there will always be a core group of fans who will continue to follow and consume it. Second, as another result, there will also always be men like Jonathan E. who are willing to take two or three decades off their life expectancies or even give up their lives entirely in return for setting up multiple generations of their family financially into the future.

For all of these reasons, football in some form might survive; not in spite of its violence, but precisely because of it.

“Wherever I go in the arena people are reaching for my hands, pushing my bodyguards away, trying to touch my sleeve as though I’m some ancient religious figure, a seer or prophet. Before the game begins, I stand with my team as the corporation hymns are played. ‘I’m brute speed today,’ I tell myself, trying to rev myself up; yet, adream in my thoughts, I’m a bit unconvinced. A chorus of voices joins the band now as the music swells. The music rings, and I can feel my lips move with the words, singing.”

Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast Welcome to the Machine, available on most podcast platforms. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.

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Glen Hines

Glen Hines

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Fortunate son. Lucky husband. Doting father. Marine Corps Veteran. On a writer’s journey. Author of the Anthology Trilogy & Bring in the Gladiators @amazon.