I’ve heard that a million times in my lifetime by now. Whether it was watching a football game with friends in public or at home, or maybe I was getting hit and the opposing team’s sideline was screaming it, or maybe I administered the hit. You can’t go a Thursday through Sunday during football season without hearing it.
It’s a celebratory term in the football world. Those 2 words encompass a much larger description of what just happened on the field. Nice hit doesn’t mean that you hit the other guy and he fell down and you both get up and trot off like nothing happened. No, nice hit means that something electrifying just happened. The tackler hit the ball carrier so well that it caused an immediate reaction by everyone watching. Maybe he knocked the guy clean off his feet. Maybe he wrapped up and drove him straight in to the ground stopping the ball carrier dead in his tracks. Maybe a helmet went flying due to the impact. But it goes beyond the hit.
When the guy who made the hit hears his coaches and teammates yelling about how great it was there’s a moment of euphoria. You’ve been noticed by everyone at that moment for your hard work and dedication. You’ve been validated that it was your time to be on the field. You’ve proven that the time and effort is paying off. You won that battle against your opponent and you’re a hero for it. Those moments are great. Everything feels right. And that’s when the trouble starts. It’s looking for those little moments that get guys like me addicted to the sport especially when I was younger and playing the sport. Here’s the sad truth. No one won that moment. We both suffered from that moment. Some more than others, but both nonetheless.
The NFL and NCAA are putting rules and guidelines in place that give the perception that the game is getting safer. It eases the pressure from people who oppose heavy contact sports for the time being until the next significant injury happens. Or until research shows that the game isn’t any safer than it was before. Then a new rule will be put in place and more fines will be administered to show how hard the league is “trying”. Because that’s all it takes now, right? Just show how hard you’re trying and that should be enough. There’s plenty of research out there that shows that trying isn’t enough. Trying hasn’t saved anyone at this point.
The biggest hits that you see once in a while don’t account for the majority of this damage. It’s primarily the hits that no one pays attention to. The offensive and defensive lines are easily the most dangerous position in football. You have 2 behemoth men hammering in to each other over and over again. Helmets make contact, arms are flying around, shoulders are being utilized, and forearms somehow end up slamming in to the bottom of someone’s chin…on accident, of course. Those impacts on every play cause a ton of head trauma. It doesn’t look like much, but studies have shown that every play on the line is like having that lineman crash his car in to a wall at 30 mph. (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/09/sports/football/what-happened-within-this-players-skull-football-concussions.html) That’s on every single play.
The people that are fed up with all of this head trauma talk often go to the same argument. “They know the risks, so it’s their choice to play.” Or “They make enough money to get the treatment they need.” I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get paid to play in grade school, high school, college, or semi-pro. When I played my high school ball I wasn’t aware of the severity of what head trauma would do to me later in life. Would it have changed my mind? I’m not sure. I wasn’t the brightest high school kid. But that’s what experience teaches us. We get older and, hopefully, most of us get wiser to teach the younger generation about the perils of their actions.
I can recall at least 5 times where I was definitely concussed and still allowed to play because I “shook it off”. It was pretty common to hear that some kid just “got his bell rung” a little bit, no big deal, take a play off and get back out there. I can’t blame the coaches because I really can’t believe they knew the risks at the time. I played high school ball in the mid to late 90s. Earlier that decade spearing finally became illegal. Spearing, for those who don’t know, is when you lead with the crown of your helmet in order to tackle someone. Basically using your helmet as the tip of a missile and driving it through a ball carrier’s chest or helmet. For prime examples of what spearing looks like just look up Green Bay Packers safety Chuck Cecil. He had spearing down to an art. It was a very violent way to hit someone. I don’t blame anyone for undiagnosed concussions because it wasn’t a thing yet. Football had been around for a long time, but an understanding of the human brain and the affects of football wasn’t something that was being studied in depth. We were still trying to understand how the brain works much like we are still doing today.
Here’s what I do know. I know I’m 38 years old. I know that sometimes I wake up with headaches that won’t subside for 2 days. I know that sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and my head is on fire. It just feels like everything inside my skull is burning and there’s nothing that soothes it. I know that I try to keep myself aware of violent mood swings, depression, and reduced motor skills which are all early warning signs of CTE. I know that my facial muscles will twitch especially around my mouth and eyes and up the side of my face to my ears and shortly after I usually get a lingering headache. There’s times when my forehead hurts so bad that I can’t find any way to get comfortable and actually fall asleep and that it makes my head feel like it weighs 100 pounds. I also know that occasionally my hand on my right side will start to shake out of nowhere. I don’t know where all that comes from. Poor diet, excessive alcohol intake in my 20s, or multiple concussions that were never properly treated? Maybe a combination of all 3. Maybe there’s even more to it than I know. I can’t afford a bunch of fancy brain scans that may or may not give me any insight to it. They can’t diagnose CTE until you’re dead. It’s even quite possible that it’s not related to football at all. I would really like to know if I would still have these struggles if I didn’t play.
That’s where the life experience comes in to play. I’ve been asked if I, knowing the risks that I know now, would allow myself to play football. My answer is simple. No. I would not allow myself to play football. If I had a child I would do everything I could to not have them play football, either. I would rather they play baseball, golf, or be a competitive shooter. The sport isn’t any safer now as to when I played. The speed at which the game is played now is ridiculous and should never be referred to as safe. I had a friend tell me that her 16 year old son wants to play football for the first time at school. I had the rare opportunity to sit across from him and ask him not to play. I don’t know if he’s going to listen to me. He has no reason to, really. I did tell him what I go through, I also informed him that he can be one freak hit away from being paralyzed, and I told him that at 16 he doesn’t need to do his body unnecessary damage for the last 2 years of high school. Do something smarter than playing football. I really hope he listens, but at 16 you’ll always be smarter than the adults around you.
Go back up and look at the guy getting hit in the picture. His eyes are closed, probably involuntarily, because his body is trying to protect him from the horrors of what’s happening to it. The impact is coming from both sides which makes the damage done to the head twice as harmful as opposed to when the head gets snapped back. Look at the strain on his face. Look at his helmet sliding upward rather than staying tight on his head. That’s from the G-force caused from being hit so hard. When you get hit hard like that the world goes black and in a split second you’re down on the ground and then you pop back up. You tell people that you didn’t even feel it and it’s not as bad as it looks. That’s the worst part. Your mind goes in to protect mode so heavily that it doesn’t allow you to feel the pain that’s being inflicted on your body. Eventually you’ll feel it. When you’re in your late 30s and early 40s just trying to be a regular guy that’s when the pain will come to haunt you. You will pay for the choices of your past one way or another.