The football gap separating the old-school game and its new era adapting to the times was revealed as wide as the Grand Canyon at the Atlantic Coast Conference media days last month in Charlotte, N.C.
The concussion subject of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) was teed up for North Carolina coach Larry Fedora, but he booted the ball out of bounds.
“I fear that the game will get pushed so far to one extreme that you won’t recognize the game 10 years from now,” Fedora said. “That’s what I worry about and I do believe that if it gets to that point, our country goes down too.”
His comments touched off a blitzkrieg. Critics called for his head, adding with irony his old-school words came from coach employed at a school that is a leader in brain trauma research.
Later, Duke’s David Cutcliffe brought the conversation back to 2018.
“We're going to continue, if we're smart, to see the game morph,” Cutcliffe said. “We don't have to ruin the game; we don't have to put it where we don't recognize it as football. I'm excited to see what the future brings as opposed to these people that act like it's doomsday for football. God bless football.”
Across the football landscape, though, other gaps remain to building a bridge.
In the NFL, Minnesota Vikings strong safety Andrew Sendejo reported to training camp wearing a hat that read “Make Football Violent Again.” And this was from a guy who suffered a concussion from a hit that teammates called dirty in last season’s playoff loss to New Orleans.
CTE has grasped hold of football’s future like a bulldog, clamping its jaws around the ankles, ever since the suicide deaths of Junior Seau, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, and Dave Duerson, a two-time Super Bowl champion. Such headlines have resulted in declining youth participation and that worries the NFL, NCAA and USA Football.
The governing bodies understand stemming declining participation numbers at the youth level is vital to the game's future. New rules include teaching proper tackling techniques at the youth level, fair catches on kickoffs in college and penalties for using the helmet on hits in college and the NFL.
But there are more relatable stories to the average football family than Seau and Duerson. Consider two recent books about the “every man” player to understand CTE’s scope. The slow descents of Lamar Leachman and Dick Proebstle to a painful death included a toll on their families. Both died in 2012, the same year as Seau and one year after Duerson. But the average fan didn't hear about Leachman and Proebstle.
“The King of Halloween and Miss Firecracker Queen,” is 2018 book by Lori Leachman, a Duke University PhD economics professor, about her father.
“Unintended Impact,” is a 2015 book by Jim Proebstle, a retired management consultant executive and author of two other books, about his older brother.
In gut-wrenching details, the two authors detail the progression in a loved one. It starts with simple memory loss, but escalates to dramatic personality changes with outbursts, paranoia and failed physical abilities.
Leachman’s father played at Tennessee and in the Canadian Football League before his coaching career. He was a high school head coach and college assistant in the South before he moved onto to the NFL as an assistant with the New York Giants’ Super Bowl XXII championship team and later with the Detroit Lions.
Proebstle’s older brother was a Michigan State quarterback in 1962 and 1963 until a severe concussion in 1964 spring drills ended his career.
On the surface Leachman and Proebstle seem to share little in common.
Leachman’s youth in the South pre-dated Title IX, meaning organized sports, let alone football, weren’t open to a girl. She was exposed to the game, though, watching 8mm game films projected on the living room wall with her father; that was the technology then.
Football was fun for her family in those days, but as a parent Lori didn’t allow her younger son to play the game (her older son wasn’t interested).
“I do not regret a thing about that decision, except his sorrow,” she writes in her book, “nor does he, now that he’s an adult.”
She’s not alone, although as a woman she may be more vulnerable to hearing “anti-football” charges. When Pro Football Hall of Famer Harry Carson, who played for her father, spoke last winter at Duke concussion seminar Leachman organized, he explained he suffers from concussions from his career and he won't allow his grandson to play football.
“I am not anti-football,” Leachman said. “I would not let my son play because I saw what was happening to my father, and I had the money for his college tuition. Other families aren’t so lucky. I want to see the game reformed. There are many things football can do to tweak the game to make it safer.”
Proebstle grew up playing youth leagues and high school football alongside his brother. They had their hands in the Midwestern dirt of Canton, Ohio, a holy land for the sport. Jim followed his brother to Michigan State and was a tight end on the Spartans’ 1965 national championship team. Despite his brother’s fate, he has held steady to the sport’s intrinsic value.
“Not being involved in football, with the terrific coaches I had, would have robbed me of the lessons I learned in my development as a young man,” he writes in his book.
But he has changed with the times; he believes kids shouldn’t play youth tackle football. He says prior to age 14 kids can learn as much playing flag football as the tackle brand.
“The only thing I learned playing youth football is I was bigger than everybody else,” he said.
Jim’s unanswered question of how two brothers played on the same teams from youth leagues through college but only one of them suffered CTE has driven him to delve deeper into understanding CTE research. He often writes and speaks for the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
The unanswered questions leaves a crack in football’s history still to be written. Will old-school football tumble into a pit alongside boxing or bridge the gap in its new era? .
Syracuse coach Dino Babers, another new era coach at the ACC media days, says head coaches need to see the game from a new perspective. Trainers and doctors on the field may be distracted treating another athlete; officials in the press box don’t have the proximity of a head coach on the sideline.
The old school coach worried about winning the game as a priority without understanding the danger to the dinged player's health or diminished ability to execute. The new era coach recognizes risks from concussions at the same time he understands a clear-headed backup sent into the game can help the team more than a woozy star.
“If you’re on the field, and you know the game, you know what a good hit looks like,” Babers said. “I will not have one of my young men on the field like that. It doesn’t do any good for them, obviously, and it doesn’t do any good for us because if he’s dinged he can’t remember what to do in the first place.
“Get them out of the game. Let them clear their head. Let the doctor see them. If the doctor puts him in, that’s great. If the doctor doesn’t put him in, that’s great as well. It does nobody any good to have them on the field if they’re not exactly right.”
Leachman and Proebstle, advocates of the new era, have seen CTE’s ravages up close. They may have started out on different paths, but they’re now on the same road, even if taking different lanes, to mapping out a safer game.
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Click here: Unintended Impact
Click here: The King of Halloween and Miss Firecracker Queen
Click here: Two books recommended for Larry Fedora
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Tom Shanahan, Author: Raye of Light http://tinyurl.com/knsqtqu
-- Book on Michigan State's leading role in the integration of college football. It explains Duffy Daugherty's untold pioneering role and debunks myths that steered recognition away from him to Bear Bryant.