It all sounded so familiar, even comforting, this rite of fall that comes in the midst of summer.
The quarterback barking out the call. The grunts and thuds of giant men running into each other. The screams from the defensive side when one of their own picks off a deflected pass.
An NFL training camp — in this case, it’s the Super Bowl runner-up Atlanta Falcons — provides a reassuring symphony to those who cherish America’s real national pastime.
But a dark cloud continues to linger over the league and all of football, really, as we begin a new season.
How long can this gladiatorial sport survive when former players are suffering and dying from damage they took on the field?
Should it survive?
Roughly coinciding with the start of training camps around the country, from high schools to colleges to the NFL, we got perhaps the most disturbing report yet confirming what we already knew.
Football is really, really bad for your health.
“Any player who tells you they haven’t put some sort of thought into it, they’re not being truthful with you,” said San Francisco 49ers running back Kyle Juszczyk. “It was a scary statistic.”
Certainly, it was impossible to ignore the startling research from Boston University on 202 former football players , sampling everyone from preps to pros, that showed nearly all of them suffered from a brain disease linked to repeated head blows.
Even more compelling, The Associated Press released a heartbreaking series detailing the enormous human tollthat CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) has on families when their loved ones became mere shells of themselves, grappling in the latter years of their increasingly diminished lives with memory loss, mood swings, depression and erratic behavior.
One has to wonder if the trickle of players who have walked away so far, most notably promising young linebacker Chris Borland, will turn into a flood at some point.
We’re not there yet.
Not even close, really.
Football players are some of the toughest people on the planet, accustomed to dealing with the pain and hardship that their sport demands. Many of them, having grown up in hardscrabble circumstances, turned to football as a conduit to a college education and a prosperous life they wouldn’t have had otherwise. They’re appreciative of what it has done for them, and they’re not about to turn their backs on it, no matter how damning the research.
“In this life, everything comes with pros and cons,” Washington offensive tackle Trent Williams said. “I mean, my daddy worked on cars for 30 years and he got a bad back, bad knees and arthritis in his joints. So standing up on concrete working that long is going to have its effects on you. But you have to feed your family, so you’ve got to make decisions.”
He then turned to his chosen profession.
“When you’re blessed to play something that you love and get paid handsomely for it, you can’t expect everything to be all peaches and cream,” Williams continued. “So if that’s what comes with it, that’s what comes with it.”
Nothing wrong with that. As long as he’s fully aware of the risks and knows what it could mean later in life, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be allowed to play, no reason we can’t cheer for his exploits.
But there are indications that more and more players are paying attention to the tell-tale signs of trouble down the road.
Receiver Andrew Hawkins, who had just signed with the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in May, announced his retirement at age 31 before he even got to training camp. He said his body “just didn’t respond and wasn’t feeling the way it should.” It came out that he has pledged his brain to CTE research.
Baltimore Ravens linemen John Urschel also announced his retirement right about the time this latest study came out. Only 26, he didn’t reveal his reasons for quitting, and it very well could be because he’s got a full life beyond football — an accomplished mathematician, he’s pursuing his doctorate from MIT. But Urschel had previously written an essay revealing his mother never wanted him to play football and that he envied Borland for walking away rather than endangering his long-term health.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn says he actually thinks football has turned a corner, recognizing the effects of repeated head shots and taking major steps to protect the athletes, from stressing proper tackling techniques to limiting practice time.
“I think you can be tough as hell and still shoulder tackle,” Quinn said. “We try to keep the head out of the contact.”
Indeed, you can make football safer.
But you can never make it safe, not in its current form.
One can’t help but be reminded of Winston Churchill’s words after a tide-turning battle in World War II: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
That’s what it feels like for football.
It would be foolish to predict its imminent demise.
But it’s possible to see, far off in the distance, an end for America’s national pastime.