Football, Parenting and Hard Knocks

As troubling data on concussions grows, a father confronts the limits of tough love

Photo by Chris Jones

Photo by Chris Jones

Postgame advice to my son, a sophomore quarterback on his JV football team in Henderson: You’ve GOT to step into your throws and not be afraid to get hit!

In-game text to his mother an hour earlier: He almost needs to take a big hit to prove he can survive it.

Hold on a minute here. I watch football. A lot of football. (Too much football, if you were to poll my wife.) Because of this, I’m keenly aware that the sport’s hot-button topic the last few years has been concussions. Billion-dollar lawsuits have been filed (and settled) because former players have suffered life-altering head trauma. Decades-old rules have been changed in the hopes of preventing current players from developing life-altering head trauma.

And here I am quietly rooting for my first-born to take a big hit?


A keyword search of “football head injuries” last week on The New York Times’ website yielded four articles written about the topic just from September 14-18. Included was a thought-provoking essay by former NFL linebacker Scott Fujita, titled, “Would I Let My Son Play Football”? Adjacent to the link to Fujita’s article was a chilling research study from 2007 which stated that at least 50 high school football players (or younger) in more than 20 states had been killed or sustained serious head injuries on the field from 1997-2007.

One of those tragedies occurred here. In 2003, Las Vegas High School defensive back Edward Gomez made what appeared to be a routine tackle in a game—so routine that he high-fived a teammate before jogging off the field. But when Gomez got to the sideline, he complained of dizziness. Then he collapsed. Two days later, he was dead. Cause of death: blunt-force trauma to the head.

I learn this, and immediately think back just a few weeks, when I was extremely frustrated watching my 6-foot-4, strong-armed son pacing the sideline during early-season games, barely getting any playing time: I bet the parents of Edward Gomez would give anything to rewind the clock and see their son standing safely on the sideline.


Jay Beesemyer is an assistant director for the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association, which governs high school athletics statewide. Among his duties is to man what he calls the complaint department. And as you can imagine, Beesemyer fields his share of calls about the NIAA’s concussion policy, which essentially states that any player diagnosed with a concussion can’t return to the field until he is medically cleared.

As you probably wouldn’t imagine, the majority of parents calling Beesemyer about this issue complain that their concussed kid isn’t concussed. This is wrong! My kid’s fine. He should be playing Friday night. He’s not going to get to play when the scouts are going to be there. You’re costing my kid a scholarship! “I’ve heard more of those calls than, ‘The coach is putting my kid out there even though my kid said he doesn’t feel good and is dizzy,’” Beesemyer says. “I don’t get those calls. Thank God.”

My son is one of an estimated 1.1 million boys playing high school football, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Another 3 million participate in youth tackle leagues. Those numbers are dropping—likely permanently. In fact, at a National Federation sectional meeting earlier this month, Beesemyer was informed of a significant decline in youth football participation, which is destined to have a trickle-up effect.

“You’ve got parents who were good football players back in their day, and they’re flat-out saying, ‘You know what? I’m not letting my kid play football,’” Beesemyer says. “If those people are saying that, then you can imagine [the mindset of] people who aren’t that familiar with or in love with the sport of football. There’s going to be a decline. It’s a dangerous sport. I watch the NFL—it’s brutal.”


In his essay, Fujita never did answer the question, “Would I let my son play football?” He didn’t have to. He doesn’t have a son, but rather three daughters. Which is one more than the leader of the free world has. “I have to tell you,” said President Barack Obama, noted football fan, prior to last year’s Super Bowl, “if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football.”

Stay safe, son. And there’s no need to take that big hit.