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Taylor: A dad's difficult football decision

POSTED: July 21, 2012 6:09 p.m.

I can already see him looking at me through the bars of a helmet in a sporting goods store.

“Daddy, I want to play football.”

I’m still searching for the answer.

It’s a question easily deflected by making light of it.

When asked recently whether I would let my nearly 11-month-old son play football when he’s old enough, my first thought was, “he already seems to hit his head enough times during the day, so what’s the harm?”

But there’s so much more to it than that.

Do I want to rush him to the hospital after he’s been knocked out during a little league game? Or be there at the hospital when the doctor tells him to stop after one too many concussions?

Of course not.

It’d be easy to just say no.

But it’s not that simple. In less than a year, my son has developed an incredibly strong will. If he wants something, he does everything in his power to get it. Telling him no only serves to make him crawl — or climb — faster.

Telling him he can’t play could very well give him all the motivation he needs to sign up on the spot.

I could certainly keep him from playing, but I cannot deny, from playing the similarly high-contact sport of lacrosse through high school, the benefits of being involved. The lessons of teamwork, dedication and perseverance are incredibly important.

The problem is, one of the jobs of a parent is to look at the long term, something young kids are rarely do. My son may not think of how damaged his mind and body could be after playing, but I do. Recent studies have shown that, even in high school players who didn’t report any concussions, the beginnings of serious damage can already be visible in the brain.

Lingering injuries aren’t just a football issue. Ice hockey, soccer and even my own sport of lacrosse come with similar risks.

I could keep him from not just football, but all contact sports. That would be easy in one sense. An afternoon watching a band performance or tennis match isn’t nearly as likely to end in the emergency room.

But if he’s like me, he’s going to want at least some of his extracurricular activities to involve hitting. I spent my high school days with a lacrosse stick, practicing better ways to knock offensive players off their feet.

If my son’s like me, who am I to say he can’t get the same joy from slamming into a running back on the football field?

There’s an oft-repeated quote that goes, “when you have a child, it’s like letting a piece of your heart run around outside your body.”

I want my son to experience all of the joys I had growing up, but not the time I blacked out after a big hit.

I know that’s not possible.

What I can do is make sure that, if he does want to play football, that he’s taking all of the precautions. Like Pop Warner implementing a limit on hitting in practice, or high school teams going inside on the particularly hot days.

I know that there’s no way I can keep him perfectly safe all the time. Heck, he’s already crawling around with scraped up knees and bruises on his head from banging into cupboards or trying to climb the furniture.

But, like the latest helmets, I can make sure everything is done to reduce the risks of a concussion or worse.

So, a few years down the road, if he walks up to me and tells me he wants to play youth football, I’ll probably bring up how many times he banged his head as a kid, and say, “sure, you’ve already got the hard head.”

Then I’ll go talk to his coach, make sure he has the right helmet and is being taught the proper tackling techniques and there’s a plan for what to do in case something were to happen.

I know I can’t keep my son from playing and, possibly, injuring himself.

I can, and will, do everything in my power to reduce the risks.

Zac Taylor is a sports writer for The Times. Follow him at twitter.com/gtimesztaylor


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