A Day in My Life, January 5, 2023 – Football Edition

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Today I heard that Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin, the 24-year-old safety who suffered from cardiac arrest on the field in Cincinnati on Monday night, is making improvements at that city’s major medical center. He’s apparently awake and communicating with hospital staff.

While that’s great news for him, his family and football fans across the country, it brought me back to the day when my son, who’s now 42 (coincidence: his age is now the reverse of Hamlin’s), came home and announced, “Mom, I want to play football.” He was in the ninth grade. He’s now an attorney with a wife and three children.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sports fan. However, I have always hated football. I’ve always equated it with the Roman Colosseum and gladiator games, where blood and gore had to be shed while spectators screamed and called for more, more, more!

When that happened in 1995-96, I remember being speechless. He’d played baseball, yes, and there are certainly ways in which players can be injured in baseball–beaned in the head by a ball, broken legs by sliding into a base, collisions in the outfield–but in football, injuries are the rule rather than the exception.

My husband and I finally gave in. He began playing football. Pre-season practice was good for him because it got him off the couch and into some exercise. He didn’t play much in the ninth grade–mostly sat on the sidelines. That was fine with me. But he had a huge growth spurt in the tenth grade. He was now one of the biggest kids on the team. Football coaches love big. He began playing more and more.

By eleventh grade, he was starting. I began volunteering in the concession stand so I didn’t have to watch and listen to the crunch of body-on-body contact as my rather huge son crashed into much smaller opponents. Then opponents began going after him. During high school, he suffered from five concussions. They didn’t have the concussion protocols they have now.

When he began applying to college in 1997, he received inquiries from several football programs. I remember asking one football coach, “Have you actually seen his films? He’s number 72.” “Yes,” he replied, “I have.” “He’s not that good,” I said. “He just kind of stands there and opponents can’t get around him.” “He’s big,” replied the coach. “I can teach him football skills; I can’t teach big.”

My son came to me later that day and said, “Mom, I don’t want to play football in college.” I heaved a sigh of relief. “That’s fine,” I replied. “Don’t do what you don’t want to.” It turned out that the school he eventually attended was reviving its football team for the first time since the end of World War II. He stuck to his guns and didn’t play football.

Now he has his own teenaged son. He won’t let him play football, either, nor will he allow his four-year-old son to consider gridiron antics when he’s old enough. I heave another sigh of relief over that as well.

I had a discussion with my son-in-law a couple of weeks ago. When he and my daughter were looking for a house to rent near Ann Arbor, Michigan, they looked at one occupied by a professional football player. Right after they looked at the house, that NFL player announced his retirement. I commented to my son-in-law that with all the injuries they face, it’s easy to understand why an NFL player would retire. My son-in-law said something to the effect of, “Well, they make a lot of money while they’re playing.”

As far as I’m concerned, no amount of money would bring back Damar Hamlin to his family had he not been heroically resuscitated by an extraordinary medical team in Cincinnati. I’m sure his mother would agree with me on that score. What is a human brain, heart, liver, kidney, indeed, a full life worth? How about five concussions, like what my son withstood in high school?

I know, I know, I know. We cannot wrap our children in bubble wrap and protect them every minute of their lives. But can we at least try to help get that gladiator instinct out of their heads? Sports play a part in helping developing character and loyalty. I get that. But at what cost? Cardiac arrest in a 24-year-old healthy human being? One we see over and over again on television news?

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