I love football.
There’s something that’s poetic about a good football play – whether it’s an amazing cutback to find daylight or an extended catch that floats into the fingertips of an athletic wide receiver.
But as much as I love the game, my son won’t be playing it.
Two weeks ago Amber and I found out that we are expecting a boy in late September. And naturally, the first-time parent in me already has a massive list of things that I want him to be a part of and experience to become a better-rounded person.
We’re both in agreement that playing the sport isn’t required to achieve those goals.
Allow me to explain.
It’s not that I don’t want him to play the sport that has become America’s new favorite pastime. I played youth football and I played all four years when I was in high school, and some of the best times of my life either came as a result of the game itself or the people that I met while playing it.
Amber started cheerleading at a young age and her smiling face standing there on the track around whatever football field we happened to be playing on that night is something that will always be burned into my brain when it comes to recalling my years on the gridiron.
On the surface, this kid seems destined to be a football player.
When I think about all of the things that he’ll have to sacrifice in order to pursue something that I’m not even sure he’s ever going to like, however, it becomes clear to me that maybe projecting my wants and desires onto him isn’t the best course of action.
It’s not that I’m afraid of him getting hurt. I’m in the camp that life itself is nothing more than one big exercise in calculated risk, and statistically he’s far more likely to be paralyzed or killed driving to the game than he is actually playing it.
Had I never met Michael Keck, I probably would have been willing to go round after round with my wife until Dylan Grey Campbell was wearing a helmet.
When the former Missouri high school football star died at age 25, however, it was discovered by researchers that repeated head trauma had turned his brain not into that of a young father and husband with the world in the palm of his hand but that of a senior citizen who was battling dementia.
That really hit home for me.
I met Keck years ago while I was working at the first annual Offense Defense All-American Bowl in Ft. Lauderdale. While he was just one of dozens of standout players from across the United States – a group that included Cam Newton and Dez Bryant – I immediately became a fan of his not because of his talent, but because of his attitude.
Even back then Bryant had this “better than the world” attitude that would make him somewhat of a pariah in the National Football League. Keck was different – the product of a hardscrabble life that truly understood the gift that he had and how valuable it was not just for himself, but the people closest to him in his life.
It was with a heavy heart when I opened up Deadspin one day and discovered that he was dead – succumbing to an infection at the age of 25 and leaving behind a young wife and daughter.
As it turns out, he had been having behavioral problems that stemmed from a series of head injuries he suffered during his career. When his wife asked Boston University to examine his brain, her worst fears were realized.
Keck had chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE. The football boogeyman that has become very real in the last several years.
And he never even made to the professional ranks, and his college career was cut short after getting knocked unconscious during practice.
I realize that not every single person who straps on a helmet will get CTE or have a lasting effect that linger long after they take the shoulder pads off.
But then again, why risk it?
I think about all of the things I wish I would paid attention to earlier in my life and how much better my adult life would have been as a result – golf, the guitar, fly fishing – and I made a solemn vow to myself to provide him with those opportunities.
I love football.
I’m just not sure that in an age when bigger, faster and stronger becomes more extreme every day that the sport has reached a place where the possibility of long-term damage is off the table.
Until that happens, Dylan Grey will just have to settle for something else.
It’s arguably the easiest decision that I’ve ever had to make.
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 209.249.3544.