Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University and pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeye baseball team from 1971 through 1974.  He furthered his baseball career as a minor league league umpire for seven years, working in the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA).  He has written for numerous websites, and for eight years served as a regular columnist and photo editor for Gettysburg Magazine, published by Morningside Books, in Dayton, Ohio.  Widely knowledgable on that period of American History, Fulks is a frequent speaker on the Civil War at local roundtables throughout the country.  Involved with a number of writing projects, he and wife Mindy have two grown children and live in Covington, Ohio.

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No doubt swayed by the recent questionable deaths of former NFL players, more high school athletes are now thinking twice before committing to the risks of playing football.

He sat with his head down, staring at the floor…an area high school football coach last week sharing with me the news that one of his best athletes had come to the first day of two-a-days camp with the news that he was quitting football.

“It really puts us in a bind,”  said the coach.  “We have our first scrimmage in three days.  If he had told me earlier in the summer…at least we could have planned.  We could have prepared another player with the reps we devoted to him.  We just don’t have that many options to start with, and to lose one like that……”

The reason for the player’s change of heart over football?  Risk of injury…among others, concussion and the all-too-familiar story that’s been circulated in the past year over ex-athletes who now claim that head injuries from football have rendered them unable to think straight, drive a car, or just carry out normal day-to-day functions as a middle-age adult.

Bad news:  The shocking headline last spring that former San Diego Charger great Junior Seau shot himself earlier this year for undetermined reasons, but suspicious nonetheless for what others described as depressed behavior and questionable mental clarity.  This following similar deaths to former Bears player Dave Duerson, who left a message asking that his brain be examined as evidence of the damage he sustained from football…and Ray Easterling, former Falcons linebacker, who took his life after years of suffering from what his widow described as depression, insomnia and dementia.

Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon recently confided that he’s now afraid to leave his home in his car by himself…that he sometimes forgets where he is and where he’s going.  The results, he contends, from the repeated blows to the head he sustained by playing football.

In a Press Pros column from June 13 of this year, we detailed the hard fact as shared by some of area parents and sons sitting down to talk about the risks of playing football as another season debuts in a scant three weeks (The Question Around The Kitchen Table).  And pursuant to that piece, we received no shortage of correspondence:  some from those who claimed we were sensationalizing,  and others like Miami Valley School athletic director Ken Laake, who addressed the reality of those who now better understand the risks of contact sports like football.

“The information we have all been exposed to over the last three to five years is shaking the sport of football to its foundation. Its foundation in this case is youth football and interscholastic football respectively. I don’t believe it is palatable any longer for the American public to be entertained by the big “knockout hits” football provides. The initial “ooos and aaahs” of big hits, are extinguished by the reality of potential mental illness, depression, chronic head and neck pain, paralysis, permanent brain damage, and suicide.”

There have always been tough decisions made over when a prep athlete has played enough, for one reason or another.  Some realize midway through high school that their interests have changed.  Some come to the realization that they’re simply not as talented as others, won’t play as much or at all, and that their time would be better served in another endeavor.

But the recent publicity over life-altering head injuries  has made the decision simpler for some…a not-so-tough call at all.  An increasing number of high school athletes are apparently asking the question…is high school football really worth the risk?  Worth the risk if you want to play other, less-violent sports?  Worth the risk if you have no plans of playing football beyond high school?

In last weekend’s edition of  the Minneapolis Star Tribune it was noted that football participation in Twin Cities metropolitan high schools was noticeably down over the past three years, by as much as 25%.  The economy was cited as one reason.  The breakdown of the traditional family unit was another.  But at the top of the list was the concern by parent and athlete alike that the risks of playing football, and even hockey…of sustaining an injury to the head that could impact the quality of life for the rest of their lives.

“There’s so much written about it here because of this being an NFL city,”  one coach was quoted.  “Frankly, it’s spooked a lot of people.  The evidence may not be complete, but who’s willing to question if it happens to you?”

As the evidence continues to mount there’s no shortage of opinions, including that from columnist George Will, of ABC News, who recently wrote:  “The human body is no longer built for the kinetic energy of the National Football League and even further down to high school. In 1980 there were three NFL players over 300 pounds. Today there are three over 350 pounds, and 352 people on the 2011 rosters weighed more than 300 pounds.

“These guys are as fast as cats, fast as running backs, and the kinetic energy is producing what is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE.  Get used to that, because it’s going to be the subject of lawsuits and other things. The crucial word is chronic. Repeated, small but repeated blows to the head, the brain floating in the pan in the skull, now we know causes early dementia and other problems.

George Will has always been criticized for being a crackpot speaking out on matters about which he knows nothing.  As one puts it, a snob conservative with a liberal’s conscience.  And yet, there is the evidence.  There are the risks…there have always been risks, in any sport, every sport.  Only now, as Will points out, the risks have proportionately increased with the size and the “ballistics” of the competitor.

“We train athletes to be their very best,”  says former NFLer Trumain Hall, of Enhance-U Sports Performance Academy, in Huber Heights.  “But we also train them on how to protect themselves on the field.  You need to be strong, yes, but you also need to know how to avoid catastrophic injury.”

The problem is…we don’t grow up with a consciousness for “catastrophic” injury, and many adults  now remember playing back then with a headache…or while seeing multi-colored flashes of light following contact.  But now they say…naivete’ can now come at a very high cost.  Some who remember are making the tough choice.

The coach in the opening paragraph need not feel alone.  In the past week PPM has received word of two other impactful athletes from their respective schools who have decided not to play football in 2012.  It comes as a sad overtone to a great sport that could be threatened by science, publicity, and fear…a sport that may soon need to reinvent itself to save itself.

Good or bad, it’s now easy to research the facts on Dave Duerson, Junior Seau, Ray Easterling, Mike Webster, and many others.  For some, it’s making the tough call…not-so-tough at all.

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