Football, CTE and the informed, concerned parentBy DR. TOMMY BLACKLEDGE,
Ok, now that the local football season is over maybe I can broach this topic without being lynched. Lynch mob or not, I can no longer sit in silence on this topic. The data is readily available and we cannot continue to pretend that this research does not exist or that it is somehow invalid.
The facts are now proven and we concerned parents are now faced with the challenge of dealing with the possibility of our sons developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE.
Many of you are already brisling up and contemplating firing me as your doctor or worse. But before you decide to fire me, you need to first understand my personal feelings on this sensitive topic.
I love football! And like most Simpson County boys at one point, football was the most important aspect of my life. My fondest childhood memories are of Big John Mangum coming to get me and Little John out of class on Fridays. We would be downright giddy on Fridays when we would hear “Coach Mangum needs John and Tommy at the office.” We would run for the door like we were on our way to the State Fair! He took us there every year also; I loved that man. Not only was he our coach, but he also had played in the NFL, the ultimate dream for us at that time--a local boy who made it to the biggest show on earth. He was one of my heroes. My dad was attendance center principal and my childhood home has been replaced by the new high school building so I was basically raised on a football field.
Back then the Magee vs. Mendenhall football game was always a district game and always the last game of the season. The winner went to the playoffs; the loser went to the house. It was by far the biggest event in Simpson County every year. Starting in kindergarten we were psychologically programmed to love football and to HATE our opponents. We attended Thursday night bonfire pep rallies where we watched fake coffins with stuffed Tigers get thrown onto the blaze while chanting “kill the Tigers!” and “eat Tiger meat.” No mercy! We were enthralled and highly motivated to become the best football players we could be. My high school heroes were Brooks Sullivan, Paul Arnold, Patrick Brown, Mark Marbury, Garfield Turner. I wanted to run like Garfield, hit like Patrick and look like Mark. I was determined to accomplish all of the above. And for the most part I did just that.
I became somewhat of a big fish in a small pond. There were lots of big fish in my class pond. Little John Mangum, Dewayne King, Jeff Easterwood, Donnie Milloy, Roger Bynum, just to name a few. All gifted athletes, all with the potential of playing on the next level. Something we talked about constantly. Playing on the next level was ALL that really mattered at that time. Dewayne and I were similar and played the same positions of linebacker / fullback. There was room for both of us on defense but not offense. Dewayne was 2 inches taller, 20 pounds heavier and just as fast as me. He was the better athlete. I wasn’t going to get to play fullback, he was. That was a reality that I had to face. Remember that one of my three life goals at that time was to run the football like Garfield Turner. Determined to still run the ball I left my best friends behind and changed schools in the name of football, just one of many turning points in my life that I would like to have back. My relationships with my best friends had been fractured and were never completely repaired, all in the name of football.
I went on to sign with Mississippi College to play football. I was also offered a track scholarship at Mississippi State and got a scolding call from coach Kitchens on national football signing day. He had been recruiting me to be a decathlete for him at MSU. A good friend of mine was already there and I was to join him as the other decathlete for State. I’ll never forget saying “Coach Kitchens I’m sorry,,,,but I want to play football.” It was the second turning point in my life where I would like to have a “do over.”
Playing on the next level quickly shows you just how big a fish you really are. I went from being one of the top players on the field to being nothing more than a tackling dummy, a piece of equipment basically, a tool to be utilized at a later date if I can survive the initial year of red shirt beatings. MC was certainly not the SEC but that doesn’t mean there were no NFL level players on that field. I was lead tackle dummy for Fred McAfee (also red shirted) who went on to have a long career in the NFL. And that’s where I first encountered the person most responsible for whatever amount of CTE that I have, Terry Fleming or “Flambo” as we called him, a nose guard built more like a body builder than a lineman. Terry was so much stronger than me that I never once defeated him. I crashed my head into that man with as much force and speed as I could possibly muster only to sometimes find myself flat on my back looking up at the day time sky but seeing stars instead. Terry would pick me up, dust me off and sometimes have to point me in the direction of my missing helmet that he just exploded off my head! True story with no exaggeration. He “rung my bell” more times than I want to admit over the course of that year. Terry also went on to the NFL and I reluctantly had to accept that I was never going to make it to the big show. After that amount of abuse I had no desire to continue further with football.
For reasons that I still don’t fully understand, I have always said I was going into medicine. As a small child I said I was going to be a veterinarian due to my love of animals and my childhood cowboy days. But Butch Russum cured me of my veterinarian desires by allowing me to work for him one summer treating and castrating cows. I remember thinking at least humans won’t crap on me during an exam. But then I decided to do OB so the not getting crapped on didn’t actually work out so well for me. But that’s off topic.
Thankfully I didn’t kill enough brain cells to keep me from making it into and out of medical school and residency training. During this time my two sons were born. My future footballers! They would be better than me. I would train them properly from birth on how to be great football players. Sonia was a good athlete and is still a competitor to this day. We had genetics and knowledge on our side. We were determined to create star athletes, head hunters who would make it to the big show.
I trained my first born son to play like me. A head hunter, someone to be respected / feared on the field. I remember so clearly teaching him to lead with his head. To crash into others at full speed with maximum force to inflect maximum pain on the opponent. And he did just that! He became a mini me on the field playing fullback / linebacker. Even after a complete knee blowout his junior year we were undeterred. Surgery, rehab and hard work in the gym got him right back on top having a great high school career including playing in the All-Star game just like I did. He made the team at Mississippi Gulf Coast at mid linebacker and met his insurmountable CTE causing teammates. His mini me curse followed him just the same. After a year of brutal beatings he was done.
The second son didn’t want any part of me initially. He had become an elite soccer player for Jackson Futbol Club. We traveled the entire Southeast playing soccer tournaments in Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta, New Orleans and on and on. We played somewhere year round. But this is Simpson County. We don’t play much soccer around here and Seth was feeing the pressures to play football more so than soccer. Soccer players don’t get helmets so they learn to crash into others but protect their brain by not leading with their heads. Well...here in Simpson County if you don’t repeatedly crash your head at full speed into others also running full speed then you are a “sissy” but with a “p.” You get labeled “scared” or nicknamed “caution light” and you don’t get to play football. Seth was late coming around to being wholly dedicated to football but after his sophomore season he became determined to be on that field and to be good. He worked so hard, grew 2 inches and put on 20 pounds of pure muscle that year. Despite being a completely different player he had been labeled as a player who was “scared” to crash his head into others at full speed. This crushed him! It infuriated me! I’ll fix this, how dare you tell me MY son won’t crash into others! He and I both were determined to do whatever we had to do to get him on a football field and prove that he was a true “baller.” So I dump some property (yet another life mistake in the name of football) so I can buy another house in another school district. Thanks to having a new set of coaches to evaluate him with a fresh slate he would finally be given a shot at a starting spot on the team. He had never played linebacker but Coach Robinson told Seth and me that outside linebacker was his best shot at starting for him. So Seth for the first time in his life came to me for advice. I gave him my best crash linebacker course and he responded appropriately. He was now crashing his head at full speed into others that were now even bigger and faster than before and doing a great job! He proved himself to everyone during the opening game of his senior season at the Magee vs. Mize game. He went on to sign with Hinds Community College as a kicker, thanks to his elite soccer training. But Hinds didn’t use him as a kicker, opting to utilize him some on special teams. Seth is actually the only one of the three of us to get any college game time. He played some in several games. The “sissy” with a “p” now playing on a college field!!
Vindication at what price? And for what purpose? I sacrificed some of my son’s brain to prove a point to a set of coaches? What was I thinking?
Like everyone else, I chose to pretend that it’s ok to crash full speed into another human also running at full speed and expect no long term consequences for this action. I allowed my love of the game and my personal vendettas to cloud my medical training, education and current research data. I guess I chose to believe that only NFL players would get CTE, but I knew better. Current research into CTE shows that 99 percent of NFL players’ brains studied so far have this disease. College players have a 90 percent occurrence in the brains studied so far. Only 14 high school player brains have been studied showing a 21 percent rate so far. But 14 brains is not enough for accurate data. I expect that percentage to increase as more high school player brains are studied.
So what exactly is going on and what can we do about it? It’s pretty simple to understand actually and I remain shocked that this topic wasn’t addressed from the very beginning of modern helmet football. It’s basic physics. A very fast human can run about 27 MPH. Crash that human into another one running that same speed and you have a 54 MPH head on collision. The brain and everything else goes from 54 MPH to 0 instantly with a thunderous crash raising the crowd to its feet with loud gleeful cheering of this brain damaging collision. We replay these vicious hits on TV and give awards to those that deliver these types of hits for our viewing pleasure. Much as in Roman gladiator times we pay large sums of money to sit in the best seats so we can better view the damage as it occurs.
It turns out that the brain reacts to damage much like our skin. It lays down a protein “scab” over the injury and results in a type of scar tissue development. Just like skin scars, brain scars aren’t the same as normal brain. More injuries equal more protein produced. This protein blocks normal neural transmissions between the nerves and portions of the brain. If there is damage to certain areas of the brain the person loses impulse control and has problems with anger management, depression, reasoning and more.
So what is the solution? I laugh when people want to believe that the technology gods are going to invent a new helmet to solve this problem. 54 MPH to 0 instantly has a sheer force that cannot be eliminated or even slightly reduced by padding. Even more ridiculous is the notion that stiff penalties for targeting will make any significant difference in CTE rates. So what is the answer?
First, immediately take away all padding and helmets. It’s human nature to protect your head, a reflex we can’t control. Take away the helmets then humans will instinctively try to protect their heads.
Now you are saying “but that’s soccer, soccer is boring, I don’t understand it.” Yes, you could opt for soccer and we should do just that but we won’t. Not anytime soon anyway. We should consider making rugby more like US football. That may satisfy our football desires better than soccer.
My bet is we will do nothing. We will continue to pretend that it won’t happen to our sons. Over time more people will read articles such as this one. Some will take heed and push their sons toward other sports. The first to start dropping out will be the more educated and affluent. Over time this will result in a situation not unlike Ancient Rome in my opinion.