Despite concussion risks, most Titans wouldn't stop sons from playing

Dave Ball saw his NFL career come to an end in 2012, the result of an estimated 30 concussions he suffered during all the years he played football.

Though his condition has improved in the 15 months since he last played, the former Titans defensive lineman says he's still in the recovery process.

But despite his head injuries and the fact that concussions are an ever-growing concern on all levels of football, Ball says he'll allow his three young boys — Mason, Cade and Grady — to play the sport when they reach high school.

"I saw one of the top concussion experts in the country after one of my final concussions in the league, and his research is that, yes, concussions are bad and you never want to get them," Ball said. "But as far as concussions leading to all those dark and gloomy things you hear about down the road, there's just not significant data to prove that. Talking to him kind of put my fears at ease about stuff later on, so if my kids want to play, yeah, I'll let them."

Whether to let kids play football is a question being raised more often. The HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll found 33 percent of the adults polled last summer said connections between concussions, football and long-term brain injury would make them less likely to allow a son to participate in the game.

One might think NFL players would be among those hesitant to allow their kids to play football, given events such as:

• The league reaching a $765 million settlement over concussion-related brain injuries among its 18,000 retired players last summer;

• The recent "League of Denial" documentary that examined the link between football and brain trauma, and the NFL's alleged attempts to deny it over two decades;

• The steady trickle of former NFL players who say they suffer from CTE, a degenerative brain condition some scientists believe is caused by head trauma.

But Ball's sentiments about letting his kids play football are shared by a number of Titans.

An informal survey of 16 current and retired Titans players conducted by The Tennessean found that 13 would allow their kids to play football (at varying ages), two were undecided but leaning toward yes, and only one said he wouldn't allow it.

"If that's the path my kids want to go down, I'm going to encourage it," said quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, a Harvard graduate with two young sons. "Football has given me a wonderful life, not only in terms of making it to the NFL and financial reward, but football teaches you so many lessons in terms of how to work as a unit, and the importance of sportsmanship, and counting on other people and having them count on you. … I think more is being made out of (the concussion concern) and some of the long-term deals there."

But one Titan who feels differently is safety Bernard Pollard, the team's leading tackler and one of the hardest hitters in the league. He says he won't allow his 5-year-old son, Jaylen, to participate in contact football.

"I love this game, and God has given me an opportunity to set my family up by playing this game," Pollard said. "Is this a violent game? Yes, it is. So the thing I'm trying to do is introduce my son to so many other things — like tennis, golf, basketball, things where he can learn something new. It's hard because he sees Daddy playing football at the games, but this is a very violent sport, man, and I don't want to see my son go through that."

Question of age

Experts offer various opinions regarding the level of concern parents should have about concussions and/or serious injuries in youth football.

Dr. Gary Solomon, co-director of the Vanderbilt Sports Concussion Center, said he's not sure the current degree of fear regarding football and concussions is warranted, noting that the risk of a child having a severe brain injury from playing football is much less than from everyday activities such as riding a bicycle or in a car.

Does that mean Solomon would feel comfortable telling parents their kids would be safe playing football?

"It would depend to a large extent on the coach, the coach's awareness of concussions and whether there's someone keeping an eye on the kids," said Solomon, who also does consulting work for the Titans and Predators. "I wouldn't necessarily say kids 8 years old should be banging heads in Pop Warner practice. I don't think that's a good idea, just like I don't think body checking at age 8 in hockey is good. I think we need to have more physiological development in children, at least until the early teen years.

"But in general if a parent comes to me about a teenage kid and says, 'Is it OK to play football,' I say I think the potential benefits of discipline, working with teammates and working toward a common goal are huge benefits that I think a lot of kids are missing. I think you have to balance the risks like anything in life."

Another expert in the field, Dr. Mark Herceg, the director of rehabilitation psychology and neuropsychology at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in New York, agreed that kids shouldn't be playing tackle football while very young.

"I don't think there's necessarily a set age, but there's a consensus that maybe 13 or 14 years of age — eighth- or ninth-graders — is when we should allow kids to take risks to the brain," Herceg said. "Kids could probably start at a younger age if they were taught to tackle properly. But that's kind of been the big thing with concussions because the talk is, 'What's the right way to tackle?' and 'How does one go about tackling?'

"You're never going to have the head immune when you go to make a tackle. You always take a risk when you launch at somebody or you fall down."

Proper tackling techniques

Former Titans safety Blaine Bishop is taking an active role in helping youngsters learn how to play football safely, as he's serving this year as an NFL ambassador to several leagues participating in USA Football's Heads Up Program.

The program trains coaches in Heads Up Football techniques, which include concussion recognition and response protocols, proper helmet and shoulder-pad fitting, and proper tackling technique — with the aim to take the head out of the line of contact.

Bishop, who played nine years with the Oilers/Titans, didn't let his son, Chayse, play tackle football until he was 11 years old. He feels comfortable now that he's been able to teach proper techniques to Chayse, who's now 12 and in his second season with the Brentwood Blaze.

"You're always thinking about whatever you can do to protect your kid and other kids of that age," Bishop said. "That's why I became the ambassador for the Heads Up program, to make sure all these little leagues understand how they're supposed to tackle appropriately, so that they can be taught the right way and not the wrong way."

Risks vs. rewards

Will things such as improved tackling technique, more awareness regarding concussions and even the potential of new advances in helmet technology be enough to take away some of the risks involved in football?

That's certainly the belief of the majority of current and former Titans interviewed by The Tennessean, most of whom will be deciding whether to let their children follow in their footsteps over the next several years.

"There are so many things that football brings — discipline and teamwork, and it paid for my education — that it's hard to say it's too dangerous," offensive lineman Chris Spencer said.

"This game has done a lot for me, so it would be really hard to tell my kids they couldn't play football. I know injuries come with it, and I've had my share. But at the same time, I wouldn't change a thing, so it's really hard to say no."

Tight end Craig Stevens, whose NFL career has been interrupted a few times by concussions, agreed — but only grudgingly.

"Concussions are scary, and it's part of the game, obviously," Stevens said. "You try to be as smart as you can and you try not to use your head, but it's inevitable. That's just football.

"So I don't think I'd promote my kid playing football. I wouldn't want him to. But if he really wanted to, I'd let him."


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