Monday, January 16, 2012

What Am I Rooting For?

I'm going to remember January 9th, 2012 as a great day. I'll remember it as the day that I enjoyed watching my team win the National Championship in New Orleans with my sister & other friends. The nervous anticipation all day of not knowing what Alabama and LSU would deliver that night. The maelstrom of complete joy that hit the French Quarter as running back Trent Richardson broke a run outside -- reaching the endzone & sealing victory. The scene on Bourbon Street minutes later as people wearing crimson filled the street.

That moment probably is what I'll remember most. I can't describe to you the joy of chanting at the top of my lungs, "L-S-WHO! L-S-WHO! L-S-WHO!" All the hugging and high-fiving was like a scene straight out of "Band of Brothers" after the 101st had liberated yet another European town. And, in a way, we all did feel liberated: we were unashamedly proud of our team & the social norms of the moment gave us permission to not hold it in anymore.

Nevertheless, despite the total satisfaction of rooting for a Championship football team, something in the back of my mind haunts me.

I remember back to college where I'd sit around with a group of intelligent friends and we, with the benefit of hindsight & the already well-formed judgment of history, would try to figure out why society could have such a hard time with common sense issues.

"How could Southern Caucasian Churches have struggled so mightily with the Civil Rights movement? Why were they so slow to adapt? Why weren't they at the cutting edge LEADING the cause for justice? What were they thinking?"

Inevitably, someone would ask the question, "What are we slow to act on today? What will be the blight of our generation?"

I honestly think it's this question that causes so many within Evangelical circles to push so mightily for same-sex rights. But I digress.

I wonder if I'm wrestling with an issue like that right now.

Kevin Turner was one tough son of a gun. A fullback at Alabama 20 years ago, Turner graduated to the NFL where he played nearly a decade with the Patriots and the Eagles. He'd deliver crushing hit after crushing hit as the lead blocker for ball-carriers. Turner didn't play a glamor position. If he got his picture in the paper it was probably an accident -- the happenstance of being in the same frame as the star running back. Young, powerful, tough -- Kevin Turner was the picture of a young warrior in professional football.

Today Kevin Turner can't even hold a telephone to his ear. ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) has taken his strength away.

"I never dreamed that my brain would be destroyed after a period of time," said Kevin Turner, 42.

While he still can, Turner is educating the public about head trauma, which he believes contributed to his ALS.


Three months after Turner's diagnosis in May 2010, some Boston researchers reported a link between an ALS-type illness and the repetitive head trauma suffered by some athletes. Turner is now involved in research about the degenerative disease, which is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

It's believed to be caused by repetitive blows to the head, including concussions. CTE has been linked to depression, erratic behavior and early dementia in a number of former pro athletes.

"We've always known boxers could become punch drunk," Chris Nowinski said. "We never thought it could exist in other sports -- hockey, wrestling, soccer, football. The brain doesn't care what's hitting it. The brain is far more fragile than what we thought."

Then- Kevin Turner was a proud warrior on the gridiron. Today- Kevin Turner finds simple tasks like holding the hand of one of his children more & more challenging each day.

The tough thing right now is that there isn't enough evidence yet to prove that ALS can be brought on by head trauma. It is an exciting loose association, but in the world of medical science it is a loose association at best. Chris Nowinski, President of the Sports Legacy Institute & one of the leading researchers connecting head trauma with neurological diseases, says they need more money (from a Bill Simmons podcast on 03/08/11). But mainly they need more brains.

Dave Duerson's brain was one of them last year. Duerson was a retired defensive back -- most famous for his role on the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears defense. But after a myriad of personal, physical, and financial problems had taken their toll, Duerson decided to end his life. He suspected he had CTE, but didn't know for sure. Duerson knew that the concussions he had suffered in his football-playing career were affecting him, but he couldn't cope with the problems anymore. So instead of shooting himself in the head, Duerson texted his family instructing them to donate his brain to science. And then he shot himself in the chest.

Did you know that Lou Gehrig may not have even had Lou Gehrig's disease? He may have simply had CTE. Gehrig had numerous concussions from his high school football-playing days -- back when they strapped on leather helmets. He even played Major League Baseball before they wore batting helmets. They'd just wear the caps they wore in the field up to the plate. In an exhibition game in 1934, one pitch came up & in too fast for Gehrig to dive out of the way. It hit him in the forehead, knocking him unconscious. Who knows how many concussions he had in total.

Perhaps I shouldn't feel responsible for this. These men chose their path in life. Some of them capitalized handsomely as a result of it.

But, in a way, I think we're all responsible. The more that we make football a religion -- and it's heroes our idols -- the more young kids we're sending out to the field to prove their own manhood. And that's where the real danger lies: all those fragile teenage brains that are laid on the line under the Friday night lights.

As Jonah Lehrer wrote:

Rollinson (a high school football coach) then leans forward in his chair, as if he's about to tell me a secret. "Look, most of my players aren't going to play ball for a living," he says. "I know they don't want to hear that, but it's the truth. So there's really no reason they should risk messing up their brain."

If the sport of football ever dies, it will die from the outside in. The only question now is whether the death has begun.

I know that if there are any young Mama's who ask me for advice, I'm going to tell them to push their boys toward basketball, or baseball, or golf. Almost anything but football.

And if I believe that, then why do I continue to jump up & holler when the boys representing my tribe of choice make a big play? Am I wrestling with the "Civil Rights"-like issue of my day? Will this be the blight of our generation? If rooting on players on the field of battle only makes them to go harder, potentially destroying their brains, then what am I rooting for?

1 comment:

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