This is what has been available to the football fan, from last Thursday to this Thursday, when we really get going: top-10 Washington against top-10 Auburn, iconic brand Michigan at iconic brand Notre Dame, the Falcons at the Eagles in a matchup of the past two NFC champions, Virginia Tech in Tallahassee against Florida State, Alabama beginning yet another defense against Louisville, and on and on. This is supposed to be the fun part, shaking off the summer swelter and embracing the crispness ahead.
And I just can’t fully invest.
Listen, I don’t want to open football season with some sort of buzz kill. I really don’t. But it’s just hard to see a helmet-to-helmet hit, or a knee-to-helmet hit, or a helmet-to-chest hit, or a head-to-the-ground hit — I could go on — and not think, “No wonder 110 of the 111 brains of former NFL players studied by the Concussion Legacy Foundation at Boston University had CTE,” or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
To me, right now, joyfully watching football takes a certain amount of willful denial. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s put aside the systemic problems in the economic structure of the college game. (It’s mindbogglingly unfair to players to be pawns who crank out millions in cash for coaches and administrators and television execs and jersey printers, but we know that.) Even skip over the NFL’s ridiculous struggles to come up with a way to allow its players their rights as Americans to express free speech — whether it’s during the national anthem or not. Let’s focus on football itself, first and 10 and 3-4 vs. 4-3 and trips split to the left with an empty backfield. The game.
“It’s a sport that has done so much for so many people,” Bob Casciola said when I reached him at his Phoenix home. “The good in the game, it’s helped build so many lives.”
I called Casciola, 83, because I needed to hear somebody speak positively — even wistfully, as it turns out — about football. Casciola coached at Princeton and Connecticut and was once president of the National Football Foundation. His book, “1st and Forever: Making the Case for the Future of Football,” came out last week. It features a foreword by Archie Manning. It features an afterword by Bobby Bowden. In between are stories of men whose lives were changed — positively changed — by football.
Casciola told a story, from back in the day, about an assistant coach who was sent south to watch spring practices. The idea was for him to report back with ideas — new strategies, new techniques, new formations, whatever he saw.
“He came back and said, ‘They’re doing things totally different in tackling,’ ” Casciola said. “What it was, was the use of the head. The head all of a sudden became a factor.
“Bobby Bowden always said the shoulder was the key in tackling. He taught it that way. I taught it that way. You might be a little bit off-balance, and then you get the idea of the head coming into play. But this, this was putting it right in the center of the person. That led to that way becoming the way to tackle. Consequently, we know it’s led to many, many problems.”
“It’s going to change,” he said. “I know it’s going to change.”
The football Casciola remembers, the football he writes about, is the sport through which lifelong relationships were forged, the sport in which the man playing next to you became more important than yourself. These are worthwhile thoughts, and surely they still apply to all levels of football, from Bill Belichick’s “Do Your Job” Patriots on down. Casciola’s strategy to remind people such as me why they loved football in the first place is a feathered Joe Montana pass, not a Jack Lambert hit.
But others who are worried about the direction of their sport aren’t as forgiving. “Our game is under attack,” began a screed from Larry Fedora, the coach at the University of North Carolina, during ACC media days in July.
He went on from there.
“I fear the game will be pushed so far down from what we know that we won’t recognize it in 10 years,” Fedora said. “And if it does, our country will go down, too.”
That’s the kind of hyperbole that sits, subconsciously, in the far reaches of my mind when I watch the game now. Fedora went on to question whether there’s a link between CTE and football. The truth: There’s not — yet. The study of the impact of youth football on brain injuries is only now beginning, but the logic of the research thus far shows that adding more blows to the head will have a relationship to whether the brain is damaged. The more cigarettes you smoke over a lifetime, the better chance you have of suffering lung damage.
So it would be nice if the leaders of the sport would say: We have generations of older players whose post-playing lives have been impacted, some in debilitating ways. We know that some former players who took their own lives were found, posthumously, to have had CTE. We must, as coaches, make time for thinking about safety.
Don’t get me wrong: Helmet technology is better, rules to protect players are better, the amount of tackling allowed at practice is better. The talk of the NFL preseason was, essentially, about the new helmet rule — designed to protect players.
But did you watch those replays? We can break them down now, frame-by-frame, and discuss whether this one should be a penalty and that one’s legal. It’s going to impact outcomes, and that matters.
Yet when I watch those replays, it’s not the 15 yards I think about. It’s whether the man receiving the hit is going to be impacted later in life.
“I think the game is at kind of a crossroads,” Casciola said. “But basically, I think it’s time to look at it and reevaluate it, but never lose sight of the fact of what it can do for people.”
He’s being positive, and that’s great. It’s how we should think of Eagles-Falcons or the college games beyond that. But I don’t know. I can feel my relationship with football changing. The sport’s leaders, at all levels, must understand that one reason they’re vulnerable to losing participants and viewers is because the basic safety of the players seems at risk each week. That’s hard to watch.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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