In a culture where boys struggle to find an identity, few endeavors offer them the opportunity to grow in mind, body and character like the game of football. It teaches the importance of attitude (a positive one, of course), courage, determination, resilience, perseverance and work ethic. Working as a team to protect one another helps establish trust, humility, honesty and self-discipline. The game matures and focuses its players. And it goes without saying that the committed exercise benefits boys physically too.
These are all lessons I took away from the great game of football.
I grew up playing football on the playgrounds of my elementary school at recess. We were instructed to keep it a friendly game of two-hand touch, but when the recess monitor wasn’t watching, we’d turn the plays into a full-blown contact sport. Between downs, my friends and I fantasized about the day we’d suit up — with pads — and play on a real team instead of in the schoolyard.
I started organized football in junior high and played at every level thereafter — in high school, in college and then professionally in the National Football League — for 23 years with one four-year hiatus to fly jets for the Air Force.
And while the sport has certainly changed over the more than two decades I played and the 15 years since [Hennings stopped playing in 2000], I believe the game of football is safer today than it has ever been.
Concussion risks discourage some parents from allowing their son to put on the pads. But according to the Sports Concussion Institute, five to 10 percent of all athletes will experience a concussion, regardless of the sport they play.
Dr. Sandra Chapman, founder and director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, has said that a single concussion does not always cause permanent cognitive impairment. In fact, at the American Football Coaches Association convention last year, Chapman said that the benefits of youth football “far exceed the risk of permanent brain damage.”
Bottom line: You can get seriously hurt playing football, but concussion prevention and care have significantly improved, thanks to scientific advancements (e.g., diagnostic tests taken before the season starts that give doctors a baseline for mental function), coaches and leagues teaching safer tackling strategies and more stringent return-to-play guidelines — like never letting a player back on the field after he’s concussed.
BrainFacts.org, a public information initiative of the Society for Neuroscience, defines a concussion this way: “A concussion, typically a mild and common type of brain injury, usually results in only temporary disruption of brain functions as long as there is adequate recovery time and no repeated injury.”
I was injured several times on the field. I experienced everything from sprained ankles and knees to broken bones and, yes, concussions. Athletes — even professionals paid to play — aren’t expected to return immediately after a sprain nor should they be expected to return immediately after a concussion.
Despite the ongoing debate about football and its overall safety, the game is still America’s sport. There are more than 1.1 million high school boys playing the game today and more than 15,000 high schools and 770 colleges that sponsor football programs, according to the National Football Foundation. That’s likely due to the fact that football provides an outlet for masculine emotions and hormones in a healthy, competitive environment. On the gridiron, boys experience sportsmanship and restraint, valuable skills that can’t be replicated playing the latest version of Madden NFL on Xbox or PlayStation.
So would I let my son play the game? Absolutely! I wouldn’t recommend allowing a child to play anything more than two-hand touch until junior high school. By that age, boys are typically mature enough to fully comprehend and respect the physical and mental aspects of the game. There’s no better sport to teach a boy what it means to be a man than the sport of football.
Chad Hennings, president of Hennings Management Corporation, was a defensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys for nine seasons.
The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions and viewpoints of DFWChild.
Published December 2015