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To Play or Not To Play

Johnny Football is arguably the most exciting football player on the planet and plays for Texas A&M. That’s like Lyle Lovett dating Julia Roberts. Makes. No. Sense. The Aggies are supposed to run the ball into the backs of their offensive line three times and punt. Instead, this kid, who has the audacity to wear No. 1, hops around like he’s stepping on hot coals until he decides either to loft a perfectly placed pass to a wide-open receiver or dash up field for 20 yards before a frustrated and exhausted defender gently nudges him out of bounds.

If you were at last year’s Cotton Bowl, you know what I mean. He’s a living, breathing videogame. And my Aggie friends are never going to shut up about him. Worse than that, however, was my decision to let my 8-year-old son watch Johnny Football last season. Now any touchdown scored in the cul-de-sac is punctuated by a Johnny Football Superman-style celebration. (Translation: He acts like he’s pulling apart his T-shirt to reveal the Superman “S.”) As much as I force him to watch archival NFL Films footage of the 1970s Cowboys, Steelers, Dolphins and Raiders, he keeps coming back to Johnny Freakin’ Football.

As we try to wrestle with what has become a major sports parenting question these days – should he or shouldn’t he play tackle football? – watching this joystick quarterback is the worst possible thing I could have exposed him to. He really thinks you just run around the field scoring and celebrating touchdowns while bigger dudes fall at your feet. He doesn’t yet know that those big guys often catch up to you and hit you so hard that it could kill your entire family and the family dog.

I’m not sure where the tipping point was on this issue, but the sport of football had better be concerned. In an age of helicopter parenting and credible scientific research, tackle football is under attack.

I have my own perspective on this subject. First, I work around the best college football team in the state. Yes, I’m talking about the TCU Horned Frogs. Stand on the sideline for some of these vicious collisions, and you start thinking about violin lessons for your son. Second, I work with the best youth football organization in the land, USA Football, a group with laser focus on teaching coaches the safest possible tackling skills. Third, my son thinks he’s going to be the next Andy Dalton or Tom Brady or Johnny Freakin’ Football.

The truth of the matter is that unless my boy has an enormous growth spurt, he’s destined to be “undersized.” He should be perfectly suited to play second base for the Dodgers or midfielder on the U.S. National Soccer Team. Which sounds pretty good to me.

But playing tackle football at 8 years old? Hit the pause button.

Here are the facts I can find: In 1990, kids ages 6–17 visited the emergency room with football-related injuries 274,094 times. In 2007, that number was 346,772, an increase of 27 percent. That could be a result of more concussion awareness or just more kids playing football. Then there’s this: From 2009–’11, the number of kids ages 6–11 who played tackle football was down 15 percent.

I’ve talked to former football players who believe that playing tackle early gets a kid over the fear of tackle football and thus makes him more prepared when the hitting really starts in junior high. Others say it makes no sense to play tackle until high school, since the wear and tear on all parts of a boy’s body takes its toll. When Kurt Warner, former NFL MVP, said he wouldn’t let his kids play, other NFL veterans attacked him. Clearly, this is a touchy subject.

Not surprisingly, pediatricians are getting barraged with questions by parents who want a second, third and fourth opinion on the matter. And that’s the thing with tackle football. No one knows for sure. Will a state someday ban football? Probably, but odds are it won’t be the one this magazine is published in.

For the record, we’re focusing on another couple of seasons of flag football for the little guy before tackling the tackle question again. Who knows, if I wait long enough, they may finally develop the concussion-proof helmet. Until then, I’ll be trying to avoid any highlights from Aggie games.

Rudy lives in Flower Mound, works in Fort Worth and plays everywhere in between. He has one wife, one daughter, one son, one published book, one obsession with sports and 20 million observations on marriage and children. Follow him on Twitter: Manifesto10.