There’s a small, plastic, white football about the size of a light bulb that’s been in my possession literally since I was born.
Glimpses of it can be seen on home videos in my crib, it emerged as a mainstay in my childhood photos and proved to be a catalyst to my love for America’s most popular sport.
To say football has been a cornerstone of my life may actually be an understatement. My father played college football, and used it as a vehicle to obtain a higher education, which he then used to become a teacher, a vice principal and a high school head coach.
Because of this, I truly loved the game. I gave my dad made-up plays for Christmas, spent my childhood Friday nights on sidelines cheering my dad’s team on, daydreamed about my future as a quarterback and spent my summers going to camps to improve my skills.
My days playing high school football taught me invaluable lessons about accountability, character and hard work. I got my first job from a teammate’s dad, many of my lifelong friends were made between the lines and the story of my mud-covered jersey and disfigured pinky-finger against a cross-town rival is one of my fondest high-school memories.
Stories about former professional and college players killing themselves and being diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy—a disease found in people who suffer a high volume of brain trauma, often from contact sports—have effectively shattered what was an unconditional adoration for the game.
On Jan. 26, the New York Times reported that Tyler Sash, a 27-year-old safety who killed himself three years after finishing his two-year career in the NFL, suffered from CTE. His family told stories of his personality changing, the struggles he endured because of a combination of physical ailments keeping him from manual labor jobs, painkillers and the disease making it impossible to stay focused during a desk job.
Months before his suicide, a movie named “Concussion” came out, telling the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of the disease and his fight against the NFL to recognize its effects.
A few weeks after I saw the movie, I asked my dad if he’d seen it.
He hadn’t, and wouldn’t. It scared him.
We discussed the violent nature of the game and the possible impact the disease could have on both of us.
It was a question I had never asked before, but a harrowing one nonetheless: “Could my dad have CTE?”
He has told me stories about multiple concussions he suffered during his high school and college football days. There have been at least four, according to him.
“Could I have CTE?”
I was never officially diagnosed with a concussion, but I have blacked out on a football field before. As an offensive tackle, I’ve had my fair share of head-to-head contact.
What about my old teammates? The friend who stumbled to the wrong sideline after taking a big hit from a linebacker? The one who was medevaced after an open-field tackle?
The scariest part: this wasn’t professional football, it was nothing but middling, small-town high school football.
Watching the game has taken on a different meaning now. I watched win-or-go-home contests between powerful men, smashing into each other with my dad, and we shared a national outrage, watching Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown fall to the ground in January unconscious after being hit in the helmet while jumping for a catch.
After the game, a member of the opposing team questioned the legitimacy of Brown’s injury and only apologized after Brown was ruled ineligible to play the next week due to a head injury.
These are the moments that sour the game for me. These instances change the game I obsessed over as a child into the game I won’t allow my future children to play.
Without football, I wouldn’t live in the same house, have the same resources or be the same person, but it’s a game in which the consequences outweigh the rewards.
EJ Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ejsmitty17.