Clendaniel: Damar Hamlin and my love-hate relationship with football

I’m glad I didn’t watch Monday Night Football last week.

Days later, I still have zero interest in seeing the YouTube video of Damar Hamlin’s tackle and the ensuing medical emergency. Hearing about Hamlin’s collapse and cardiac arrest was bad enough. It brought back painful high school memories. It also forced me once again to confront my love-hate relationship with football.

Thankfully, Hamlin seems to be on the road to recovery. His breathing tube was removed Friday, and he was able to Facetime teammates later that day.

Fifty-one years ago, Chuck Anderson wasn’t so lucky.

I was a junior at Walla Walla High School in the fall of 1971 and sports editor of the school newspaper. I was standing on the sideline, covering our team’s second game of the year against the Pendleton Buckeroos.

Anderson was a star linebacker on our team, which was a Washington state power that hadn’t had a losing season in decades. I didn’t know Anderson personally, but he had a reputation for being a great leader and all-around person.

I didn’t see the moment of impact. What I did see was Anderson down on the field and worried teammates signaling for help. He had been hit in the head and was unconscious. It seemed like far too long before he was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Reports began circulating that he had lapsed into a coma. Two days later, in the middle of classes, our assistant principal announced over the school intercom that Anderson had died.

Those who know me know I’m seldom at a loss for words. And that I often don’t fully understand how I feel about something until I write about it.

But Anderson’s death left me speechless. I didn’t talk to classmates about it. Nor could I find the words to write about it for the school newspaper, even though that was my job. I remember feeling paralyzed, unsure how to proceed.

I wasn’t alone. The experience cast a pall over the entire student body for the remainder of the school year. With good reason. I suspect that for many, as for me, it was our first time coming to terms with the death of someone our own age. And someone we all looked up to.

l never tried out for the junior high or high school football team. My mom forbade it. Truth be told, I was secretly happy for the excuse, not that anyone was begging me to join. I was so skinny in those days that the only position I could have successfully played was left end on the bench. But I was an avid fan, loving the strategic and competitive nature of the game.

Anderson’s death and the serious injuries endured by some of my other high school classmates forced me to re-evaluate my thinking.

Research tells us that roughly 1 million boys play high school football every year. About 350,000 are injured, with the most common injury being concussions. Twenty players died in 2021, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury. Those numbers easily make high school football the most dangerous sport for players.

It begs the question of at what point does a sport become so dangerous that it shouldn’t be played. Fifty deaths a year? 100?

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned the coaches and administrators of Harvard, Yale and Princeton to Washington, D.C., and reportedly threatened to ban football if they couldn’t make the game safer. That need remains today.

As I’ve repeatedly written in editorials, the risk of serious damage from concussions is too high for parents to allow their children to play tackle football. Researchers writing in 2018 for the neurology journal Brain reported that the risk of repeated hits to the head for young football players increased the risk of problems with behavior regulation, apathy and executive functioning by twofold and increased the risk of clinically elevated depression by threefold. The NFL for years kept hidden the long-term risk of serious head injuries from repeated impacts.

There’s a reason football remains the most favorite sport in the United States. It’s an exciting game providing high entertainment value. But I stopped watching boxing matches after seeing Muhammad Ali beat Chuck Wepner to a bloody pulp in 1975. As much as I enjoy watching, football may be next.

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