It used to be that I would consider this the most wonderful time of the year.
High school football already has begun. College football gets underway in earnest Saturday. The following week, the NFL presents games that actually count.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still looking forward to my alma mater opening its season Saturday morning in Iowa City against the University of Wyoming. And I dragged my less-than-enthusiastic wife to the Keokuk Chiefs-Central Lee Hawks high school game in the middle of an Iowa cornfield last weekend.
But I’m conflicted.
Every day there seems to be more mounting, incontrovertible evidence all our heroes of the gridiron will wind up fighting chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE; or Alzheimer’s disease; or ALS; not to mention a retirement spent dealing with other comparatively minor, though still major, physical sufferings.
That evidence has caused many in their prime to walk away from the game.
Consider this story from 2015 during an offseason that saw a stunning number of players from the San Francisco 49ers retire, including Chris Borland, a rising talent at linebacker who listed the effects of continued head trauma as his reason to leave after just one season.
Said sports psychologist John F. Murray, “As many players that do consider perhaps the long-term risks and the cost benefits of a long-term career in a contact sport, you’re going to get that. We’ve had more education and increased awareness from many avenues about the risks of concussions long term, the risks of the effects of that.”
Perhaps most damning is this New York Times report from earlier this year that tells of a survey by Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who examined 202 brains of deceased former football players, ranging from high school to the NFL.
One hundred eleven of those brains came from NFL players, and of those, 110 had CTE, “the degenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head.”
As the story points out, no one really knows how much head trauma it takes to develop CTE, just that it seems to be most prevalent in football players. In fact, of the total number of brains examined, 87 percent had the disease.
Perhaps none of those were closer to me than Tyler Sash. I didn’t know him personally, but our paths crossed as he was the stud athlete of Oskaloosa High School and I was a rookie news reporter at The Oskaloosa Herald.
He was quite the big deal. Indeed, when he signed his letter of intent to play football at the University of Iowa, the photo was the centerpiece on the front page that day.
I watched as he became a star at the college level, leaving after his junior year to fulfill a dream of playing in the NFL. He was drafted by the New York Giants, where he was part of the Super Bowl XLVI win over the New England Patriots after the 2011 regular season.
A good kid and a hometown Iowa boy who made good. It was hard not to root for him.
But, as the Times story says, Sash was cut loose in 2013 after his fifth concussion. He played just two seasons of professional football.
Then, in May 2014, Sash was arrested by police in his hometown after a scooter chase turned into a foot chase, according to this news report. During the arrest, authorities reportedly subdued him with a stun gun. Months later, he pleaded guilty to public intoxication and was fined $65.
This no doubt raised suspicions in the minds of Sash’s loved ones, who knew him to have no such major scrapes with the law.
After his tragic death from an overdose of pain medications in September 2015 at the age of 27, his family enlisted the help of McKee.
The doctor found a similar level of CTE to that of former longtime NFL linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest.
“Even though (Sash) was only 27, he played 16 years of football, and we’re finding over and over that it’s the duration of exposure to football that gives you a high risk for CTE,” McKee said. “Certainly, 16 years is a high exposure.”
“Now it makes sense. The part of the brain that controls impulses, decision-making and reasoning was damaged badly,” said Sash’s mother, Barnetta Sash.
While it’s difficult to hear and read about such things, America’s love affair with football will continue. For the foreseeable future.
“Even though you’ve got guys retiring, there’s a bunch of guys that would still love to be playing,” said then-Raider and future-hall-of-famer Charles Woodson. “For all of those guys that I’ve played with that tell me every year, ‘Keep going,’ because they would love to have this opportunity.”
Murray, the sports psychologist, agrees.
“There will always be a demand for multi-million-dollar salaries and the glory that goes with playing NFL football,” he said.
In other words, players will play because people will watch.
Count me among the hypocrites who’ll continue to do so, however reluctantly, as we prop up a sport we know is killing its gladiators.
It’s football season, after all. The most conflicting time of the year.