Sunday, May 20, 2012

On Junior Seau and Playing Football . . .Would I let my grandson play football?

The death of NFL and San Diego Chargers' football legend Junior Seau this May has brought many questions to those who follow football - from the juniors, to high school, to college and pros - with a fever pitch. A strong, talented intelligent young man (he was 40) reportedly put an end to his life by shooting himself in the chest.


Why? What could have caused this gentle giant to think there was no more hope?

While we may never know the inner feelings of his life, those close to him (Read Sports Illustrated, May 14,2012) had no inclination that Junior Seau was in a depressed or desperate state that would lead to such an action. True, all super-star athletes suffer from "leaving the game," but Junior Seau was home in his beloved San Diego, Calif., just miles away from the surf that he used to conquer on his kayak-sized surf board. He could literally hear the calming influence of the ocean rushing to shore from his backyard and neighborhood, where he was a hero of unfathomable proportions not only for his football heroics but for his charity work and for never forgetting his humble beginning.

Now, Seau, is gone and only memories remain.

His death makes me question all that is good about the truly American sport of football. My own experiences with football are limited. At best, I was a junior varsity player on the Hebbronville Shorthorns team.

My "career" was cut short when I busted my left hand in a million pieces. It swelled up like a blown up latex glove as it was crushed under my chest when three of my bigger teammates fell on me during a scrimmage. All of them were 6-foot-2 or more and weighed at least 250-pounds. They were all under 15 years old. Yes, we had a good high school football team in Hebbronville.

From that day on, I was relegated to be a spotter in the press box and that experience eventually led to me becoming a sports writer. Yes, I was more comfortable in the press box, I must admit. My mom, was also more comfortable with me "spotting" players who made key plays than battling in the trenches with the big boys.

I still remember my mom refused to let me play my freshman year. It was as if she thought I was going off to war or something. "Manuelito, you could get hurt or worse," she told me. "No, absolutely not. No vas a jugar (You're not going to play)." And, I didn't.

My sophomore year, I just asked my step-dad and he signed some paper allow me to "finally play football." I was ready. I worked harvesting watermelons all summer long. On Sundays, during the summer, I would do sprints in the baseball field next to my house, working on my speed and agility. I even had the courage to go run and workout with the big boys - the returning letterman for the varsity - one time. They were impressed by my size (5-foot-11, 150-pounds) and said I had "potential" even though I had never played football (except in the barrio or backyards) before. I was proud. Lifting all those watermelons in the summer would pay off. I would be a star, a legend on old Gruy Field for the Hebbronville Longhorns. I would be a star and like so many other Longhorn greats (Rene Ramirez, Rodemiro Gonzalez, Oscar Gonzalez, Rene Medellin, etc., etc.) earn a college football scholarship and just run for glory.

But, I wasn't fast. They noticed that right away. "Manuel, you will be a lineman on the JV this year. Keep working," Bobby Felton, a scooter in the Longhorns backfield told me. I was proud. If I was going to be a lineman, I would be the best lineman ever for the Longhorns football team. Oh, they weren't always the Longhorns. Back during the depression days, they were Bulldogs. But, they couldn't win. So, the school board changed the name and told them to forget the old days and start anew. Since then, Hebbronville has had a reputation of having a good, solid, competitive and winning football team - almost every year. I never played football again. I became a sports writer and still enjoy the game, very much.

My next experience with football was seeing my two boys - Mario and Marcos - play at the junior high and high school level. They were good athletes. Mario was big. 6-foot by the time he was in 8th grade. Marcos did not grow 'til his junior year in high school, but was a mean and pesky as Javelina cub. He was the blocking back (all 4-foot-10 of him) for his 7th and 8th grade teams. He led the ol' student body left and student body right for boys who went on to star at the high school and college level. Mario was a lineman. He played both ways - offense and defense. He was strong as bull but did not want to hurt anyone. He never really tackled any one, he would grab them and put them gently on the turf. I would yell him, like a father should (right?), "Hey, be aggressive. Hit them hard. Show them you're better than they are."

As a 12-year-old 8th grader, Mario would simply answer, "Dad, I don't want to hurt anyone." I should have known that he was not cut out for that sport. But, he was so good, talented and big and he wound up seeing limited action for the varsity at Miller his freshman year and started as a sophomore. He was good. He had a future, but his heart was not in it. I would yell at him, "You better start playing hard and hitting people hard or else you're going to get hurt out there." He didn't change. He was still the most gentle football player on the team. And, then, it happened. He got chopped blocked by two Carroll Tigers' players in an important game and, just like that, his football career was over. I know to this day those other young men did it on purpose and may have even been told to hurt Mario by their coaches. Mario was causing havoc in the Carroll backfield and he was making a big difference in the game. He limped out, looking for me in the stands. I ran down the Buc Stadium steps and looked at him from the edge of the bleachers. I caught his eyes. I knew it was over. But, I said the wrong thing (like almost every other dad in Texas who has a son playing football). "You'll be fine in a while, get back in there, son." He never played again. I will never be able to get that last look he gave me from the sidelines as he was placed down on the turf so that trainers could work on his left knee out of my mind. It was as if he was saying, "I'm sorry I let you down, dad." He was so sad. His anterior cruciate ligament was torn apart. He would never play football again and I wondered how this would affect him in the future. My stomach sank. Tears rolled down my face. I was so sorry I had insisted he played football. I know there are much worse injuries, the spinal type, for example. But, the disappointment I had was that I had insisted Mario play football, not because he loved the sport, but because I wanted to show him off. I knew, at that point, he was doing it just for me. I felt so bad. I had let my son down with MY false expectations. Maybe I wanted him to do what I had never done - play varsity football and get a college scholarship and be a hometown hero? Maybe?
Marcos never got hurt seriously, I think. He wound up playing two years of varsity as a defensive back and was good enough to earn some honors and even an invited to play football for Abilene Christian University. He was a dynamo on the field. He loved the game. He was like a flying dervish, making hard tackles and even, at times, drawing personal foul penalties. At times, he would seem to "fly" into the ball carrier with the ferocity of an action figure like Captain America or The Hulk. But, now I question, "Was he doing this for me?"

But Marcos wasn't an indestructible action figure. He was a teen-aged boy who was growing. He went from 5-foot-1 his freshman year to 5-foot-10 as a junior and kept growing in college. He was strong, athletic and fast enough to get the job done (the Flores speed or lack thereof is legendary). Marcos, however, suffered three concussions during his high school career. One in particular was noteworthy. Playing against Mission and stellar quarterback Ty Detmer (who went on to NFL fame), Marcos made a startling tackle on the first series of downs. The hit was heard throughout the packed Javelina Stadium (more than 17,000 fans packed for the playoff game). Listening on the radio in the stands, I heard the announcer say "That sent a message to Mission. You could hear that hit all the way down to the Rio Grande Valley and back to Corpus Christi 40 miles away from here." I was so proud. I cheered my lungs out. On the sidelines, on the change of possession, Marcos crumbled to the Javelina Stadium ground, rolling to the artificial track field. The trainers came over. Stood him up. Snapped their fingers. He came to. He was okay. I yelled at the top of my lungs, "Good job, Marcos. Get back in there."
He did. I wonder now, was it the right thing?

Now, the Junior Seau death has brought these feelings full circle. Junior Seau, like Marcos, would go back in to play time after time after time after a concussion. It didn't matter that he would deliver some of the hardest hits seen at the level. It didn't matter that he was "woozy" from the hits or that his head hurt after the game. He wanted to play, and the trainers said, "Go Junior. Go Play."

Now, those words ring hollow in my mind. I did the same thing. In the words of those who urged Junior Seau to continue playing, I hear myself urging my sons to keep on playing.

There is a certain pride that comes to a man for having a son or two who play football. It is hard to describe. It is, as my mother indicated with her hesitation of letting me playing back in the years when the helmets had one lone crossbar to protect you, like sending your sons out to battle. War, if you will. No wonder my mother and others are hesitant to let their sons play football.

Under the Friday night lights, a father is able to see a son's character, courage, strength and resolve tested for two hours or more. It is such a rite of passage, especially in Texas, that it can be a life-changing experience.

For Junior Seau, that life change may have come from the repeated blows to his head that he endured. Now, they're giving his brain to science, to see if the multiple concussions he suffered impacted his life and ultimate decision to take it with a gunshot to his chest. My son Mario still is impacted by his knee injury and it may have stopped him from more success in the sport he loved - baseball. Marcos still suffers headaches and other maladies from his "high school" concussions.

Football is a violent sport. I believe that's why men like me and my sons are drawn to it. There is a sense of danger on every play and on every play someone gets hurt, just a little bit. It's not that I've grown old (I have) but I wonder now if I would let my sons play football.

I have a 4-year-old grandson now and I have to wonder if I would agree to let him play football. Would I? Or, would I be like my mom? Would I tell him, "You're going to get hurt out there son. You don't need to play."

Of course, it's not my decision. It's my son Mario and my four-year-old grandson's mom decision to make. At least Mario - like me - has the experience of having played some high school football to help him make that decision.

Would Mario let my grandson play football? It's a violent sport. I hope not. And, if he does, I hope that it's my grandson's decision to play the sport and that he make that decision to please himself and not his father.