Should You Let Your Child Play Tackle Football? Why This NFL Family is Delaying Their Son From Playing the Sport

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Should Your Child Play Tackle Football? Here is what one NFL family thinks
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Letting your child play tackle football can be a very difficult decision.  My husband played in the NFL for 16 years and we have one child, a daughter, who (I assume) will not be playing football.  I have often thought about how we would handle the tackle football situation if we had a son given what we are learning today about brain injuries and concussions.  I honestly don't know.

Today's post is from our dear friend, Erin Brown.  One could say Erin is partly responsible for the creation of Oh Lardy for she is who introduced me and Kelly!  I know Erin because our husbands played together on the Bears and Erin knows Kelly from early childhood.  At my baby shower in 2005, Erin gifted me with adorable burp clothes, made by Kelly.  I then proceeded to order 50 burp clothes and a friendship between myself and Kelly ensued.  🙂

 Erin is married to former NFL player, Mike Brown, and has 2 wonderful children.  Erin is facing the dilemma of whether or not to allow her child to play tackle football right now. Today, she let's us know how her family is handling the issue.  

Should Your Child Play Tackle Football?

By Erin Brown 

Before I was the mother of an almost seven-year-old boy begging to play football, I was the wife of an NFL player who had a very successful, yet injury riddled ten-year football career. God definitely gifted my husband with an elite level of football ability.

Now the question that arises all too often is: ‘So, will your son play football?'

Short answer, I hope my son chooses a different path, but, ultimately, it is his path to navigate.

Despite the high level of success my husband experienced between his first snap in the NFL and his final NFL down, ten years later, we have been on a journey that included three season-ending injuries, many other seasons of chronic pain and playing with and through injury. Now, in retirement, we have seen way too many college, active and retired football players put a bullet through their chest so that their brains can be studied. It's a very hard career field to recommend.Should Your Child Play Tackle Football?  Here is what one NFL family thinks

On one hand, as a family, we embrace my husband's pure love of the game and what it has afforded our family in terms of opportunity.  But you can imagine combining the pain I saw my husband go through and the looming possibility of future brain damage in my husband and potentially my son leaves me neck deep in fear as a mom. You may be able to understand why, by the time my son was three, I defiantly stated he would never play football.

However, it is a lot easier to plan the life of a three-year-old than it is a seven-year-old, a middle schooler or a teenager.  Sam, at age six, has now decided he wants to play football. His opinion is getting stronger and more vocal daily.  

As reality begins to set in, I realize all I can do is delay tackle football one soccer season at a time.

Here are some things to consider as you make the difficult decision on whether or not to let your child play tackle football.

Concussions, Sub-Concussions & CTE

Just recently, I read about a college student who was found dead with a self inflicted gun shot wound.  The family is citing concussions as the behavioral cause. Each year has been flooded with more and more information about the possibly devastating effects of concussions and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) on football players and their families. 

Concussions can happen in any sport or in an everyday accident, as my husband likes to remind me when I begin to rant about football. A person who has sustained a concussion needs proper rest and inactivity for recovery.

However, with so much focus on concussions, we tend to overlook what is thought to be one of the most powerful contributors to long term brain injury: repetitive, sub-concussive hits to the head.

To understand the damaging effect of sub concussive hits, picture the brain is like set jello and the skull is a bowl with a lid. From counter height you could drop the bowl and the jello may separate from the sides of the bowl but, ultimately, should remain intact.  That is a concussion. With rest and proper recovery, the brain could make a full recovery. Obviously the more drops (concussions), the more severe the separation from the bowl and less likely the jello will stay in tact.

However, if you take a fresh set bowl of jello and repeatedly tap or shake the bowl with gentle to medium force the jello will not only eventually separate but it will begin to fracture into smaller fragments. This illustrates the harm of sub concussive hits.

Added to the problem is that parents and coaches may not recognize the need for additional rest and recovery from sub concussive hits. Pro linemen could be involved in 50-60 snaps per game. I would venture to say that most, if not all, of those snaps involve a sub concussive hit. Every position is likely to experience multiple sub concussive hits. Due to lack of rest and recovery time, in addition to exponential repetition, sub concussive hits create much more concern for me as a parent than actual concussions.

Your Fear vs Their Giftedness

I would love to go on a theoretical tangent as to why football is not even necessary in my child's life, but I am seeing more and more that my son's free will should be respected as he chooses his path. At some point my “protection” may be more about my own fear than about his future brain capacity.

In an age of possible over-parenting (Do parents really write their kids' resumes and college entrance essays?), it is far healthier for me to address the fear that I am using as an excuse to control my child's extracurricular activities than it is to be a maternal dictator. You know how they say pick your battles, this is a personal battle choice.

Yes, people have been badly hurt in football. We are all keenly aware that tragedy strikes without warning in almost every conceivable manner, so it is important for me to stay in the truth of right now. Is my son healthy enough to play sports? Yes. Are we educated in how to avoid and/or react to injury should it happen? Yes.

I know that it won't be fun for me to watch him play football, trust me I have seen my mother in law at her son's  football games. Her body physically manifests the worry she held as a mom watching her son play football. As a parent, especially as a mother, I know that fear is very real and quite convincing, but a life dictated by fear is not really living, is it? No.

However, and this leads me to point three, if your son, like mine, is hyper focused on football it may very well be an area of personal giftedness. Perhaps football is a passion for the little person that you are raising. Regardless of our own personal interests or fears, the focus, giftedness or passion of our children should be an area he or she is able to pursue and develop.

I intimately know adults who were able to pursue their areas of giftedness and those who have been thwarted due to parental constraints and I am certain you can predict which child thrives and which ends up bitter and confused.

Delay! Delay! Delay!

Knowing that flag football is simply a gateway drug for my son to eventually play tackle football, I have delayed the start of flag football for as long as possible. And will continue to do so. We have filled our fall with soccer, winter with basketball, spring with baseball and summer is still travel & family sports. It's worth mentioning that we don't believe it's necessarily best to focus on just one sport until absolutely necessary.

Even though my husband was a pro football player, he played 3 different sports per year until he was a freshman in college.  We do have friends and family who are focused on a single sport for their kids. It is worth noting that they go to great lengths, and expense, to counter the repetitive wear on their kids' bodies

Discipline vs The Tyranny of the Urgent

The hallmark of a great athlete is the discipline it took to get to that level.

By starting with flag football instead of tackle, you are allowing time for your child to practice being disciplined in a team setting without the added complication of sometime very out of control contact.  If you have spent any amount of time with elementary age school kids you know that getting kids to perform in unison and as a team is a feat in and of itself.  By starting with flag football your child is able to concentrate on teamwork, listening to the coaches' directions and memorizing various plays. If your child is like mine, he will find another time and place to rough-house with friends.

All of those coaches and parents who tell you that you are missing the opportunity to make it to “the next level” fall into one of two camps (in my opinion):

  1. They are making money (or something of value- wins, team stats, etc) from your child's participation or
  2. They never made it to the next level themselves, based on their own personal talent.

My favorite example of this exact scenario is my brother.  He never played a down of football until he walked on to the local junior college team. After year two at Jr. College he was offered a full ride scholarship to a division one school.

Athleticism is undeniable.  Discipline is learned.  Passion and giftedness are what is required to be disciplined AND successful at any sport. Let your child become disciplined at the beginning of his or her sports career. (Tamara's note: My husband LOVES this paragraph!)

Head Size vs Neck Strength

No child has ever been given a college scholarship or an NFL contract due to their peewee football days.  

Mike and I conceptually agree that putting off tackle football until the age of 14 at least allows the child's brain to develop until his head and neck are physiologically strong enough to tolerate the directional change in force. I.E. not a bobble head on the field.

It has been stated in multiple medical studies that by age 14, approximately a freshman in high school, that a child's neck has finally caught up in capacity of strength to the size of the child's head. Neck strength is critical because it means the difference between no direction change in momentum of the brain (strong neck combined with minimal to medium contact) or maximum directional change in momentum of the brain (concussion due to brain momentum hitting each side of the skull with damaging force).

Just take a look at childhood pictures of most men you know, when they finally take a visual step away from being an olive on a toothpick then you may consider that age as the physiological standard for tackle football. If you come to the place where playing football is non-negotiable, additional years of playing flag vs tackle saves your child's developing brain from unnecessary roughness due to out of control plays and what is far more dangerous- the sub concussion blows to the head when the body is not ready for football contact in the first place.

Equipment Matters

We can't donate car seats because they are compromised after an accident. The same should be said after a season of football and the player's helmet. Buy your child a new helmet each season or help the boosters raise money for your school's team. Car wash anyone?

All Coaches and Trainers Are NOT Created Equally

Make sure your team's trainer is actually certified and that your coach has a vested interest in your child's well being above the game's outcome…. Good luck with that one.

My Humble Advice

My advice for brain health is to delay or avoid tackle football.  However, that does not address the personal pursuits or excellence found in pursuing an individual's giftedness.

At the very least, starting with flag football will help ensure that your child actually enjoys the sport of football before the idea of tackle football is even an option. A child should only play a sport because they want to play and love the sport or activity.

We, as parents, can promote many complimentary activities for any child with blossoming personal gifts. However, we must make certain that it is neither our own desires, ego or fears that are directing a child with dissimilar interests.

Our children are a gift and each of them have their own gifts. We, as parents, can shoot them from our bow, but none of us can decide where the arrow will land.

About Erin Brown

Should Your Child Play Tackle Football?  Here is what one NFL family thinksErin lives in Southern CA, loves her family and was Oh Lardy inspired to ferment her own kombucha until she was genuinely scared of the size of the Scoby.  She has since retired her Kombucha brewing hobby.

Erin co-owns Nook Kitchen restaurant in Phoenix, AZ. Follow @nookkitchen Insta/Twitter/FB for Nook Kitchen's January focus on scratch made, nourishing menu items. 

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