I can only imagine how terrifying it must’ve been for Aiden Carlson’s parents, coaches and teammates to watch him collapse in the parking lot after last week’s St. Charles East – North High School football game. It’s certainly something I never want to have to witness.
Apparently injured on the last play of the game, Carlson managed to make it off the field under his own power but lost consciousness shortly thereafter. He was swiftly airlifted to Delnor Hospital in Geneva, Illinois, where the Delnor doctors put him into a medically induced coma and performed emergency neurosurgery to repair what turned out to be severe brain damage.
Carlson did wake up on his own shortly after the operation, and while our sophomore’s prognosis is quite good, a long and arduous rehabilitation road awaits. And sadly, I’m guessing his football playing days are over.
Considering the inevitably enormity of the medical bills, a GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help his parents cope.
But before we continue, let me clearly stipulate that I did not see the play in question. For all we know, it could’ve been a freak accident or perhaps Carlson had a predisposition to that type of injury. But we do know is football is the mitigating factor such that it was unlikely to occur in any other setting.
All I can say is, I’m beyond grateful that neither one of my two sons had any inclination to play the sport because I’m not sure I would’ve said “no” to something they truly wanted to pursue.
Don’t get me wrong, playing high school football confers a number of amazing benefits, not the least of which are learning how to win, learning how to lose, teamwork, and a camaraderie people who don’t participate in sports will never understand. But the exponentially growing peril – just in the brief span of my lifetime – has rendered it not worth the risk.
When I was a fast Evanston Township High School sophomore back in 1973, some of the players asked me to go out for the JV team. But at 5 foot 9 and all of 130 pounds, I thought I wouldn’t be long for this planet if I did. Some of those linebackers were somewhat large.
But the truth is, there weren’t all that many oversize players and I was only a little lighter in the weight department than most of the other players.
Fast forward to 2005, and in a Plimpton-esque pursuit of a Geneva Patch column, Geneva High School Coach Rob Wicinski was kind enough to let me “try out” for the varsity team. And let me tell you, as a 6 foot, 185 pounds 44-year-old walk on, those teenagers dwarfed me in every possible way. I felt a lot like the thinnest tree in a vast, tall forest and the amount of free weights these “kids” could handle was rather stunning.
Thank God it was a no-contact practice because, aside from speed, I’ve never felt so athletically overmatched in my entire life.
Let’s, once again, fast forward to today’s NFL. Steeler’s quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Saints quarterback Drew Brees are already out for the season. Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky has a dislocated shoulder, and Bronco’s cornerback De’Vante Bausby said he was paralyzed for 30 minutes after a collision with his own teammate during Sunday’s game.
And it’s only going to get worse.
Think back to that halcyon 1985 Bears team when Gary Fencik, who still holds the team record for tackles and interception, was an All-Pro free safety. At 6’, 1” and 195 pounds he might not make it today’s NFL. The same goes for the similarly sized 70’s Bears feared strong safety, Doug Plank.
Part of the reason they asked me to go out for that ETHS football team was my capacity to run a 4.4 forty-yard dash. But current 6’, 6”, 262-pound Redskin’s defensive end Montez Sweat is equally as fast. If he ran into me on a football field at that speed there’d be nothing left but a cloud of dust.
So, when future Colts’ Hall of Fame quarterback Andrew Luck shocked the NFL by retiring in the middle of the preseason because he was tired of playing with the pain, I had to stand up and applaud.
Have any of you watched “Iron” Mike Ditka or Hall of Fame defensive tackle Dan Hampton simply try to walk? It ain’t pretty. And then there’s all the retired NFL players with varying degrees of CTE. The price of playing high school, college, or professional is truly frightening.
You can fix baseball and basketball by simple rule changes, but how is the NFL supposed to deal with players who’ve evolved beyond what league founder George Halas could’ve ever possibly envisioned? And the players are only going to continue to get larger and faster.
To make matters much worse, we tend to focus on the stars, but the truth is, the average NFL career is a scant 3.5 years – just long enough to do real physical damage.
Despite the vast amount of money involved, I don’t see how the sport survives. Those great life lessons notwithstanding, my current theory is, the physical toll makes it no longer worth playing the game.