Less than three weeks removed from the shocking suicide of former NFL great Junior Seau, and as the football community copes with what can legitimately be characterized as a concussion crisis, many concerned Americans are asking themselves a simple but question:
Would you let your son play football?
The answers, complex and quite personal, can provoke charged responses. Such was the case with former NFL great Kurt Warner, whose recent admission that he would prefer his sons not play the sport that made him rich and famous was met with rebuke by ex-New York Giants receiver Amani Toomer and former Pittsburgh Steelers running back and ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, not to mention numerous fans.
Shortly thereafter, I got a call from a father who spoke passionately in Warner's defense.
It turned out this football dad had prohibited his only son from playing the sport until high school and, two decades later, isn't sure he'd allow him to play at all if confronted with the same decision today.
"No, not without hesitation," Tom Brady Sr. said. "I would be very hesitant to let him play."
Though things worked out for the kid who quarterbacked the New England Patriots to the fifth Super Bowl of his future Hall of Fame career last winter, the elder Brady believes any responsible parent should be reacting to the growing research linking head trauma and degenerative brain conditions with gravity and concern.
"Tommy did not play football until he was 14, because we didn't think he was physically developed enough to play the sport," Brady Sr. said of his now 34-year-old son. "It's the same reason I wouldn't let him throw a curveball until that age. I told him, 'If I see you throw a curve, I will pull you right off this field,' and he knew I meant it.
"This head thing is frightening for little kids. There's the physical part of it and the mental part – it's becoming very clear there are very serious long-term ramifications. I think Kurt Warner is 100 percent correct. He's there to protect his children, and these other people who are weighing in are not addressing the issue of whether it's safe or not for kids. All this stuff about, 'He made his fame and fortune off of football,' that's true – but we didn't know then what we know now. Apparently, they don't take their own parenting responsibility very seriously, or they don't value their children's health as much as they should."
Warner, who played in three Super Bowls, received a great deal of backlash from people like Hoge, who complained the former Rams, Giants and Cardinals quarterback had "thrown the game that has been so good to him under the bus." Yet it was another successful NFL player who first inspired Brady Sr. to keep his son from putting on pads at an early age. Randy Cross, a six-time All Pro guard for the San Francisco 49ers who is now a CBS analyst, gave some fateful advice during a 1985 visit to St. Gregory elementary school in San Mateo, Calif., where the elder Brady was serving as a volunteer athletic director.
"Randy Cross came in and talked to the kids, and afterward, I asked him, 'If you had kids, when would you let your son play?' " Brady Sr. recalled. "He said, 'Fourteen. That's about when they're developed.' That was always in the back of my mind.
"That was 27 years ago. We know so much more now; we know that not only is the body not physically developed to play football at 5, 6 and 7, but we know the neck and the brain aren't, either. At that time, we thought it was kind of heroic to play at a young age. Now, with the flow of information coming at us, it's obvious the bodies of little people are not structured to absorb the hits."
Cross ended up allowing his son, Brendan, to play football in the seventh grade; the younger Cross is now a quarterback at Wake Forest. In Randy Cross' eyes, the quality of youth football coaching is so uneven that it isn't worth the risk of injury. High school coaches, by contrast, get paid and are accountable.
"Contrary to popular belief, waiting till junior high or so exempts kids from extra years of pounding and visits to the orthopedist," Cross said Monday.
Tom Brady, the youngest of Tom Sr. and wife Galynn's four children, spent his autumns playing soccer, basketball and fall baseball, but never participated in organized football of any kind.
[ Photos: Tom Brady through the years ]
"We had him directed to another place," his father recalled. "Obviously, at that time, kids take their direction from their parents. It's the parents' job to direct their kids, and to protect them.
"He wasn't sitting on the sofa. He was probably playing 50 or 60 games a year, so his physical development was taking place. When he got to high school, he wanted to play football. He had growing pains at 14, 15, but every kid does."
Cross also discounted the notion that kids who don't start playing football at a young age will be irreparably behind their peers. "If they have the talent," Cross said, "it shows."
For all of Brady's obvious football aptitude, he and his father still regarded baseball as a preferable professional path. "Even getting out of high school," Brady Sr. recalled, "we thought his career would be in baseball. Eventually, football just kind of became his sport of choice."
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The choice proved to be a prescient one, as he has become one of the great players of his era, or perhaps any era. Yet the elder Brady still frets over the potential effects of head trauma that his son could face down the road.
"Absolutely," Brady Sr. said. "That never goes away. The answer is yes, I'm concerned. He claims that he's only been dinged once or twice, but I don't know how forthright he's being. He's not gonna tell us, as his parents, anything negative that's going on. I wouldn't be shocked that he would hide that."
Brady, his father believes, is "better prepared than most to withstand [head trauma]," because of "the way his physical therapist has prepared him. They do specific exercises on the neck and the head that could ameliorate some of the impact of the hits."
Still, Brady Sr. said, the recent research into CTE and the rash of suicides and irrational behavior potentially linked to post-concussion syndrome has him frightened about what might lie ahead. The circumstances of Seau's suicide mirrored those of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson – who shot himself in the chest in 2011 and was subsequently found to have CTE – and provoked fears that Seau's possible depression will subsequently be linked to head trauma. "You see distinct personality changes," he said. "Junior Seau [Brady's former Patriots teammate] was a happy-go-lucky guy. Corwin Brown [an ex-New England coach] was a magnificent individual. When he went around and caused havoc last year in South Bend, that seemed like a completely different guy.
"There are distinct personality changes that go along with head trauma. In the old days, it was conjecture. I don't think it's conjecture anymore. And it's Russian roulette. Different people respond differently. Maybe one person avoids it, but not everyone."
As much as the recent revelations scare him, and as forcefully as he defends Warner's right to protect his children from possible harm, Brady Sr. conceded he would probably make the same decision with his son now as he did 20 years ago.
"If he were 14 now, and he really wanted to play, in all likelihood I would let him," he said. "But it would not be an easy decision, at all."
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