A Mother's Love - A Story of Youth Football Leagues

By MARK MORTHIER
Sep. 05, 2016

photo - courtesy of Pop Warner
photo - courtesy of Pop Warner
Me & my mother - 1978


I recently read an article about a class action lawsuit against the Pop Warner youth football league. The lawsuit claims that the Pop Warner football league knowingly ignored the risks of head trauma in football and failed to protect its players. The league is also accused of knowingly hiding from parents the dangers of repeated hits to the head.


These are the same claims made by former NFL players. The NFL is a billion dollar business, so it would certainly not shock me if these claims are found to be true, but Pop Warner? Is Pop Warner really willing to put children at risk?


I'm not saying it's not possible, but I'm finding it hard to believe, or perhaps just finding it hard to understand. Why would they hide these facts, if in fact they knew it to be true?

I remember signing up for Pop Warner. I was around twelve years old at the time. Before I could even try out for the team, they told me to step on the scale. They wrote down my weight and told me I did not meet the weight requirement. They told me to gain some weight and come back next year.


That was the end of it. I never even had a chance to put on a helmet. I was disappointed – but, since I was about to enter Junior High School, I figured I would just try out for the school team, only to find out that 7th graders were not allowed to play. The reason? Because their was too much of a size difference between the 7th graders and 9th graders. They didn't want to risk injures.


All of this happened back in the 1970's. If they were that concerned about the safety of players' back then, I would think they'd be even more safety conscious today. Pop Warner still has weight requirements and age groups.


I'm not trying to make light of concussions or head-trauma injuries. As a lifelong fan of the game, I'm as disturbed by these findings as anyone, but I am also trying to understand the root of the problem.


I had always believed that football wasn't any more dangerous for young boys than any other sport. Why? Because I believed they are not yet strong enough and developed enough to really hit each other that hard, but now they are finding degenerative brain disease in young men and boys.


Can it be proven the trauma was from football, and football alone? It is hard for me to grasp that concept, because this was unheard of years ago. It has only recently come to light. I don't recall hearing about former players complaining of severe headaches and memory loss. There may have been a few cases, but it was pretty rare. I remember when Roger Staubach and Al Toon retired from the NFL,due in part to concussions. But you never heard about it with youth football leagues, or high school football.


What has changed? Maybe the only thing that has changed is that we know so much more about it now then we did years ago.


I've only had one bad concussion in my life, and it wasn't from playing football. I was playing kickball in grade school. I was trying to avoid being tagged out and lost my balance, I fell, and hit my head on the pavement. I can recall being carried off to the nurses office. The rest of the day was a blur, but I recovered after a couple days and nothing more was made of it. No one was questioned. Nobody was sued.


I may have had some minor concussions playing football, but if I did, how would I have known? A minor concussion back then was called “getting your bell rung” You heard a buzzing noise between your ears, and you had some slight aching in your head. You might go out of the game for a play or two, or you might just tough it out and keep playing. No one knew any better at that time.


Today the Pop Warner league has disallowed certain head on blocking and tackling drills, and those changes have drastically reduced full- practice time. The NFL has created a clinic for youth called, heads up football. The program teaches players blocking and tackling techniques that reduce helmet-to-helmet . The NFL also works with a group called, USA football, which creates helmet safety standards.


Football, in general, has changed drastically since I last played in 1980. Rules have been changed to make the game safer, changes have been made to equipment to make the game safer. I'm not sure what more can be done to decrease the risk of injuries and concussions in football.


I, for one, don't want to see the game banned. I don't believe we should become a nation where anything that might be deemed “dangerous” or “may cause injury” should be done away with. We are a free Country and people should still be able to do what they enjoy, even if there's some risk, within reason involved.


There may come a time soon when players will have to sign waivers to play football, that states there is the risk of serious head injury. It's a waiver I would be willing to sign- for myself or my son. Why? Because I do not wish to live in fear, especially when it comes to doing something I enjoy. Having said that, I would not criticize a parent for choosing not to sign it. We all have to do what we feel is best for our children.


That's what my mother did for me. I injured my knee playing football when I was 13 years old. I spent over a week in the hospital, in traction. Once it was time for me to leave the hospital, the doctor put me in a full leg cast and sent me home. He believed I was young enough and healthy enough to make a full recovery without the need for surgery. He was right. I recovered.


One year later, I wanted to try out for the Junior High School football team. I knew my mother was afraid I might re-injure my knee. She might try to talk me out of it, or just flat-out refuse to sign the parental consent form. But as afraid as she was for my safety, she knew how much football meant to me, and how much I loved playing the game. She knew it would break my heart to take away something that was such a big part of my life. So with tears in her eyes, she signed the consent form.


I had a successful season, and won a trophy for best defensive player the following year. Coming back from that knee injury and winning that award gave me a confidence that I never had before. Playing football taught me about dedication, discipline, responsibility, and teamwork. I've carried those values with me through life and I've passed them on to my son.


Some of my happiest memories in life are of playing football. Signing that consent form was a very difficult thing for my mother to do, but it was the best thing she could have done for me.


Sometimes the most loving thing a parent can do for their child is to let go.


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