Concussions in the NFL, Part 3: Let the kids play, ex-NFLer says


As the 58-year-old Godfrey sees it, football's benefits outweigh the risks

Dr. Bennet Omalu has called for a ban on high-impact sports played by children, such as hockey and football.

Dr. Bennet Omalu has called for a ban on high-impact sports played by children, such as hockey and football.

Photograph by: Evan Agostini, Invision, The Associated Press, Postmedia News

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Former NFLer Chris Godfrey lets his boys play football, and does not apologize for it.

"Football is a good sport," said Godfrey, a guard on Bill Parcells' first Super Bowl champion New York Giants team in 1986.

"Even if my kids, let's say, are going to have a couple of years of related health issues when they're 81 or 82, and they wouldn't have had it otherwise, I'd still rather have them play football than not."

Now 58, Godfrey lives in South Bend, Ind., where he runs an estate-planning law practice, and where he founded Life Athletes, an organization that advocates positive messages for young people.

Godfrey played defensive lineman in high school and college in the '70s, and was an NFL guard for eight years in the '80s with the Giants, the New York Jets and Seattle Seahawks.

Did he suffer any concussions himself? Maybe one, Godfrey thinks. From the way he described it - a particularly hard head hit messed with his vision for a few hours when he played for the Giants - it sounds like a concussion. But just the one. Godfrey said he experiences no long-term effects from any head hits.

"I've not had any issues," he said.

All the millions of dollars in research grants funnelling from the NFL has made him somewhat skeptical of concussion medicine and lawsuits.

"I've had various groups repeatedly invite me to join their studies or lawsuits," Godfrey said. "One even sent me a free shirt the other day. Their overeagerness gives me the impression they are getting paid per capita, and therefore benefiting from all the negative press."

His oldest son just finished his senior year as a fullback and tight end at Ball State University in Indiana. Godfrey's younger son starred as a sophomore lineman on his high school team this past fall, and Godfrey served as an assistant line coach.

Godfrey reads and hears the stories about CTE and he has long known the risks. He knew a kid in grade school who had to have a plate inserted into his head after suffering a catastrophic head injury in football practice. That incident, however, did lead to a significant upgrade in helmets his team wore.

And yet Godfrey did not hesitate a second to let his sons play football.

"That's not to say that when my son John tells me that he hits players and tries to knock them silly, I'm not like, 'Well, maybe try to play without doing that,'" Godfrey said, chuckling.

"And it's not to say that in the back of my mind I'm wondering, because that's kind of the worrisome thing, because a lot of the claims about the long-term effects from concussions - you don't know it's there until they cut up your brain and look at it. And so that unknown, like any other kind of unknown, scares you."

Godfrey doesn't understand why more and more parents are reluctant to let their kids play tackle football. As he sees it, the benefits outweigh the risks.

While he was earning his postcareer law degree at the University of Notre Dame (Godfrey played college ball at rival Michigan), he said there would be students who'd always take the position that potentially dangerous products should be outlawed.

"Well, the other end of that argument is you've got to live, too," Godfrey said. "Those sorts of risks are everywhere. So what are you supposed to do - stop living? You certainly don't want to be reckless, but at some point you've got to live.

"I still come back to, you know, life is hard. And football can be a wonderful preparation for it. I am happy that the game is being made safer to play, and hope more young men get to experience it. There is really nothing else quite like it."


Omalu says some sports too dangerous for youth

The doctor portrayed by Will Smith in the new movie Concussion has called for a ban, not only on youth football, but on all high-impact sports played by children, including hockey.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who discovered the neurodegenerative brain disease CTE last decade, wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times earlier this month. In it, he argued that "we should at least wait for our children to grow up, be provided with the information and education on the risk of play, and let them make their own decisions." Why? Because Omalu asserts "over the past two decades it has become clear that repetitive blows to the head in high-impact contact sports like football, ice hockey, mixed martial arts and boxing place athletes at risk of permanent brain damage."

Dr. Julian Bailes, the neurosurgeon who supported and helped guide Omalu in his effort to convince the world of CTE's existence, disagrees wholeheartedly with Omalu on this point.

"I'm a big believer in the benefits of organized sports, and the benefi ts of football," said Bailes, who is portrayed in Concussion by Alec Baldwin. "I have two children who play football. And I think football is safer than it's ever been."

Former NFL GM and competitioncommittee chairman Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst, has been involved with improving safety at the grassroots level for years. "I served as the chairman of the USA Football skills committee. The idea of trying to get head hits out of the game is first and foremost at every level," Polian said. "We're working constantly to try to create techniques that go all the way down to the grade-school level, that minimize the use of the head, or the interaction of the head in the game."

The NFL assists in this regard by funding USA Football's Heads Up Football campaign. Thousands of youth tackle-football leagues in the U.S. embrace the concept of coaching children and teens to tackle by leading with their shoulders, not the head - so as to reduce the chance of serious neck, spinal or head injury.

The equivalent initiative north of the border is Football Canada's Safe Contact program. More than 3,700 football coaches nationwide are certified to teach such safer ways of playing the game.

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Dr. Bennet Omalu has called for a ban on high-impact sports played by children, such as hockey and football.

Dr. Bennet Omalu has called for a ban on high-impact sports played by children, such as hockey and football.

Photograph by: Evan Agostini, Invision, The Associated Press, Postmedia News

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