This is your brain on football

A high school football game in Texas, one of many played under the “Friday night lights.”

A high school football game in Texas, one of many played under the “Friday night lights.”

At my uncle’s birthday party recently, I spent part of my time with my little cousin Mark, eating birthday cake and watching the 49ers (my team) come back against the Eagles (his).

Mark is a solidly built, cherubic 9-year-old with a curly top and an appetite as big as his grin.  Already a talented hockey player – like his poised, more reserved older brother – Mark told me he’d love to play football, but his parents, my goddaughter and her husband, won’t allow it.

Good call. Time magazine’s Sept. 29 issue has a poignant cover story that’s a must-read for any parent – or, for that matter, anyone interested in the game’s recent, headline-grabbing developments. 

It’s the story of 16-year-old Chad Stover, who sustained a traumatic brain injury during one of the many games played under the “Friday night lights” across this country every autumn. Indeed, on fall Fridays when I leave my office late, I can see those lights and hear the throng gathered at the local high school clear across the highway.

Maybe that’s what I had in mind in this passage from my upcoming novel “In This Place You Hold Me,” about a quarterback’s search for identity amid the brutality of the NFL:

     Quinn would play baseball and basketball at Misalliance High and caddy to make extra money, but Coach Redfield made sure that he knew football was No. 1. He needn’t have bothered. There were plenty of reminders everywhere he looked. Friday nights Misalliance came alive in a way it didn’t during the work week or even on Sundays, its spanking new athletic field beckoning like a glittering oasis to the faithful, who swelled the town’s numbers to such an extent that you could hear the shouts, laughter, cheers and clapping echoing all the way to his house. The ball field – with its deep blue and lime green stands, the school colors – was such that whenever there was a local or national crisis, people gathered there rather than at the town hall or the United Megachurch, the largest of the seven houses of worship in town. It was only fitting, Quinn thought, for that field was Misalliance’s true cathedral and football, its real religion. 

Like my hero, Quinn Novak, Chad Stover was just one more kid drawn to those lights in Middle America when he collided with an opposing running back on a defensive play and collapsed. He died some two weeks later having never regained consciousness.

Sean Gregory’s story is an excellent piece of reporting, balancing hard data with haunting narrative. Among the most difficult passages concern Chad’s mother, Amy, washing her unresponsive son’s hair and singing “You Are My Sunshine” on the day he died, because that’s what she sang to him as a baby. Tough stuff.

But then so are the numbers. We learn that football is an annual $10 billion industry, a figure that we must balance against this one – 33 percent of former players will develop some neurological disorder, be it Parkinson’s, ALS, Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia.

At my uncle’s birthday party, my neighbor’s cookout and a friend’s pre-concert soirée this past week, the question was the same: What role do the game’s ferocity and resulting head injuries play in the domestic violence that has all but eclipsed this neurological news?

Traumatic brain injury helps make football’s domestic violence problem intelligible but never excusable.

I don’t think any child should be playing football, but I have no illusions about anyone giving up the pro game. That moment in which the Niners closed the gap on the Eagles was a thrilling display of speed and power. Everyone in NFL Nation – from the fans and players up to the commish and the 32 owners – is too invested in the game, emotionally as well as financially, to let it go. It’s not just what they do. It’s who they are.

Until the day comes when they no longer remember the way they were.