The hardest part of parenting is often saying "no." With ongoing research linking football to long-term brain injuries, it's getting harder for even the biggest fans of the sport to say "yes" to their kids playing football. There's no easy answer, or right one.
Cari Johnson walks across the living room and turns off SportsCenter, eliminating a distraction that could prevent any member of the family from expressing their true feelings.
Jed and Cari Johnson, like so many other parents, have a big decision to make – should they allow their son to play football?
Jed Johnson is a household name in Rock Falls sports lore. In addition to upholding the Johnson family’s legacy on the hardwood, he started at quarterback for the Rockets during his junior year of high school and was an all-conference wide receiver as a senior.
He’s also no stranger to concussions.
As a gunslinger, he did what any teammate wants their quarterback to do – stare down the blitz, step into his pass and complete it.
Then he woke up in an ambulance.
“It didn’t bother me,” Jed said. “If I could go back, I’d go back and play football. I wouldn’t even think about it. But it’s not me. It’s my kid. It’s totally different.”
Jalen, 10, shares dad’s fearlessness. Football is his favorite sport. That’s why Cari so badly wants him to play.
“I think about when he goes to school on Fridays and they’re all wearing their jerseys,” Cari said. “What about the Homecoming Parade, when they all get to ride in a float and it’s right up here, so he gets to go watch all his buds?
“I don’t want to take that away from him.”
The debate isn’t as simple as Jed being opposed to Jalen playing and Cari lobbying for it.
“Don’t get me wrong, I want him to play,” Jed said. “Let’s make that very clear. I love watching him play. Obviously, the issue is him being this young and whether it’s the right decision. You’ve gotta think about it. It’s gotta be talked about.”
Friday was the last day of registration for Rock Falls junior tackle, though it’s unlikely Jalen would be turned away if the Johnsons decided after the deadline they’d like him to play.
He’s thrived during three seasons with Rock Falls’ Northern Illinois Youth Tackle Football team. His favorite part of the game?
“I like the tackling and hitting,” Jalen said.
“And that’s why we’re here,” Cari followed, despondently.
“He loves to play football and he loves to hit, he loves all that stuff,” Jed said. “At the same time, that’s what scares me. He really likes to hit, man, and he’s not the biggest kid.”
Jed also acknowledges that aggressive players – who use proper technique – are at far less risk than timid athletes whose fear causes their form to falter. He’s very well-versed in all the factors that play into the family’s decision, one they discuss and make every year. The surge in concussion awareness has led to a greater impasse this time.
“If I could say it’s all going to be good, I want him to play. It’s just a concern,” Jed said. “He might still play football. We haven’t made our decision yet.”
Let’s ask science
Dr. Michael DeFranco will speak to the Rockets’ junior tackle coaches, parents and athletes during the team’s Fun Day on Sept. 1.
“You can’t have enough people like Dr. DeFranco,” first-year Rock Falls junior tackle president Troy Ebenezer said.
It’s just one of many stops on DeFranco’s educational tour this summer on behalf of the concussion program and team he’s built at the CGH Medical Center in Sterling.
Like most in the medical field, DeFranco doesn’t feel kids younger than 14 should be playing tackle football. But he also knows there is no simple, correct answer, and he admires Jed Johnson’s refusal to make a decision without thorough deliberation.
“I think that’s a role model for other dads – a great athlete back in his prime who’s concerned about these very important issues and not willing to just throw his son out there,” DeFranco said.
There are myriad factors to weigh. Brain development varies from athlete to athlete, but in all cases it continues its development until adulthood. Thus, youths – from a biomechanical standpoint – are more susceptible to concussions. Their myelin, the sheath that protects neurons in the brain, is not fully formed.
Also, youngsters’ neck and shoulder muscles must develop, a vulnerability exacerbated by the fact that their heads are disproportionate to the rest of their bodies.
Because of that, both DeFranco and Dr. Robert Cantu, one of the nation’s top sports concussion experts, would like to see the hitting wait unless, as Cantu states, “significant changes are made.”
Younger and younger
Changes have certainly been made, whether for better or worse. Over the past dozen or so years, most of the 15 programs in SVM’s coverage area have expanded, adding fifth- and sixth-grade teams.
“I was very torn,” Newman junior tackle president Jube Manzano admits. “I wasn’t completely for it, but I understood the change.”
Other teams in the I-5 Conference had added fifth- and sixth-grade teams. Eleven years ago, Newman followed suit.
“We had to keep up with them,” Manzano said.
In 2003, the NIYTF was formed, giving first- through fourth-graders the chance to play. The league began with four teams and now features 11.
“There’s a fine line as to what’s too young,” Fulton varsity head coach Patrick Lower said. “It’s kind of a sad reality.”
On a national landscape, Pop Warner Football, which was born in 1929, has implemented limits on contact, stating that coaches may allow it during only one-third of practice time.
“We saw the story on CNN, and I looked at my wife and said, ‘We implemented that 15 years ago. Where were they?’ “ said Manzano, who’s worked with Newman’s program for 35 years.
Manzano also points to the progress Amboy’s junior tackle program has made.
“I’ve seen some of the things that went on at Amboy, in terms of not taking injuries seriously,” Manzano said, “and they’re doing a nice job today. They’ve come a long way.”
Todd Hobbs began his second stint as Amboy junior tackle president in December and will carry forward the torch he and retired president Don Behrens and vice president Dan Koch lit 15 years ago.
“When I was in school, it was, ‘You’re just dizzy, go sit down,’ “ Hobbs said. “Before, a coach would sit a kid down and put ice on it. ... I hate to use the term, ‘Rub some dirt on it,’ but … now, there’s more details. You’re asking them questions and doing a lot more to find out if they can go back in.”
Ebenezer doesn’t want players to be burned out on the sport by the time they reach the varsity ranks.
“In junior tackle, we’re not so focused on the wins and losses,” Ebenezer said. “We’re trying to get back to more of the fun part of the game. I want my players to go out there, do things the right way, have fun and then come back out next year.”
Back to the present
Two-time Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner doesn’t want his kids to play football. Tom Brady Sr. kept his eventual three-time Super Bowl champion son out of the game until he was 14.
For the moment, Jed Johnson is also keeping his son on the sideline.
Friday’s final registration passed with him unable to pull the trigger.
“I still couldn’t pry anything out of him,” Cari said.
Ebenezer confirmed Friday that there is no hard-and-fast deadline.
“We’ll probably still be getting kids the first week of practice,” Ebenezer said. “Jed’s been asking us a lot of questions about what we’re doing to prevent concussions. I’ll support him no matter what he decides.”
Dr. Michael DeFranco and his concussion team at CGH will conduct two more seminars to educate athletes, parents, coaches and all interested parties
• Monday, Aug. 6 – Noon at CGH Hospital, Classroom 2 on main floor near Ryberg Auditorium
• Tuesday, Aug. 7 – 6 p.m., CGH Hospital, Classroom 2 on main floor near Ryberg Auditorium
* – Call 888-721-2867 for more information
To read more from our special series on sports concussion, please check out The Hidden Injury project page on saukvalley.com. Click here to visit.