Editorial Page Editor, Quad-City Times

The memories manifest only in my dreams, buried deep in a place I can't consciously tap. 

We stood in a circle, listened to the our marching orders and, in unison, said "break" with a clap of our hands. It's the last thing I remember. I came to three hours later in CAT scan, disoriented and confused.

It's August, and that means high school football teams are opening practice. But again this year, the wind sprints and tackling drills are set against increasing evidence that, no matter how many rules are tweaked, American football cannot be played safely.

Late last month, the most comprehensive analysis to date of the brains of former football players was published in the medical journal JAMA. Ninety-nine percent of the brains of former NFL players analyzed exhibited chronic impairment associated with trauma. The brains of 48 out of the 53 college players dissected also displayed the degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. And three of the 14 brains of those who played only in high school had the disease.

The study's authors admit up front that their sample isn't perfect and probably includes bias in the sample set. Families of deceased former football players who observed signs of depression, aggression and memory loss might be more likely to submit brains of their loved ones for study. 

All that said, a whopping 99 percent affliction rate is shocking.

It was early in the season when I, a pubescent freshman running back, broke from that huddle, took a handoff and got creamed or, in the parlance of the late 1990s, "got my bell rung." I made varsity that year and, as many freshmen do, spent my time on the practice squad. We were punching bags who simulate the offense of next week's opponent for the benefit of the starting defense composed of much larger upperclassmen.

As my coaches and peers later told it, the offensive line split as if Moses had ordered it. No sooner was the ball jammed against my stomach, I was hit, stood up and driven back before being planted on my back, head bouncing off the skunk-torn sod. I popped up, returned to the huddle and, during the next play, proceeded to wander around aimlessly. Coaches called my folks, who rushed me to the hospital. My mother later told me that, during the 30-minute ride to the emergency room, I asked her who she was. I remember none of it. To this day, it's a disconcerting black hole in my memory, which seems to return to me during brief segments of REM sleep. 

Hours later, there I was, staring at the top of that whirring machine with no knowledge of how I got there. 

After sitting out a week for severe swelling of the brain, I returned to the field. I played football throughout high school, eventually growing into that much bigger kid who spent practice drilling the underclassmen. For a brief moment, I entertained offers from recruiters at regional universities. To this day, I still miss the game.

Football, at all levels, is entering a crisis period. The NFL increasingly looks more like Big Tobacco of a few decades ago in its attempts to undermine credible research into the outcomes of playing. More and more counties and cities are telling billionaire team owners demanding pricey new stadiums to pound salt. Many pee-wee leagues are struggling to field squads. But considering the investment made into football — both financial and cultural — throughout much of the country, its demise is bound to be a slow one.

There's a credible argument to be made about ditching pads altogether. The very armor designed to protect players actually promotes the high-speed collisions that lead to degenerative brain disease. Any such move would, without a doubt, fundamentally morph the game into something unrecognizable, a risk for a multibillion-dollar industry at the professional and collegiate levels. 

Whatever the future for American-style football, people are becoming aware of the game's risks to minds of all ages. For me, the results still haunt my dreams. 

Jon Alexander is editorial page editor at the Quad-City Times. He can be reached at jalexander@qctimes.com.

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