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Euphoria gives way to worry for football dad

By Steve Martinez

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, Nov. 8 2010 11:45 p.m. MST

A young Rutgers fan, upper left, gets a high-five from Rutgers' Mike Fladell after a victory. Athletes have to deal with more injuries than people living more sedentary lives.

Associated Press

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Eric LeGrand is a defensive tackle at Rutgers.

Until recently, I had never heard of him. I had, of course, heard of Rutgers. I'd even gone so far as to look up Rutgers on the Internet; gone out of my way to record and later watch a game. You see, the coaches at Rutgers offered my son John a scholarship after a chance meeting, and I mentioned I was looking for a great place to send my son. I also mentioned that my search for the right school wasn't stopping at the state lines.

The score was 17-17 late in the fourth quarter. Rutgers had just scored to tie Army. There was only five minutes left in the game. On the ensuing kickoff, LeGrand made a nice but rather ordinary-looking tackle on the return. He then lay motionless on the ground for minutes while emergency medical staff did their job and got him off the field and to the hospital.

Then, they finished the game — a real thriller, with Rutgers winning in overtime, 23-20.

On Oct. 16, LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down.

And I wondered again: What have I done to my children?

You see, I have two boys that play in the Pac-10 (soon to be Pac-12). The genetics of Polynesia favored them when it comes to sports. Big, strong, fast and agile are always sought-after commodities when the universities come looking for kids to wear their colors. I spent thousands of hours with my boys at camps, combines, practices and games since they were (relatively) tiny. You see, there aren't a lot of kids that weigh more than 100 pounds when they are 8, but I had two of them.

They were very successful in almost every sport they tried, but football was their favorite, by far. They would go on to earn all-state status and eventually received many offers to "please, please, come play for us!. We will pay your way."

It was exciting. It was filled with lots of wonderful trips and experiences. And I ignored the older (medically released/discarded) players, the coaches, the former player alumni, the ones that could barely walk you to the door of their office without a great deal of effort.

That little voice saying, "Look at the players that are 40."

They die much earlier than the average person. They have many more arrests for personal issues. They populate the knee replacement clinic fully 20 years earlier than most. They can tell you about all the side effects for every painkiller that's ever been made. And they can tell you when a storm is coming.

But I ignored it. I hoped that my kids would be the exceptions. I still hide from it now after a major shoulder surgery, a knee injury and two broken hands (one for each kid).

I no longer have a crazy dream of them playing in the NFL (because that is actually now conceivable). I have a different "impossible" dream now. I hope they can finish their playing days and walk away normally.

I hope they live long enough to see their grandchildren. I hope their arms still work well enough to pick up and hold their children. I hope their legs allow them to outrun their own kids until they are teenagers.

Sadly this new, second, dream has much less a chance of happening than the first one did.

Steve Martinez has one son, John, who is an offensive lineman at USC, and another son, Keni, is a defensive lineman at Cal.

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