Mike Sorensen: Football must keep working to make the sport safer

Published: Sunday, Sept. 29 2013 8:16 p.m. MDT

Team watches as Brigham Young Cougars running back Jamaal Williams (21) is taken off the field after an injury as the University of Utah defeats Brigham Young University 20-13 as they play football Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, in Provo.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The scene at Spartan Stadium in San Jose, Calif., Friday night was frightening and all too familiar.

The San Jose State player was lying motionless on his back, with his arms outstretched to his side, his displaced helmet a couple of yards away, as the stadium went eerily silent. Within seconds, several members of the training staff rushed to the side of Bene’ Benwikere and huddled around him for 15 minutes while a neck brace was brought in and he was strapped to a board. Loved ones came out of the stands to check on him before he was whisked away by an ambulance as fans politely applauded the fallen player.

A week earlier we saw a similar scene in Provo, where BYU running back Jamaal Williams was the one lying motionless on the field as trainers clustered around him before he was put on a backboard and taken to the hospital.

The week before that we saw the same scene at the Utah-Oregon State game, where OSU running back Storm Woods was knocked out and lay face down on the turf for several minutes while being attended to. Like the others, he had worried family members gathered around before being taken away in an ambulance.

So what is going on in college football? You used to see these kinds of scary incidents happen perhaps once or twice a season. Now they seem to happen every week.

In each case, my first thought was, “I hope they’re alive,” followed by, “I hope they’re not paralyzed.’’ Thankfully in each case, the diagnoses were nothing worse than a concussion, causing the players to miss a week or so of action.

But concussions are no small matter as we’ve been finding out the last couple of years — with stories of suicide by some former NFL stars who had too many concussions and many stories of memory loss and early Alzheimer's for other players.

These incidents don’t go unnoticed by the players. After the injury in the USU-San Jose State game, the Spartans didn’t quite seem to have the same energy as the Aggies dominated the rest of the game.

It also affected the Aggie players, many of whom took a knee out on the field during the long delay, along with their opponents.

‘This game’s a rough game and you never want to see anybody go down like that," said USU running back Joey DeMartino. “All I could do was take a knee and say a prayer for him and his family. It’s hard to stay focused after something like that. It’s a high-impact game.’’

DeMartino’s last statement is perhaps the big issue.

With players getting bigger and stronger and faster every year, injuries on the field are becoming more severe as players hit harder. One could argue that each of the aforementioned incidents were freak plays that might have happened in any era of football. Nevertheless, the impacts by faster, stronger players are making it more dangerous to play football.

Years ago we called it “getting your bell rung” and passed it off as part of the game. Now we’re finding a lot of those former football players who had multiple concussions are suffering long-term effects, from memory loss to early Alzheimer’s. What’s going to happen to this generation of players who are getting what appear to be even more severe concussions?

The NFL and college football are right in making rules that protect players’ heads by not allowing players to use their helmets as a weapon. Some fans and commentators scoff at the new rules designed to protect players’ heads, calling the NFL, "the National Touch Football League" and such.

But I say, bring on even stricter rules if you have to.

Players are just going to have to change the way they play. Maybe they’ll actually learn how to tackle properly rather than just trying to knock guys over. Once certain players realize that the administrators of football are serious about penalizing them and fining them and making them miss games, they might figure out they have to play a different way.

Football is a great game that is fun to watch and a team sport that helps build character in young men. But it also causes injuries, which is one reason why I steered my boys away from football to lifetime sports such as golf and tennis, where the risk of injury is minimal and you can play them until you’re 85. Unless they’re good enough to play in college, about 98 percent of football players are retired from the sport by age 18 and many of those end up with injuries and ailments that can last a lifetime.

Let’s keep doing everything we can to make football as safe as possible, so we don’t have players being sent to the hospital every week with concussions and the threat of brain injuries that shorten or debilitate one’s life. Otherwise, we may someday have to be content to watch those 7-on-7 summer leagues with no pads or linemen where players are ruled down as soon as they are touched.

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