AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
America's love of football will be on full display this Super Bowl weekend. At the same time, there are fans and players wondering about the future of the sport. It's happening more and more with mounting evidence about the risks of concussions. Garrison Pennington of Youth Radio used to dream about playing in the NFL. But he began to question whether the risks were worth it.
GARRISON PENNINGTON, BYLINE: I'm from a football family and the guys all play. That includes my dad, my brother, my uncle and me. I was even named after a former 49ers player, Garrison Hearst. My parents were at every game I played. From the field, if I looked toward the sidelines, they'd be there either cheering or taking pictures.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Let's go defense.
G. PENNINGTON: My mom took this footage on her iPhone camera from the bleachers at one of my games. Most of these videos ended up on her Facebook. Last summer, I started thinking about quitting. My grades were slipping and I felt like I was making big sacrifices for a sport that I couldn't see myself playing beyond high school. What's all this time and energy for? I dreaded bringing it up to my parents. But they surprised me.
JED PENNINGTON: Privately, I was just stressed out. Like, football was not fun anymore.
G. PENNINGTON: That's my dad, Jed Pennington.
J. PENNINGTON: Every Friday night, like, there's the games, and then you guys would go out and hang out with your friends, then Mom and I would go have dinner. And part of that going out to dinner was just, like, a sigh of relief that there wasn't an injury that night.
G. PENNINGTON: My parents have been so supportive at my games, it never crossed my mind that they were worried sick. My dad says the low point was watching my brother get a concussion on the field.
J. PENNINGTON: That one was horrible. He wanted to play. He thought he could play. And that was a really hard argument to have with him because this was his long-term well-being and health.
G. PENNINGTON: Yeah, football is dangerous, but it's still very important to my family.
J. PENNINGTON: Uh-oh, uh-oh. That must have been a first-round pick.
G. PENNINGTON: What is he...
J. PENNINGTON: Oh.
G. PENNINGTON: We watch games on the weekends, keep up with the latest news and roster changes. So far, the controversy around football hasn't stopped us from enjoying it.
MICHAEL PENNINGTON: Hell yeah it's dangerous, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. It's just something that you got to do if you're OK with taking the risk
G. PENNINGTON: That my brother Michael. He was MVP and captain of our high school football team. I asked what he remembers about his concussion.
M. PENNINGTON: I didn't notice anything right away. I finished the game and I felt fine, just a little bit dizzy. But that night, I felt like I was about to throw up so badly. And then the next day, I took the practice SAT. And I, like, I could barely remember how to write my name.
G. PENNINGTON: My brother and I both decided to quit football. And we're not the only ones. There are nearly 30,000 fewer high school football players today than there were in 2009. That's according to figures from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Two thousand nine is also the year that the NFL formally acknowledged the connection between football and the long-term effects of concussions. Bob Colgate from the NFHS won't speculate on why, but he says it could be a lot of things.
BOB COLGATE: There may be knee injuries, ankle injuries, there may be arm injuries. I mean, it - you know, it is a contact sport.
G. PENNINGTON: Sometimes I think back to my time on the field and I miss it. Football was such a big part of my life. But if I can find the satisfaction I got from football without taking the same risks, I'm going to do that instead. It certainly pleases my dad.
J. PENNINGTON: I'm very happy for our time as a football family, but I'm also relieved that it's over.
G. PENNINGTON: With two years left of high school, I still have time to do something worthwhile other than football. But I will be watching the big game with my family on Sunday. For NPR News, I'm Garrison Pennington.
CORNISH: That story was produced by Youth Radio.
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