Why Play Football? 2 Views On The Game, From Those Who Know It Best Recent football-related deaths have renewed focus on the sport's risks. Ex-pro Nate Jackson and Nahshon Ellerbe, a former high school star, explain their love of the game — and how to make it safer.

Why Play Football? 2 Views On The Game, From Those Who Know It Best

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Let's face it, if you don't like football anyway, this is probably not a major issue, but what if you do? We wanted to talk about this with people who live it and love it. So I've turned to two people I spoke with earlier this year as part of NPR's Live Event series. We went to Dallas to talk about the ethics of football, and two of the people who joined us are with us now. Nate Jackson played six seasons in the NFL, mostly with the Denver Broncos, and he's the author of the best-selling memoir "Slow Getting Up: A Story Of NFL Survival From The Bottom Of The Pile." Also with me is Nahshon Ellerbe, former high school football star in Dallas. He was recruited to play at Rice University, where he is now a freshman. Welcome to you both. Thanks so much for joining us.

NATE JACKSON: Thank you for having me.


MARTIN: Nate, do you remember dangerous accidents from your high school days and did those ever give you and - perhaps I should ask - your parents pause?

JACKSON: I do remember a few. When I was in high school, we had a scrimmage when I was a senior. And the cornerback for the other team was scrambling. He got held up on his legs and spun around. And our linebacker hit him right in the facemask with such force that it popped the straps off of his chinstrap and pushed his facemask from his nose. It split his lip from his nose down and basically exposed his teeth. And he was spitting out blood, and I was standing right over him. It was a sobering moment definitely.

But the urgency of a football game, you know, it's next-man-up mentality, and we just kept on going. Once they got him off the field, got him in an ambulance and drove away, we looked at each other and shook it off. And then we were right back out there playing again. So for me, that was a good introduction into the machine that just keeps on rolling. It won't stop.

MARTIN: And it didn't stop you at the time, obviously not.

JACKSON: No it didn't. I was in high school, and I had aspirations to continue playing. You know, you just hope it's not you. And when it happens to a friend or an opponent, you feel bad for him, but the moment sweeps you right back up in it, and you forget about it very quickly.

MARTIN: Nahshon, I'm going to put you on the spot here 'cause as I mentioned earlier, if you don't like the sport, then, you know, you probably don't care or you think that people are little bit crazy. Like, why would you do that? Why would you put yourself through that? So I'm just going to ask you to explain to people who either don't love the sport, weren't immersed in it the way you are - why do you want to keep playing even if you know that people can get hurt?

ELLERBE: Well, I think definitely the reward of playing football and the experience that you have just kind of outweighs any type of fear that you may have because, you know, my teammates that I've seen sustain major injuries - I've never sustained one thankfully. But the ones that I've seen sustain major injuries, you know, they are some of the hardest working and passionate players that I've ever been around.

And so football is a game just full of passion. And we, as high school football players, as college football players, we come to the game knowing that there are risks, but really, quite honestly, if you ask any player, they'll probably tell you that they don't really care because they love the game, and they love having teammates, and they love that atmosphere. And so for people that haven't played the sport before, it's kind of hard to explain to them why you would subject your body to that kind of stress and turmoil. But for people that play the game and love it, it's pretty simple.

MARTIN: What about your parents? Did anybody ever question your parents for letting you play, and particularly - and I'm being a little sexist now - your mom 'cause people, for some reason, feel that they can discuss and challenge parenting decisions of moms in a way that they sometimes don't with dads. So I'm just going to ask, did anybody ever say to your mom, like, why do you let him play? Or what's wrong with you? Or anything along those lines?

ELLERBE: I don't necessarily know if that's happened. I'd have to honestly ask her. But I do know that my parents are of the mentality that they want to see me happy, and they want to see me do what I love. So it's easy to look and say, oh, people are getting hurt playing this sport. Why would you let your child do that? But on the other hand, I know every parent wants to see their child do something and enjoy it. And when you see, you know, a field full of high school football players after they just won a football game and how happy they are, it's kind of hard to tell them that, hey, maybe shouldn't do that anymore.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Nate Jackson. He played six years in the NFL as a wide receiver and a tight end. Also with us - Nahshon Ellerbe. He's a member of the football team at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He's a freshman.

Nick, can I ask you this? Why do you think we are seeing these deaths in high school football when we don't seem to be seeing them at the college and pro level? You know, I'm not going to make the argument that three high school students dying playing football in a month is a trend, but it is certainly something that you can't ignore. So why do you think that is?

JACKSON: I think because the disparity in skill levels sometimes on a high school field is pretty vast compared to college and especially the NFL. In the NFL, all these guys are really the cream of the crop - the strongest, fastest, most stable guys of the bunch. And the lower you go down, you know, you'll have guys on a football field in high school who might not belong there.

And that's kind of part of the cultural funneling system that puts all boys on a football field. Not all boys are cut out to play football. Me and Nahshon are, but some of these high school kids get put in compromising positions on the field and end up taking a shot from a guy who's much bigger, much faster, much stronger, and his body just can't withstand it. Also, the medical treatment that's received - the medical officials that are on-site in the NFL and college - you know, they have more resources at their fingertips, whereas these high schools - they can be stretched pretty thin as far as the medical training of the people involved or the ability for them to the hospital fast.

MARTIN: Is there anything you recommend? I mean, there are obviously people who feel that this just cannot be defended. It can't be defended from a moral or an ethical perspective if you're going to subject young people to this kind risk. It can be worth it to play a sport. And so if you don't take that position, but you do want to minimize harm, do you have any recommendations based on your experience - recognizing that you're not a doctor, but you are a pro?

JACKSON: Right. I mean, I think it's about coaching, really. It's the coaches taking a step back and looking at the well-being of the kids. I think football did a lot of great things for me. I feel like I left the game with my mind intact, and it gave me a lot of great opportunities. I wouldn't go back and change anything that I did, and I don't think Nahshon would either. And all the guys that I played with in the NFL would tell you the exact same thing.

But I think it's the culture around the game - not so much the players themselves, but in amateur football, the adults that funnel them onto the field, that mow the lawn, that make the helmets, that said the broken arm if you break your arm, that take you to the hospital, that, you know, allow you to pass classes maybe when you didn't deserve it. Those are the people who need to ask themselves what they are creating by allowing this game to exist and putting it on such a pedestal.

The thing about it is, you know, we believe that football is a very, very important event, and that's why we'll sacrifice our lives for it. It's a proving ground for manhood. And everybody in your community, wherever you are in America, in every high school - they rally around the football team, and it's the central point of all the energy and the school pride. And so there's so much momentum around it. And I don't know how you pull that back because the NFL is a hype machine, and so they're selling this product. And it trickles down, and all the kids watch it, and they want to be there, too.

MARTIN: But it is changing. I mean, that's part of the reason we're having this conversation is that the number of student athletes enrolled in the sport is actually declining for the first time since people have actually been keeping track. Now, I want to ask Nahshon this because, you know, Nate, your career in football kind of predated the concern about head injuries and concussions. And, Nahshon, you're beginning your career at the elite levels, and it coincides with our concern about these issues. And I'm wondering are the kinds of conversations you're having in the locker room with your fellow athletes, with your parents and coaches - are those changing around the issues of safety? Have you seen anything change?

ELLERBE: Well, I definitely think that the measures that we take to protect ourselves are definitely changed. It's kind of crazy how innovations have taken place and how much more protection and much more knowledge we have now. I will say I think a big difference is that there's so many player protections, drill work, practice layouts, game days, sideline procedures that aren't used in high school that are standard in college and professional football. Things like that - what we discuss in college locker rooms is - OK, thank God we have these things now. We didn't have those things in high school.

So I think there's certain ways to protect ourselves, certain ways to be smarter. Coaching is extremely important. Just knowing the correct way to tackle - if you don't know that, you're putting yourself at a huge risk of getting hurt every time you step on the field. But, you know, in the locker room, you're really all that concerned about injuries. Obviously, when someone does get injured, we rally around them, and we help get back to full strength. But we don't really talk it. It's just kind of taboo. We just work hard, put our heads down and keep going because it's the game we love, and it's the game that we've been playing for so long.

MARTIN: Nate, would you let your son play? If he had a son, do you think you'd let him play?

JACKSON: If he reveals himself to be cut out to play the game and he has a love for the game and wants to, yeah, I would let him. I don't think that it's a death sentence for a kid to play football. It's fun to be tough, and it's fun to get banged up. Pain became a good friend of mine. My mother wouldn't let me play football until I got high school, but I was a really rough kid, and I was always courting that dangerous life. And so that is instinctual for a lot of boys, and football kind of gives a design to that instinct. And I think that's all right. So, yeah, if I had a son and he was like me, I would let them play.

MARTIN: Nate Jackson spent six years in the NFL as a wide receiver and a tight end, mainly for the Denver Broncos. He's author of the best-selling memoir "Slow Getting Up: A Story Of NFL Survival From The Bottom Of The Pile." Also with us - Nahshon Ellerbe. He is a member of the football team at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He's a redshirt freshman, which means he will be playing competitively next year. And we wish him the best, and you, too, as well, Nate. Thank you both so much for joining us.

ELLERBE: Thanks a lot.

JACKSON: Absolutely.

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