One Mother’s Reckoning with Our Nation’s Most Violent Sport
I can’t stop thinking about the players breaking down on the sidelines: tears steaming down their faces, some kneeling on the ground to pray, others hugging their teammates in a desperate embrace. We all watched for what seemed like an eternity as an ambulance pulled onto the field and medics frantically attended to Buffalo Bills defensive player Damar Hamlin. Hamlin is just 24 years old, living the dream as a rising star in his second year of the NFL. In the first quarter of this much-anticipated match-up with defending AFC Champs Cincinnati, he made a big hit on Tee Higgins, stood up and then collapsed. From the faces of the players, it was immediately clear something was horribly wrong. Keep in mind, these athletes are used to players pulling ligaments and breaking bones. They’ve even seen some of their teammates go “lights out” – Miami Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa comes to mind. But not this. This was next level.
We all know football is a violent game. I’ve referred to it as “modern day gladiators” so often my younger son-a former college player-just used that phrase to describe the sport he’s played since he was 5-years old ( Flag Football…tackle started at 7). You’d think that a parent who realized the inherent risk factors of this sport would discourage their kids from playing it, wouldn’t you? But I’ve done quite the opposite. In fact, I encouraged it, guided them towards it as small children, and was right by their side during the college recruiting process. I’ve been a proud member of the “Football Moms Club” since my two sons started playing for the MudHogs Youth Football in Elementary School: On the board of that organization, fundraising and running the snack shack until they graduated to the high school level where I also organized auctions and planned banquets. I helped in college, too, loving every minute of it. And I knew all along that each down they played could end with an injury. Those were the risks I accepted as a parent.
Of course there were injuries. Someone stepped on my older son’s elbow during a play the first game of his sophomore year in high school. Result: Torn UCL (ulnar collateral ligament). That’s the injury that prompts Tommy John Surgery in pitchers. He was out the entire season. The next big procedure he endured was for a torn labrum in his shoulder after his senior year. This injury is common among offensive lineman – he played left tackle. The recovery and rehab are a grueling 6-months. But he still went off to Wesleyan to play his first year in college. I fully encouraged it.
The same fate for my younger son, who has been far more committed to football. He was a scholarship player for a Division 2 program and was destined to be a star this past fall. His coach brought him and a group of dedicated seniors back for an additional season to make up for the one they lost during Covid. His dreams were shattered on the third day of pre-season camp when he stretched out for a pass and landed on his shoulder, dislocating it and tearing the tendons in his armpit. The season ended before it even started and he’s now in the middle of rehab for his shoulder surgery.
I confess I’ve been in mourning for months from that season that never happened. Through all of this, we mothers know that this is the price our sons pay to play this sport. We’ve all cringed when a kid is writhing on the field after a play or looked with pity on the players who are in slings or on crutches on the sidelines, privately praying that won’t be our sons. The fact is, I know very few college players who survived a season without missing a game due to injuries. It’s the cost of playing this sport.
I need look no further than my brothers. All six played high school football and two of those went on to play Division 1 in college. Back, shoulders, neck, knees – you name it, it hurts. And not your typical middle-aged aches and pains, these injuries have required multiple surgeries over the years with more on the horizon. And yet, they still are encouraging my younger son to get back out there on the field when he’s healed. He has two more years of eligibility; he could do it. Danny’s a great overall athlete, blazing fast, disciplined in the weight room and a real student of the game.
In fact, I’ve privately dreamed of that too. Until now. I can’t stop thinking about the the faces of the players and the words of the sports commentators who’ve also played this violent game. They were shaken to their core, unable to process what they just witnessed. Yes, they always knew the stakes were high when they took the field, but no one ever expected this.
From what we’re hearing now, Damar Hamlin’s devastating injury will likely be attributed to a freak blow to the chest at the precise moment that would stop his heart. It’s called commotio cordis and it’s happened to little league players struck by a pitch and an NHL hockey player who took a puck to the chest. But the difference here – the vast difference- is there’s no other professional sport where players are injured as routinely and as significantly as in football.
Hamlin’s injury was a complete shock to the system. Another reminder of how much these elite athletes put their bodies – and lives – on the line when they take the field. I’m sure running through all the players’ mind was it could’ve been them. The risks are huge. For this mother, the cost is finally too high.
Christina DeFranco, Environmental Journalist | CT Documentary and Video Producer