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When a Hit Hits Home

This article appears in the October 12, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.

I can't shake the images. Of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow getting plowed over by a Kentucky lineman on Sept. 26, his frame driven backward and crumpling on impact like a 245-pound crash-test dummy. Of Tebow's helmeted head cracking into a teammate's knee, then bouncing off the grass. Of Tebow stretched out and not moving for more than two minutes before being guided to the sideline on wobbly legs. I've read that he suffered the kind of serious concussion whose effects take several weeks to subside, that it triggered vomiting and severe headaches, that he wasn't allowed to read or watch TV for three days lest he become dizzy and nauseated again. It seems clear Tebow should sit out for as long as doctors recommend. After all, that's what I'd want if my son's long-term health were on the line.

Then again, as a college football fan I'm pumped about Florida facing LSU this Saturday. Who isn't? This is No. 1 versus No. 4, a night game in Death Valley. The national title could be at stake, not to mention Tebow's chances of winning a second Heisman Trophy. So while I'm concerned for Tebow's well-being, I want him in the lineup. In fact, whether he plays will determine whether I watch. That's just how it is.

So how do I -- how do any of us -- reconcile these dueling impulses? Undeniably, the risks for Tebow are scary. Postconcussion syndrome can send its victims into depression and lead to memory loss. Troy Aikman still can't recall guiding the Cowboys to victory in Super Bowl XXVII after suffering a concussion the week before in the NFC Championship Game. Wide receiver Al Toon retired from the Jets in 1992, at 29, plagued by suicidal urges and unable to watch his kids on a merry-go-round without getting dizzy. What's more, anyone who sustains a concussion is three to six times more likely to get another, with each concussion increasing the chance of permanent damage. Just last week Congress announced plans to hold hearings, once again, on ways to limit head injuries in the NFL.

That said, as a fan my relationship to Tebow is strictly football-centric -- play-tonic, if you will. And injuries are not only part of the game; legends are also made by coming back from them. The day after Tebow's concussion, Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio praised his QB, saying, "I'm not a medical guy, but he's the toughest guy in college football, without question." Hell, none of us are medical guys, but we know tough when we see it. Tough is what we've come to expect every weekend when hundreds of hulking, supremely fit football players sprint onto chalk-marked battlefields and launch themselves at each other with staggering force -- 1,500 pounds of it, to be exact, or the equivalent impact of jumping off a 13-foot ladder headfirst. You bet guys will get their bell rung, get jacked up! And as fans we often celebrate a massive hit, glorified in slo-mo and telestrated and frozen on our 45-inch hi-def big screens, just as we watch boxers bludgeon each other and call it Saturday-night entertainment, just as we laud hockey players who deliver skull-quaking cross-checks.

Of course, if Tebow suits up on Saturday LSU fans will want to see him get tattooed, but even the hardest-core booster doesn't want to see him suffer irreparable brain damage. God forbid, right? It's simply hard to square what we want as compassionate human beings with what we want as passionate sports fans. So we look for reassurance. If the team doctors clear an athlete, then we're cleared to cheer his return. If the NFL Players Association endorses the league's current safety guidelines on concussions, then that laid-out linebacker accepted the risk of a blindside hit, and so can we. If the NHL continues to permit shots to the head because banning them would reduce the game's entertainment value, then we're free to revel in such collisions. In other words, as long as we know the risks are sanctioned, then our hometown stars should get out there and be gamers.

Because we all love gamers, don't we? We loved watching Wayne Chrebet (at least six concussions in 11 NFL seasons), the gritty, undersized Jets receiver who always popped back up, no matter how often he looked like he was the victim of a human demolition derby. We loved watching quarterback Steve Young (at least seven in 15), who never stopped scampering for that extra yard. I don't remember 49ers supporters ever complaining that one of his touchdown runs was too reckless.

Perhaps as fans all we really want is for sports not to be complicated. The rest of life is complicated enough; on weekends we just want to see a tight end get lit up by a safety and feel guilt-free. Just let me know if it's O.K. to cheer or not. And please don't force me to extrapolate too much -- to think about children's sports leagues or the hundreds of teenage athletes, even more susceptible to concussions than adults, who watch the hasty returns made by countless college stars and NFL players and use them as their own guideline.

Because the more I learn about head injuries, the more torn I become. Which is to say that while I'd really like to see Tim Tebow play this weekend, it's going to be hard for me to enjoy it if he does.

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