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Football is the only way out for some, despite threat of concussions


The NFL is in a death spiral owing to its violence. Parents will let their sons play soccer or golf or house before they'll allow them to be concussed playing football. This is the word on the street.

Actually, it's the word at the intersection of Pleasant Street and Academia Boulevard. In places where football means college and a chance at a prosperous career -- the proverbial Way Out -- the word is somewhat different. In these places, kids are still playing lots of football. And the NFL is full of these kids.

"I've had single parents come to me and say, 'Coach Martin, my son needs to be tougher, can you help him?' I've never had someone ask me the opposite.'' This is Mike Martin. Martin was not an exceptional NFL player. He had a seven-year career with the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1980s. A wide receiver, Martin caught 67 passes in his career. In '84 he led the league in average yards per punt return.

Martin is a fine test case for the silly, football-is-dying notions currently being floated, though. He grew up in Southeast D.C., walking distance from the old RFK Stadium, in a lousy neighborhood. His father was an alcoholic and absent; his mother worked multiple jobs.

Martin says he played tackle football on concrete "because the dirt fields we played on had too much glass on them.'' Nevertheless, Martin got a full ride to Illinois, earned his degree, and lasted a few years longer than average in the NFL. He achieved what lots of poor, urban kids aspire to.

"It gave me a jumpstart on life,'' Martin said this week. "These kids have an opportunity for a free education and if they're really good, an opportunity to make millions of dollars.''

Apparently, we are to believe that sort of dreaming and potential is vanishing everywhere, because the league is too rough.

Jay Coakley, a "sports sociologist'' at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, recently said to a New York Times reporter, ""Football is really on the verge of a turning point here. We may see it in 15 years in pretty much the same place as boxing or ultimate fighting."

A few things about that:

(1) Can we do a story on this topic now without input from a "sports sociologist''?

(2) That's crazy.

That puts the NFL in a nice, hedge-rowed suburban box. That's not where the NFL lives.

I haven't done a study. Maybe someone has. But I've covered the NFL for close to 30 years. It is not Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. A majority of its players -- and certainly, its stars -- did not grow up with free and easy access to golf courses, tennis courts or any of the other options that parents evidently will be turning to now. I did a book with the former Chad Johnson. He grew up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, host of the pre-Super Bowl riot in 1989. Chad wasn't exactly hanging out at Doral, practicing flop wedges.

Chad is more typical of the league than not. This isn't to say parents or guardians of kids playing football in places like Liberty City are OK with their charges getting concussed. It's to say that opportunities there are constricted, but the talent is not. If you want to declare, as Coakley did, that football faces UFC-status, you must also ignore the sociology of the game. Which is a strange thing for a sociologist to do.

Mike Martin: "I see little kids today. They love to play the game. They tell me how hard they hit someone. They brag on it. I have to ask them, 'Did you keep your head up?'''

After he retired from the NFL, Martin coached football for a decade at an inner-city high school in Cincinnati. What he heard was not, "I'm worried my son will get hurt.'' He heard, "My son needs discipline and structure. My son needs to know what it's like to work hard and earn self respect.''

Martin also heard the phrase "father figure'' tossed around quite a bit. When he arrived at Taft High, he had 25 players on his team. By the time he left, he had 70. Several received Division I football scholarships.

Are there college scholarships now for boxing?

Is there a place an urban kid can go for a free education and a college degree while also becoming a mixed martial artist?

It's easy for Coakley and Kurt Warner and Tom Brady's father to say they'd do things differently with their kids. Their kids aren't at Taft High, or in Liberty City. Or in Atlanta, for that matter.

"I saw football as a way out,'' Adam Jones said this week. "For me, it was the only way out.'' The erstwhile Pacman grew up in Atlanta, raised by mom, in less than gracious surroundings. He went to West Virginia, was the sixth player drafted in 2005 and made millions of dollars. Jones' dream was realized swiftly and shattered spectacularly. But football gave him the chance to dream.

As long as that dream is viable for kids whose dreaming is constricted by their environment, the NFL isn't going anywhere.

As a high school kid, Mike Martin earned spending money selling Cokes at Washington Redskins games. His senior year, 1978, he stopped selling sodas and instead used his vendor's pass to get into the games. "I'm going to play here one day,'' he said.

Five years later, he was a rookie with the Bengals. They played the Redskins at RFK, in a preseason game. Martin walked into the stadium and saw banners his vendor-buddies had hung to greet him: "If it doesn't work out, you can always sell Cokes.''

After the game, so many of Martin's friends from the neighborhood gathered around him on the field, he needed security to escort him to the locker room. "People from my neighborhood were crying,'' he recalled. "One of their own had made it out. A kid from the 'hood had made it to the NFL. They couldn't believe it. It was one of my fondest memories in football.''

Somewhere in Liberty City or Southeast D.C. or Atlanta, kids are dreaming the same dream today. Are the NFL's concerns regarding concussions legitimate? Of course. Will they keep kids like these from playing football?

Not in a million years.