You’ll Think Twice

In Western Pennsylvania, a football hotbed that's produced the likes of Revis, Marino, Ditka and Namath, the Friday night lights burn bright. And so do questions about brain injuries and the future of the game
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INDIANA, Pa. — The house I grew up in sits at the bottom of one of the many steep hills in a small college town about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh. Walk five minutes up the slope and you’ll find yourself overlooking the picturesque Fifth Street Stadium, home of the Indiana High Little Indians. My hometown is quintessential Western Pennsylvania, football being its most unquestioned passion for as long as anyone can remember. And even though the high school team struggled for much of my early youth in the powerful WPIAL league, all I dreamed about as a kid was running onto that field someday.

Six years removed from my final snap as a high school player, I’m thinking about the sport I still love—I played college football and am glued to the television on fall Sundays—in a slightly different context as I hike up that hill for an early October game. I was back home to watch the Little Indians battle the undefeated West Mifflin Titans, and to gauge how concussions are being treated and talked about in a region where people were crazy for football long before the Steel Curtain reigned.

I was unsure of what I’d encounter, but one thing becomes clear after talking to parents, players and coaches throughout the evening: The fear of brain trauma is on everyone’s mind, and it’s influencing how football is being played at all levels in the town. Dan Petroff, a former minor league baseball pitcher and the father of a 12-year-old son, coaches fifth and sixth graders in the local peewee program. Even at the youth level, baseline testing is being used to help diagnose concussions.

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Can football change? Will the sport become safer? How are concussions impacting the game’s future?

Introducing an in-depth series where we tackle those questions, starting at high schools and continuing into college and the NFL. Read the entire series.

“If they have a sore ankle or knee, we’ll give them a chance to get back out there,” Petroff says. “But if it’s the head, we don’t take any second chances.” At the time, Petroff had six players sidelined with concussions.

Jim Stapleton has two sons, Riley and Derek, on the high school team. I ask him if he’s ever considered telling them they couldn’t play football. One of his boys, Riley, is a 6-4 receiver and defensive back who caught a 9-yard touchdown pass to put Indiana up 7-0. He’s had three concussions. “Not at all,” Jim says. “We’re guys. It’s football. We do what we do.”

Regarding the long-term health of his sons, he adds, “If they were to go on to play Division I or Division II and it gets that serious, then I think that I would have some fears. But here, I don’t think it’s going to affect you that badly. You can fall in a bathtub and die. As long as you’re on top of it and watch them, I have no issue.”

Midway through the second quarter, Indiana wideout and Temple recruit Darrious Carter catches a short slant and dashes 76 yards for a touchdown. West Mifflin, however, would mount a second-half comeback and win, 21-14. Both teams have talented players at every position, and the caliber of play lives up to its Western Pennsylvania reputation.

Yet there are noticeable differences. The sidelines are thinner in terms of overall participation, and the future of the sport is being openly discussed in the crowd. Everyone seems to have an opinion on concussions—or at least is asking questions. I’m certain that if you’d tried to engage parents in this conversation during my senior year of high school, in 2007, you wouldn’t have found the same thoughtful dialogue.

Dan and Susan Bevevino don’t have a son on the high school team, but their 12-year-old plays football, and they’re at this Friday night game to support the school—the sport still bonds this community. I ask them if they’ve ever thought about not letting their son play the sport. “I see my son’s passion for the game,” says Susan, a nurse practitioner. “I don’t want to deny him the opportunity to do something he loves to do. I would have to seriously think about it as he progresses through the game and through the years.”

“If you’re an adult and you use your brain for a living, and you think your kids are going to use their brains to make a living, you’re going to think twice about whether or not they should be playing football.”

What surprises me most is a conversation with David Zimmerman, a local lawyer who helped launch the high school’s lacrosse team during the 2009-10 academic year. I spend a good chunk of the third quarter talking with him as we lean up against the chainlink fence surrounding the field, after he has just finished a conversation with two fathers about head injuries. Though lacrosse is played in the spring and doesn’t conflict with football, he tells me that some in the community view it as a safer alternative to football. Since it became a varsity sport, participation has risen from 27 players in the first season to 50 this past spring. During the same time frame, football participation has dropped from 57 to 44 players. That’s not to suggest a direct correlation, but it’s a glimpse into the changing attitudes.

“Much more than 15 years ago. Much more than 10 years ago, or even five years ago,” Zimmerman says, “if you’re an adult and you use your brain for a living, and you think your kids are going to use their brains to make a living, you’re going to think twice about whether or not they should be playing football.”

Lacrosse teaches toughness and discipline, much like football does, and though it is a contact sport it’s not designed to create violent collisions on every play. “That’s the problem with football—it’s meant to have that physical contact that results in concussions,” Zimmerman says. “In other sports, you get a concussion when something is done wrong. You’re wearing a helmet and shoulder pads in lacrosse, but the goal of the game isn’t to collide with people.” (Nevertheless, a recent study found that among high school sports, lacrosse ranked behind only football and ice hockey in the rate of concussions per game or practice.)

Though collisions (and concussions) are impossible to avoid in lacrosse, those who support the spring sport say that physical contact is not built into lacrosse the way it is in football. (Teri Encisco and Jamie Empfield/Indiana Gazette)

Teri Encisco and Jamie Empfield/Indiana Gazette

It’s hard to imagine the traditional high school scene I witnessed on this Friday night changing anytime soon, especially in Western Pennsylvania, a region that has produced the likes of Revis, Marino, Ditka and Namath. But Zimmerman leaves me with one parting thought that I ponder as I make the walk back home.

“People’s attitudes on concussions in football are equivalent to their thoughts on cigarette smoking 25 years ago. They kind of are like, ‘Okay, it’s not good for you, but it’s not a big deal,’ ” he says. “You had the tobacco industry covering up the reality of it, just as we have seen with the NFL.

“It’s taken decades to get to where we needed to be with cigarette smoking. You have a big element of addiction with nicotine—it’s so hard for people to get away from it. I think we have a little bit of that with football. It’s an awesome sport. It’s such a part of our culture. It’s tough for people to make a quick judgment and divert themselves away from football. I think 20 years from now, it’s going to be a much different world.”