Tennessee Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard was at the annual NFL Players Association meeting on Maui two weeks ago when he learned the NFL -- for the first time -- had publicly acknowledged a link between contact football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease associated with repeated blows to the head. Woodyard was having breakfast. Seated in his lap was 2-year-old Greyson, his wide-eyed, curly-haired son who might one day want to follow in the footsteps of his father.
"In the back of my mind I've always had the question of whether football would be one of the sports I'd let my son play, because of the safety issue," Woodyard said. "Definitely with all the new information coming out about CTE it's cause for concern for parents. We're taking the right strides as far as keeping the game safe -- safety is definitely going to always be No. 1. If my son wants to play, it will be his decision. But I'm definitely going to make sure he doesn't play until he's, maybe, 12 years old. I started at 6, and I'm definitely not going to allow him to play at that age. Throughout the years you just continue to build up and pound your body, and bad stuff ends up happening from that."
That sentiment was popular among players at the meetings who were asked if they will allow their children to play contact football. The fathers pointed out the positives they've gotten from the game: learning the importance of teamwork, hard work and discipline, and, in some cases, being able to create generational wealth for their families. But they also said they were concerned with the potential physical and emotional consequences that have been linked to playing contact football at an age when brains, bodies and social skills are in their early formative stages.
"I played one year of little league, when I was 10 or 12 years old, and my dad was my coach," said Ravens tight end Ben Watson, whose father, Ken, played football at the University of Maryland. "After that I didn't play again until ninth grade. My father felt I should wait a while and be more well-rounded. I played soccer, basketball, track -- things other than football. My dad wanted our bodies to be formed as much as possible before we started playing a contact sport."
Packers Pro Bowl wide receiver Jordy Nelson has two sons, ages 6 and 14 months. He has no problem with the idea of them playing football, but not before they reach middle school. He began playing contact football at that age and feels it didn't hinder him reaching his athletic potential. Tell him that kids will fall behind their peers if they don't play sooner than later, and Nelson will chuckle. He believes so strongly the other way that he's among a growing group of parents who supports flag football -- not contact -- for preteens.
"It's one of the ways to learn the fundamentals and technique of playing contact football and doing everything right without the contact," he said. "People talk about poor tackling being an issue in contact football. Everyone wants to fix the tackling. Well, tackling in contact football involves hitting each other and hitting your head on the ground, which means more trauma to the brain. But in flag football, obviously you don't have that. But you teach kids to break down, keep your head up, be on balance. Try to get them to pull a flag from someone's hip, it's something that is going to take being in full control of your body, and knowing what your body is doing and telling it what to do, instead of just being the bigger kid who can fly around and blow somebody up because you're bigger and faster than they are."
Defensive lineman Aaron Kampman spent eight years with the Packers and two with the Jaguars before retiring after the 2011 season. He now coaches high school football while raising his four children with his wife, Linde, in a small community outside Iowa City. Like Nelson, he is a proponent of flag football for preteens, and he even partnered with a local league he now runs.
"We basically wanted to give parents an opportunity to say, 'Hey, if you don't feel comfortable with your son playing tackle football, we have an option for you,'" he said. "Personally, I think it has a lot of merit. A lot of kids' necks at 10, 11, even 12, may not be in a place to fully ..."
"It's a violent game," he said. "It's very important in football to make sure we are teaching the proper technical aspects of the game. This needs to happen with proper coaching and also kids who have the physical maturity to handle the proper techniques."
Kampman cringes at the focus on having kids pick a sport and specialize in it at a young age. He even fights against specialization in his flag league, rotating kids so they have an opportunity to play every position in a game. The league started with just 12 participants in 2013. It grew to 20 the following year and already has 32 registrants this year.
"We lose games, but I could care less," Kampman said. "Because at the end of the year, our team has had fun, it's enjoyable, and we're teaching lessons through it."
The latter point is significant to him. Sure, he has a desire to protect children from the dangers of concussions, but he also sees a need to help develop them into complete people, meaning emotionally and socially, as well as athletically.
"We don't have an age minimum for our boys, but I think we'll wait until at least middle school and maybe even high school."
Ravens tight end Ben Watson, and when he and his wife will let their sons play contact football.
He has studied the teachings of Joe Ehrmann, a former first-round NFL draft pick who later attended theology school before creating, with his wife, Paula, an organization called Building Men and Women for Others. It seeks to confront many of the issues confronting urban communities in general and children in particular.
"Football is such a hierarchy sport," Kampman said. "Joe Ehrmann speaks to how we identify ourselves as men. He said boys grow up with the three B's: the first thing they do is identify themselves on the ball field, at recess and on the field. Then it's bedroom when you get to high school and college. Then when you're older, it's billfold. In my estimation that's a very sad representation of what it means to be a man. So, what we're trying to do in changing the culture is not say that if you're a big, strong football player it makes you a man. Whether you can knock someone down and stand over them, that's not what makes you a man. But I see that being portrayed all the way down to the young and even high school, and that's not the right way to do it. Absolutely be fierce between the whistle; you hit, and you hit hard. We should be known by the way we play, but not in a way that makes you feel like you're identifying yourself because of that.
"If my children [including three boys] do not want to play football, I'm totally cool with that. But I also know that football in particular is a wonderful opportunity -- if it's coached right -- to teach them lessons that will help them become the men that they're capable of being. And frankly, boys want to feel a little dangerous. That's part of their development. They want to feel adventurous. We want to develop them to have strong minds, strong hearts, so they can have strong bodies as well."
As the focus on concussions intensifies, the discussions over whether kids should even be allowed to play tackle football grows broader. Sometimes it can create tension, for lack of a better word, in communities that revolve around the sport even at the Pop Warner level. There is a fear among some parents that their kids not only will fall behind their peers if they don't play before high school or middle school, but also that they might be ostracized to a degree because they're not doing what their friends are doing.
"Anytime you're not in the norm, it creates a certain level of 'the boat is being rocked,' if you will," Kampman said. "There is that feeling of, 'This is the way we do it, and this is how it should be done.' But you'd be surprised by us offering this option for parents, just in the football realm, the emails we've gotten from parents saying, 'Oh, thank you. We didn't want to say anything.' I think there's a silent majority of parents just waiting for more people to come together and say, 'Hey, is this really smart? Is this really right? Is this the best thing for our kids and their hearts?
"I try not to make it awkward. I don't think it needs to be awkward. But I'm happy to have a discussion with anyone to present the facts, and let the facts speak for themselves."
Watson and his wife, Kirsten, already have had that conversation, which is one reason they will hold their sons, ages 4 and 3, out of contact football until they're much older.
"We don't have an age minimum for our boys, but I think we'll wait until at least middle school and maybe even high school," he said. "It's not set in stone, but I don't think we're going to go the little league route. We're going to have them well-rounded in sports and the arts, then if they still want to play once they're a little bit older, we'll allow them to do so.
"The biggest thing is for them to grow a love for the sport and want to play because it's their own and not because they're going to make daddy happy by playing. Football is part of our American culture, and my sons already are gravitating toward the game. Being able to see me play, watching it on TV, as soon as football comes on they go grab their little helmets and stand in front of the TV and jump and up and down and want to play football. So, we'll allow them to play if they want to, but they don't have to play because daddy played. They're not going to earn any points from me by playing football. I'm going to love them regardless. I just want them to wait, like my father had me do."