I married a man who spent half his life bashing his head in.
That's him, in 1993, playing defensive end for Auburn University in an undefeated season. He'd just sacked that year's Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel of Florida. Sports Illustrated chose that photo for a commemorative cover of Auburn's perfect season.
As the son of the MVP on Auburn's 1957 national championship team, a man who later went on to play and coach in the NFL, football was the family business. You played, you practiced hard and you didn't complain if something hurt. We know my husband, Ace Atkins, has no cartilage left in his shoulders and his hip hurts sometimes.
But we can't see inside his brain.
In the '90s, when my husband played football and I played women's rugby at the University of North Carolina, we didn't know about CTE. While I was bashing into people without a helmet on the rugby pitch in 1997, a fellow Tar Heel named Ryan Hoffman played left tackle for the UNC football team. Hoffman started every game his senior year, playing for a top-10 team. But he didn't go pro after college. Eventually, as The New York Times reported, he became homeless, wracked by memory loss, aggression, depression, headaches ... you know the rest.
A few months ago, while living on the street in Florida, Hoffman was hit by a car and died. His family requested an autopsy. Recently, the results came back. He had CTE. His family believes that's what led to his death.
In the past couple of years, as the attention to CTE has grown, I've shared the articles and the data with my husband. He rarely reads them. "I just can't think about that," he said. My husband's big, beautiful brain has produced two successful novels every year since 2012. All told, he has published 17 novels. By July, make it 19. His brain pays the mortgage and just about everything else. He always wanted to create stories more than he wanted to play football. I think he can't handle the thought that doing something he didn't care about could possibly, one day, ruin the thing he loves.
One night after dinner a few weeks ago, we sat marveling, as we often do, at our huge, growing 8-year-old son. His baby cheeks are gone. He's rapidly approaching 5 feet tall -- a head taller than most of his friends. His shoulders are getting broad, like his dad's.
"He'll probably be 6-5 or so," Ace said. "He'd make a perfect tight end."
Our son has the same name as his NFL-playing grandfather, and that means a lot to him. He says he wants to play football, and we live in Oxford, Mississippi, so tackle football starts here at age 7. Several of his friends already play. Several others have parents who, despite growing up in a place where college football is year-round dinner conversation, have opted out of football at this age. They say they're worried about injuries.
I listened this week as Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said that moms need to be told that football is safe for their kids. Besides the obvious offensive implication that dads are checked out of this conversation and don't care about safety -- which is, well, total crap -- his attitude reflects this false macho idea that kids are coddled now. You know, what with our car seats at age 4 and bicycle helmets. Look, just because we were raised differently back in our day doesn't mean it's magically OK now. We also used to paint our houses with lead, line them with asbestos and smoke two packs a day, but that was killing us, too. We know better now, so we do better now.
If we know now that football can lead to CTE, does doing better mean more of us will opt out of youth football?
My husband has always said that our children would choose the sports and activities they wanted. Because of the way he grew up, he always meant that we wouldn't force our sons to play football if they didn't want to. He said that again recently.
"Maybe you're looking at that in the opposite way that we should be thinking," I said. "Maybe we shouldn't allow them to play football."
But elementary school football is slow and soft, he said. Most of the time, they just fall over. No banging heads. There's no harm in it.
While that's not exactly true, I agree with him that my 8-year-old probably wouldn't get CTE from playing youth football. But what about later?
"If we don't start now," I said, "then maybe we can just never start."
Maybe he'll just lose interest. Get involved in other things. He likes to run, I said. Pretty sure track and field athletes don't get concussions that often.
And that's how Ryan Hoffman's autopsy became part of our dinner conversation. Ace has always maintained that college football -- even big-time college football -- is half the speed and ferocity of the NFL. But Hoffman never played in the NFL. And the neuropathologist who examined his brain said he had the same stage of CTE as Pro Bowl linebacker Junior Seau, who took his own life in 2012.
"What position did he play?" Ace asked of Hoffman. I told him.
"I banged heads with those guys on pretty much every play," he said, and sighed. "Let's talk about something else."
Angela Moore Atkins teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi. Her work has appeared in the Tampa Bay Times and Garden & Gun.