Gustavson Column: Why my love of the sport faded

Billy McAllister carries the ball for the Porters earlier this season. (Credit: Robert O'Rourk, file)
Billy McAllister carries the ball for the Porters earlier this season. (Credit: Robert O’Rourk, file)

Having just returned from our 50th high school reunion, whence I was reunited with teammates from our undefeated, state championship football team, I am once again ruminating on the relative merits and demerits of the sport. And this rumination is, of course, profoundly influenced by the recent death of Tom Cutinella, the Shoreham-Wading River High School football player who died Oct. 1 following an on-field collision. 

First, the merits. At a relatively early age, football taught me the benefits of fitness, teamwork and brotherhood. (Of the 11 starters on our Hackensack [N.J.] High School football team, five were African-American, five were Italian-American, and one [yours truly] was Swedish-American.) Football also got me a college scholarship, because I’m virtually positive I would not have gotten into my school if I hadn’t played on a state championship team.

But then, somewhere between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I fell out of love with the sport. And, truth be told, football fell out of love with me because I really wasn’t good enough to play “at the next level.” But even if I had been good enough, I think the love affair would have come to an end by then. What had been fun in high school became pretty much an ordeal in college. The emphasis on winning at any cost, even at our lower echelon of the sport, combined with the raw violence of the sport, caused me to trade varsity football for non-varsity club rugby by the time I was a sophomore. (And there was another consideration. In rugby, we were permitted to keep a cold keg of Iron City beer on the bench. That’s my kind of sport!)

Slowly but surely over the decades, my teenage infatuation with football mutated into, at first, mild disinterest, and then, in more recent times, general distaste. And that’s because one of the fundamental aims of the sport is to knock others to the ground, often to the point of senselessness. Now when I see a wide receiver slant over the middle of the field, with his eyes on the quarterback or the football, I shudder at the realization that he (the receiver) is vulnerable to a blind-side, bone-crunching hit. The kind of hit that left New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley a quadriplegic in 1978. And now, nearly four decades later, the receivers and defensive backs are significantly larger and significantly faster, which translates into even more vicious hits.

Which is why the National Football League has instituted a series of new fines and penalties in an effort to reduce injuries, including “hidden” injuries caused by concussions, which recent studies have shown to cause long-term brain damage and, in some extreme instances, premature death. Or, as with the tragic case of 16-year-old Tom Cutinella, immediate death.

As previously detailed in this column, our 9-year-old grandson stopped playing football after suffering a concussion in a Pee Wee football game. Head injuries forcing young athletes to the sidelines is a trend that will, in the long run, marginalize football, I think, as more and more parents are unwilling to put their kids at risk. Unless, of course, we’re talking about flag football, a low-impact variation of the sport that is fast gaining traction around the nation.

I am not so naïve or clueless as to suggest that tackle football is going away for good. But it is certain to lose its popularity in the long term, just as other blood sports like bare-knuckle prize fighting and bull fighting lost theirs.

And I know what some of you may be thinking at this point: If football is so gosh darn awful, Mr. Columnist, why did you recently help raise money to buy new goal posts for the Greenport High School football field, and why don’t you just switch to the Food Channel when the Jets and Giants are playing on television? And to that I have only one response, Your Honor: nolo contendere. (Translation: no contest.)

I should have known football wasn’t really for me after the pep talk our high school coach gave before the big Thanksgiving game in 1963. He was entreating us to go directly home after the team meeting that night, in order to avoid, at any cost, direct contact with girls. “I have a wife and a daughter,” he said, “and I hate them both.”

Years later, at a sports awards banquet, I asked by-then-retired Coach Della Torre if he remembered making that outrageous statement. “Not really,” he said. “But I probably would have said anything to make sure you guys went right home that night.”

Speaking only for myself: I did not.

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