Saturday Morning Quarterback

Andy Reed • Updated Feb 6, 2016 at 12:30 PM

While covering Mt. Juliet Christian's basketball game at Friendship Christian earlier this week, I checked the score of the Kentucky-Tennessee game during a halftime break and was surprised to see the Vols holding a touchdown lead over the Wildcats.

When UT pulled away for the win, I told public address announcer Paul Stovall, who announced the score to the crowd at the next timeout.

There wasn't so much as a ripple from the fans in the stands. I assume it was because the PA system in the Bay Family Sportsplex isn't very good. It's hard to hear any announcements just about anywhere in the noisy gym.

But then the scorekeeper, whose name I don't know, said he was more pumped up about National Signing Day coming up the next day.

That statement, and others I've heard over the years, says it all when it comes to the volume of passion people have about football. It drowns out everything else.

After the midweek excitement about the highlight of college football's offseason, the pro game's season will come to a rousing climax Sunday with Super Bowl 50 as fans wonder and, outside of Carolina, even hope Peyton Manning can end his career with an upset victory.

But bubbling to the surface of the excitement are rumbles of worry. Repeated news of former players suffering brain injuries believed to be linked to collisions they absorbed during their playing days are threatening to dampen the mood during this pigskin party.

News surfaced this week that former Alabama and Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, who did late last year, was discovered to have CTE, which can only be diagnosed posthumously. The Snake joins a growing list of former players who have died, many relatively young, and were discovered to have brain damage. Many of these deaths have come by suicide.

While some fans may brush this aside, many current players can't. They are worried whether this is what's in store for them. People who are making lots of money in the game don't want their own sons to play. A few NFL players have even retired early, fearing for their future.

Football leagues from Pop Warner to the NFL have instituted new rules related to player safety, and those leagues will generally say the game is safer than before thanks to better coaching and improved equipment. But it may take decades to see if these efforts pay dividends.

In the meantime, moms and dads are trying to decide whether to let their sons play tackle football starting as young as age 8. It's at times like this I'm glad I have two daughters who only like football for its cheerleading and wonder why their dad, granddad and uncle like to watch it so much.

Football has never been a safe sport. It's viscousness at the turn of the 20th century prompted President Teddy Roosevelt to urge the formation of the collegiate organization now known as the NCAA. The passing game was introduced as a way to reduce the brutality.

Through the ages, it was believed knee injuries ("Always the knee," it used to be lamented) were the biggest bane to the game. Then it was deaths due to excessive heat, humidity and dehydration. Now it's concussions (which used to be considered a minor issue by football people) and CTE which have people inside and outside the game alarmed.

I read a national sports column last year which suggested it football wasn't so ingrained in our national consciousness, it wouldn't be permitted for young people to play. I tend to agree with that. If American football (as opposed to futbol, otherwise known as soccer) was being developed now, it would be a fringe sport played by adults who think they're invincible, or just don't care.

But football is part of who we are as an American society. Each game begins with a kickoff, a word which has been adapted to describe the beginning of just about every activity known to man.

Millions who don't know the difference between first down and sundown will get together with their friends for what has become our biggest holiday after New Year's. Some will even watch the game while waiting for the next commercial.

Meanwhile, the game at its lowest levels appears to be showing signs of atrophy. I saw one story which said youth league participation was down as much as 10 percent this past fall and much of it is attributed to concerns over safety.

If participation in youth leagues is down today, where will the college and pro players come from Sunday? Many believe this could spell the end of the sport, and the NFL, which we otherwise consider too big to fail.

In the meantime, come Sunday evening, I'll try to forget what I just wrote and enjoy the game.

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