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Tackling With My Head

February 3, 2018



47 years ago I was taught that, if I could, I should launch my body into another human, leading with my head, using it as an implement of force, ripping the crown of my helmet up through the face mask of the other human.

It was hard to do, because you had to be low, gather yourself, and spring through your legs to become a battering agent to overcome the other’s momentum. It was great.

Although I am simply too old to survive any physical aggression now, the bodily devotion of a head-led launch is what I do pretty much every day, but mentally. It is also dangerous, and equally unquestioned.

I have read that it is a natural human instinct to lead with your head. It was with me – and most of the others I played football with, and coached. It is now an outlawed act that is becoming immoral. The aggressive projection of will meant that my neck had to be strong, so I worked it to overcome pencil status. While the helmet absorbed the contact pain, the body shock of a full hit was both brutal and exhilarating. I loved it.

Then a decade later, I was taught to end that joy for those I coached. We drilled and drilled to get kids to “Put your face on the ball.” (Not on the face of the other guy). It still got the job done.

Then, 30 years later, our son wanted to play, so I observed him being coached to tackle “Chest On Chest”. It was still OK. But despite all care, correctness and deniability, heads still launch into heads. Penalty. Expulsion. Suspension. But it is still undeniable for some. Leading with the head happens.

Heads are being greatly debated as being sacred enough to make football, or any activity threatening any head, physically (and morally) unacceptable. In many parts of our culture it is better to have no damage than support the potential diminishment of our brains by traumatic impact. No doubt, people get wrecked playing football (and riding a motorcycle or heading a soccer ball) as thousands of hits add up to permanent debilitation. It is dangerous. For some it is a danger that should be made illegal and prevented by law.

But to me, leading with my head is just the natural extension of the force of will that was a way to survive when I was young. It was dangerous to be a kid alone in downtown Buffalo, so extending myself then was not a big deal to me then.

It is safe to say that 100% of those playing football are injured by playing at one time or another. In truth if I have payed with, coached or known perhaps 200 who have played, perhaps 15 of them had head trauma sufficient to not play for a game – and forever for maybe 3 or 4.

No one should live up to another’s expectation when it denies your humanity, or health or even plans. But it cuts both ways. With all I know now, and I all I have seen, I would be playing football right now if I could, and I would still be struggling not to lead with my head. The core good of full devotion is, for some, worth the risk.

No one should be ignorant of risk, but no one should be denied the right to be who they are if they do not victimize another. No one should assume they are so morally superior that their code of conduct should deny another’s ability to knowingly accept risk that may be reasonably risky. Of course murder, drug abuse, child molestation have to be prevented as they brutally victimize. But if we decide to climb a mountain, swim at 5F, or ride a bike we endanger ourselves, and sometimes others.

And if we try to prevent the mistakes of extreme commitment, like when we build a building, have a baby or volunteer for the military, we deny who we are as humans: willing to risk to realize our hopes.

The bizarre humans who play Big Time football have extreme size and speed and strength to make these collisions very scary. The rest of us are slower, weaker, and well, less able to be a focused projectile. Life injures all of us. But it can also fulfill us. For some, the intense risk and full-on body devotion is worth the danger of damage.

This is not just about football – or any sport.

Leading with your head is, for me at least, instinctive. My first reaction to opportunity is to devote, not hold back. Not to suspend and grab, but to focus and launch. When creating a building, or gathering a team to do good works of any kind, giving your best effort, full force, leading with your head gets things done in a joyous, risky way.

I still want to tackle with my head, but I have not for 45 years. I know I will never do that again, but I can lead with my head, with all I have to offer, with all I have been given and gotten.

So far it has been worth it.

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