I wish like hell I wasn’t writing this piece.
I wish the game I loved so much wasn’t breaking the hearts of strong men, smashing their will and ultimately taking their lives.
I wish that studies did not prove that football players at the highest level, the NFL, have triple the risk of death caused by diseases that destroy or damage brain cells compared to other people. I wish that professional football players didn't have four times a greater risk of dying from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Alzheimer's. I wish there wasn't a link between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
And, personally, I wish my heart wasn't torn down the middle - one half beating out of my chest with love for the game of football, the other weeping for the men it has taken and will take.
Those are my wishes, but my wishes are not reality.
I watched my friend, Kevin Turner, a former college and NFL fullback, being eulogized on Easter Sunday. The back of the church was lined with burly football players of yesteryear, tears streaming down their faces, standing in a line of solidarity, as if they were offering their last bit of earthly (max) protection. But they could not protect Kevin Turner from his fate, ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease).
Researchers say speed-group players such as fullbacks, running backs, quarterbacks, halfbacks, wide receivers, tight ends, defensive backs, safeties, and linebackers are over three times as likely to die from a neurodegenerative disease as non-speed position players.
Kevin was both a fullback and a punishing special teams player, first at Alabama and later with the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.
In life, he wasn't willing to fully blame the game of football. That wouldn't be his nature.
In a 2013 interview with Peter King of Sports Illustrated, he said, "Football didn’t do this to me. My ignorance did it. That, and maybe others who should have known better."
KEVIN TURNER IS NOT ALONE
I also watched Kerry Goode, a former Alabama running back diagnosed with ALS in September 2015, sitting in the crowd at Kevin's funeral.
He, too, has been an outspoken advocate for research and awareness. He recognizes that every second of life he has left is precious.
That's courage, not the absence of fear, because I know he has to be scared but saddling up in spite of that fear.
I've also watched my friend Tim Shaw, the youngest player in the NFL diagnosed with the disease, bravely refuse to give up the things he loves. He whips me on the golf course, every single time, and does so with a smile. He has even tried coaching me in golf, but he threw in the towel on that endeavor.
I wish I didn't know this disease so intimately, but I do.
My relationship with Kevin Turner has been well-documented. As I sit here writing, in the days after his passing, I think how fortunate I was to know him, to learn from him, to be inspired by him.
I was the one that got the greatest blessing of all: I got to know Kevin and love him for all that he had been through, and all that remained. Kevin gave me the greatest gift (as do Tim and Kerry); he showed me grace, bravery, courage, unrelenting humor and steely determination in action.
They refuse to give up in the face of this insidious disease. And neither will I. I will fight until my last breath for the game I love so much, and the players I love even more.
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
Now my wish for you: Embrace change in football, at all ranks.
Don't blindly recount the rhetoric that we are "sissifying" football, especially when the NCAA enacts rules -- such as targeting -- to make the game safer.
© 2016, Rachel Baribeau. All rights reserved.
© 2016, gridironnow.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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