Somehow, grass just starts to smell a little different about this time every year, doesn’t it?
If you played football as a kid, or in high school or beyond, the olfactory receptors remain conditioned to such intangible hints of football in the air and that impending feeling of being down in the grime and pushing to the limit and beyond.
Severe heat becomes not a deterrent to training but an ingrained command to ramp it up and rough it out — so powerful even decades later that it might compel, say, a 56-year-old who isn’t exercising to suddenly start running religiously for a few months.
No wonder: In its rise to becoming by many measures America’s Game, the football months are entrenched now as practically a fifth season of the calendar.
(Disagree if you will, but it’s called the Gregorian Calendar — which my mom says means we can do with it whatever we want.)
With the Chiefs opening training camp in St. Joseph on Monday and college and high school practice getting underway shortly, it’s here.
And with it will be delivered the perennial new set of wonders and lifetime memories for all who play and fans and those of us lucky enough to get to type about it.
What a game.
If you’re like me, though, maybe your anticipation has become conflicted about the game you’ve loved forever and believe was crucial to becoming who you are.
Avert your eyes and cover your ears and stay under a rock if you insist.
But if you let conscience or even curiosity guide you, it’s now impossible to separate football from the catastrophic implications of the head injuries that are rampant in the game — to say nothing of all the other debilitating injuries simply accepted with it.
That’s been painfully apparent for years and became clear in a new way with the groundbreaking 2013 “Frontline” documentary, “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”
Our understanding of the obvious risk has only gained momentum since, with data like this:
In a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Boston University, 90 out of 94 former NFL players’ brains were posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The progressive degenerative brain disease can trigger Alzheimer’s symptoms and cause depression, suicidal thoughts, memory loss, emotional instability and other cognitive impairments.
If numbers just numb you, the figures can be easily personified with some wrenching local examples:
Look at what befell so many of the Chiefs who played in the first Super Bowl: Numerous cases of Alzheimer’s and premature deaths for a variety of reasons, including Jim Tyrer shooting himself and his wife, Martha, in 1980.
Today, his brain would have been sought for examination of CTE — as was found in the brain of Jovan Belcher, the linebacker for the Chiefs who in 2012 shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasi Perkins, then committed suicide.
Suffering from Parkinson’s and related degenerative diseases, poor Otis Taylor has been in his Raytown home bedridden and virtually unable to communicate for a decade-plus.
Sayers’ story and the tale of former Harrisonville, Mizzou and Missouri State player Michael Keck each are haunting in their own distinct ways.
As are the 2010 death of Spring Hill High’s 17-year-old Nathan Stiles, who died from bleeding on the brain weeks after suffering a concussion and later was found to be the then-youngest-known victim of CTE, and Osawatomie native Derrick Jensen, who was part of two Super Bowl championships with the Raiders and died at age 60 in April of complications from ALS.
While some of these conditions could arise independently from football, the game is a common denominator that an increasing amount of science tells us is no mere coincidence in many such cases.
So now you know, despite grassroots efforts to address these issues, that this misery is potentially part of the deal for the gladiators you celebrate in a culture that we as journalists at least tacitly sanction by covering and largely glorifying.
And yet …
At the always-inspiring Kansas City Sports Commission dinner in April, Kari Driskell accepted an award on behalf of her late husband, Eric, who touched so many lives as a teacher and football coach at Blue Valley and died in February after suffering a brain aneurysm.
That event made me think of my high school football coaches back in Swarthmore, Pa., and how much that experience — and getting to be a bench-warmer in college — meant to me and all the things I’d learned from the game, and them.
That in turn made me think about how I swooned over the sport when we moved from California to Austin, Texas, in the late 1960s.
I thought about signing up for Pop Warner Football for the West Enfield Indians, who lost our first game 79-0 but got ice cream afterward.
I thought about going to see the Texas Longhorns play in the 1971 Cotton Bowl and crying when they lost to Notre Dame and about how nervous I was when legendary coach Darrell Royal came to our house for a faculty party.
Mostly, though, I thought about big and little things that became part of me because of football — including the simple values in just blocking for someone or knowing you’re being blocked for.
Stuff like the special feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself and knowing you can only succeed if others do, and finding you could exceed a capacity for physical demands you never knew you could — these are experiences I still draw on when things seem impossible.
I found out any ball you got a hand on was “highly catchable,” as my high school receivers coach Bob McCullough put it, and that there’s no point in letting alligator arms take over instead of stretching out for a catch because you’re going to get hit, anyway.
Coach McCullough also called me out on something I’m still ashamed of: A friend and I were among three receivers shuttling in play calls one year in high school. We would slap each other five as we passed on the field but weren’t extending our hands to the other guy in the rotation. I thought of it as just something I was doing with a friend.
At least until Coach McCullough pointed out it was a terrible thing to do. Especially because we were both white and the neglected player was black. I was defensive at first, then appalled to realize what a rotten thing I’d been doing out of absolute ignorance. Which I came to know is no excuse.
So many lessons permeated, like playing to the whistle because anything less is selling your teammates and yourself short — and no one knows better than yourself what false hustle is.
Through football, I had the realization you either win a position or you don’t — but that you’re not going to root against a teammate to get there and that sometimes all you can do is all you can do.
Consider the unique bonds with friends that come with the grueling work, and I’d bet it was about as intoxicating for anyone who played as it was for me.
That’s why I stay with it even after I broke my ankle in three places during a freshman game at the University of Pennsylvania.
(For that matter, that’s why I went on even when I suffered the ultimate humiliation of my mom running on the field to check on me after I knocked heads with somebody in junior high. That hurt a lot more than the rotator cuff injury that came with it.)
I also believe football cultivated in me an optimistic view that comes with the agony of being on a team that wins two games in three years — then experiencing the ecstasy of transforming it all into a championship in our final season at Penn.
Never mind that I barely got in any games after freshman football. Or how my heart sunk when coach Jerry Berndt told me after camp our senior year that he’d love to play me more but … “you’re not fast enough for your size, and you’re not big enough for your speed.”
It was torture to take off the uniform for the last time in high school and college.
Other than having fantastic and loving parents, I believe these and all the other things that came with football were about the most formative forces in my life and certainly instrumental in my career path.
After the KC Sports Commission banquet in April, I looked up the phone number for Gene Herninko, my head coach at Swarthmore High, but months went by without me actually calling him.
Then three weeks ago, after roughly 38 years without any contact, I got an email from him. Amazing.
I wrote him back and told him a bit about my life but mostly about how I still cherish those days and what he and Coach McCullough did for me.
(Years ago, I’d been fortunate to get to tell Coach Berndt the same sorts of things when he became offensive coordinator at Mizzou when I was covering the team — quite a weird dynamic.)
I told Coach Herninko I still have high school football photos and other memorabilia in view in my home office.
Not because they are reminders of glory days but because they are prompts toward who I ought to try to be.
Of course, you can probably get a lot of these feelings through other sports that aren’t as inherently dangerous play-in and play-out.
If I had children, I’d be in gridlock about whether I’d want them to play.
Around the time I started writing this column, I got a postcard in the mail related to the NCAA Student-Athlete Concussion Injury Litigation.
If I interpret the small print correctly, I may be entitled to two medical evaluations during the 50-year medical monitoring period ahead.
The evaluations, it says, “will be designed to assess symptoms related to persistent post-concussion syndrome, as well as cognitive, mood, behavioral, and motor problems that may be associated with mid- to late-life onset diseases that may be linked to concussions and sub-concussive hits, such as (CTE) and related disorders.”
The class action applies to all sports, of course, and soccer — women’s in particular — clearly is facing the issue now.
But generations of football were the initial impetus of this action, another statement about the dilemma of reconciling a game in which today’s big hits just make me flinch to watch.
Still, I just can’t turn away from this game yet. Less because of the riveting theater than the knowledge of what it can do for someone … even as I dread what it will continue to do to too many.