Heads in the Game: Football dads don't let fear keep their sons out of sport

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LaVar Arrington leaned over a picnic table to dote on his youngest son, LaVar II, a 3-year-old busily playing with some toy cars and trucks. On a manicured field in front of them, his oldest son, a skill-position projectile named Keeno, and his 10- and 11-year-old teammates from the Peters Township Junior Football Association were romping over a club from Upper St. Clair.

The subject of concussions was broached.

Mr. Arrington didn't give much weight to the subject.

Even if the ailment may well be the cause of his regular migraines. At age 32. On the left side of his head solely.

"It's weird," he said, "'cause I only tackled with my right side."

He was aware of the likely medical explanation: Through more than 1,000 tackles in games and practices, through countless more collisions from North Hills High to Penn State, through his seven-year NFL career with the Washington Redskins and New York Giants and three Pro Bowls, the rebounding impact banged his brain against the left side of the skull.

Yet he refuses to fret about not only his own concussions but the potential of such an injury to his son.

"You never want to see your child get injured," Mr. Arrington said. "Concerned, definitely. I want my child to be able to play the game. We hope the research" helps limit or prevent brain injuries in years to come.

One of Keeno Arrington's teammates, Nick Young, 10 (profiled in the Post-Gazette Sept. 19), missed two games last season and was affected two months in school by a concussion. Another, Will Van Zandt, 10, missed the entire season after sustaining a concussion in a helmet-on-helmet collision in the final drill before the season opener.

Don't misunderstand: Mr. Arrington is concerned for the safety of Keeno, 10. It's just that he long accepted concussions as part of the hazards of football.

That seems to be a sentiment shared in the Steelers locker room by players who are fathers.

Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El's son, D.J., 16, plays for Fork Union Military Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va. He has been playing the game since age 10. "I haven't worried about it at all," Mr. Randle El said. Part of the reason is the prep school itself: its academics, athletics and handling of its students. "That's why I send him there," Mr. Randle El said.

Ryan Clark's son Jaden, 9, is a tailback, and, like daddy, a free safety.

"He's more of a finesse guy," Mr. Clark teased. "He's all about touchdowns and interceptions. If he doesn't have the ball, he doesn't want to be around."

More serious, Mr. Clark acknowledged he worries about injuries, but added that he doesn't "let my fears" intrude upon his son's second year of enjoying football.

"I don't tell him to do anything different than I do," said Mr. Clark, an NFL veteran fined often for his hits.

Larry Foote's son, Trey-veion Hammond, 14, is a linebacker like his dad and has been playing organized football almost half his life. And he plays in the same Detroit little league as his dad, who trusts the coaches there but also has tutored his son about the proper, safe tackling technique: "You teach them to see what you hit, eyes up, and run through a guy."

And for Troy Polamalu, plenty of time remains before Paisios, 2, and Ephraim, barely 2 months, ask if they can don a helmet and pads. "My mind-set now is, it's their choice," said the star Steelers safety, who has suffered eight concussions in his football career. ""I learned a lot from football."

Mr. Arrington figures he suffered concussions as early as North Hills High, but never missed a game because of one.

"I was a hitter, I just played the game. I didn't pay attention to it. [NFL teams] paid attention to knee injuries.

"I used to memorize where I was, the day, the team I was playing, my birthday," he said of the standard sideline questioning by athletic trainers or doctors. He smiled. "That actually worked a few times, too.

"You get trained to be tough, do anything to stay in the battle of attrition. Nah, I don't regret it. That's just a part of it. We're modern-day gladiators. You stick your head in there. That collision, that force, is going to set off a concussion. The aches and pains you receive later in life, that's what you play for when you sign up to play the game. I'm glad I walked away."


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