Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A head (not) for the game

On the last snap he would ever take, Zander Diamont ran for his life, and for time. Ran backward, it seems, to move forward.

The tiny Indiana University quarterback from California, with 10 seconds showing and the Hoosiers leading Purdue 26-22 in the Old Oaken Bucket game, took the snap and raced for his own end zone, with a host of Boilermakers thundering in pursuit. He got to the end zone, dodged a couple of tacklers, then finally went down as two more closed in, having run all but one second off the clock.

Later, he confessed he was just trying not to get hit.

It's not the sort of macho thing you expect a football player to say, but it is the sort of thing you say if you still have a fully intact brain. Because Diamont does, and has a clear-eyed view of his future, he announced the Bucket game was his last, even though he has another year of eligibility in the tank.

"I think that for my safety and my future -- I'm not going to the NFL -- I need my brain," Diamont said Saturday.

I need my brain. And so he ran for his life and for time, in more ways than one.

Much has been made these past few years about the increasing risk for damaging the brain football poses. The hysterics have taken the legitimate concern over this, and the belated rule changes to alleviate it, and spun it into some paranoid fantasy that football itself is under attack. A game for men, the catechism goes, is becoming a game more suited to tea and lace hankies. And that will ruin football forever.

It will not, of course. In fact, the NFL's stubborn denial that concussions were a long-term health risk to its employees posed far greater a threat to the game than any rule changes have. Nothing chases people away from a pursuit more swiftly than the perceptiont its guardians don't care about those who choose it.

Is football different now? Yes, it is. But if it is different now than it was a decade ago, football a decade ago was different than it was 20 or 30 years before that. And it was certainly different than it was at the beginning of the last century, when an increasing number of player deaths led to wholesale rule changes, and to the President of the United States -- no less manly a figure than Teddy Roosevelt -- threatening to ban it.

I imagine if you jumped in a time machine and went back to those days, you'd hear the same sort of crabbing about the game being sissified that you hear now. And all because they'd done away with the flying wedge.

Bottom line: Football, like everything else, evolves. We'll get used to it -- just as we'll get used to  young men like Zander Diamont deciding to quit the game while they can still remember where they live.

Good for him. He made a smart and rational decision while he was still able to do so. If you're not going to play in the NFL, and Diamont surely wasn't, where's the reward vs. the risk for him? At some point every athlete has to decide when to put the ball away. Too few of them do it before they're forced to.

So Diamont gets to be the rare case. And if, in the future, more young men follow suit, and the average retirement age for football players drops to 30 or so ...

Well. Football will survive. It always has.

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