Kristen Morse / Gavel Media

Concussions & CTE: When is it Time to Hang up the Cleats?

When James Hendren headed to the locker room following Boston College’s final loss of the season at Syracuse, he hardly knew it would be the last time. It’s almost three months later, and Hendren knows that his time on the gridiron is over.

A local standout from Dexter School in Brookline, MA, Hendren came to BC as a heralded three-star recruit. An offensive tackle with offers from premier college football programs including Penn State, Arkansas, and Nebraska, Hendren chose to come to BC with high expectations. However, due to several concussions suffered over the course of his football career, Hendren’s career was cut short. In February, writer Brian Haines posted a brief article on Hendren, referencing his “touching Instagram post,” announcing that he had been medically disqualified from playing football.

“In high school I had four, and in college each year I had three. In a few cases, they went unreported,” Hendren said.

Nigel Matthews, a senior majoring in Sociology, also had his BC football career derailed by two concussions suffered during his sophomore year. Initially recruited from Georgia to play wide receiver for the Eagles, Matthews “met with three or four team doctors for BC along with the trainers,” who advised him to stop playing. Like Hendren, Matthews’ decision to stop playing football was ultimately decided for him by the doctors.

Both Matthews and Hendren remain cautious about the prospect of letting their children play football.

“Obviously, it will be a little while before I have kids, but it’s something I’ve definitely thought about. I’m not really sure, I think with everything that we know about head injuries, concussions, and CTE it’s a difficult decision to make. But I also don’t want to take away an opportunity from them,” Matthews said.

“As of now, I’d be cautious about letting them start playing football too young,” Hendren said on the matter.

In the past, current and former NFL stars including Adrian Peterson, Ed Reed, and Kurt Warner have all expressed reservations about letting their sons play football. NBA icon LeBron James has taken a more direct opposition to the issue, repeatedly stating that his two sons are encouraged to play basketball, baseball, and soccer, but are not permitted to play football. Amidst growing concern from high-profile athletes, one has to wonder how these opinions shape the perspectives of the average parent.

As Matthews mentioned, increasing research has demonstrated the association between concussions and the degenerative brain disease known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Just last week, Jeff Miller, the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, acknowledged that there is a connection between football and CTE at a congressional committee’s roundtable discussion about concussions. Miller’s statement marks the first time that an NFL official has publically admitted a link between concussions and CTE.

According to a recent Washington Post article written by Des Bieler, Miller’s statement could mark a major turn in how the NFL and the rest of the football world deal with concussions. Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player who helped found the Concussion Legacy Foundation, said, “This day was a long time coming, and I think it will have huge implications for the game.”

Following the NFL owners meeting in Florida last weekend, New York Giants owner John Mara conceded that the league is struggling to address these major concerns. “I think it’s the number one issue we have as a league,” Mara said on concussions.

Accordingly, the NFL is working to implement new rule changes, including a controversial proposal to eject any player who receives two personal foul penalties in one game. Ultimately, health and safety protocol for football begins at the top. As the highest level of competitive football, the NFL should set the standard for healthy and safety protocol for the NCAA, high school leagues, all the way down to youth programs.

Kristen Morse / Gavel Media

Kristen Morse / Gavel Media

However, recent trends might indicate that NCAA teams are taking their own measures to address concussions. With pressure mounting to actively address concussions and CTE, Ivy League football programs recently agreed to cut tackling drills during the regular season. While Ivy League officials and university presidents must first affirm the agreement, this seems to be a step in the right direction for other leagues to possibly consider.

The recent news was not lost on Matthews. “I saw that the Ivy League is implementing no contact in practices. That’s certainly a way to go from a safety standpoint,” Matthews said.

The city of Boston has taken its own steps to promote safety standards for NCAA athletes. In September of 2014, the Boston City Council approved new safety measures, “requiring a neurotrauma consultant at every Division I football, ice hockey, and men’s lacrosse event to monitor head, neck and spine injuries.” The concussion laws, which took into effect on July 1, 2015, reflect the capacity for local politicians to take a stand on concussions.

Moving forward, the extent to which football-induced concussions can be reduced remains to be seen. However, if Hendren and Matthews’ stories reveal anything, they demonstrate how concussions can truly rattle any student athlete’s life and their expectations of their college experience. Without football, each has felt their share of confusion and grief. “I’m still adjusting to life after football. It’s difficult. I still miss the game,” revealed Matthews.

Although these former BC athletes are still adjusting to their lives as full-time students, they both recognize that their academic interests and career aspirations remain fruitful.

“Boston College [is] a great institution and it will help, and already has helped, to set me up well for the rest of my life. Football was the biggest thing in my life, but it wasn't the only thing,” concluded Hendren.

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Proud Washingtonian, history enthusiast, and sports fanatic.