C. T. E.
Those three letters, short for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, have drastically changed the game of football over the past decade.
The condition is a degenerative brain disease. Some of its symptoms include short-term memory loss, depression, and even thoughts of suicide.
When comparing a heathly brain to one showing signs of CTE, the difference is stark. Unfortunately, many earlier generations played the game unaware of that risk.
“We used to call it just getting your bell rung,” said Trey Richey, currently the head football coach at Borden County. “You’d get up and see stars, or get up and it’s black. I was always told, ‘don’t lay down unless you can’t get up, but I’m not coming out there, because mom’s going to worry.'”
“It’s scary. As a parent, you worry about your children, where they’re at every time,” said Chris Henson, former head football coach at Peocs. “Let alone getting on a field and taking shots with their head and their neck.”
Recent studies have suggested NFL players are not the only ones at risk. A 2015 report from the Mayo clinic analyzed the brains of deceased men who had only competed in amateur contact sports. 32 percent of those studied were diagnosed with the condition.
Many in the high school game have juggled the roles of parent and coach. Henson spent 12 years as the head coach at Pecos. His last four featued his son, Bubba, as the team’s starting quarterback.
“My son started playing tackle football, contact football in first grade,” said Henson. “It just seems really young.”
Many other parents have also reexamined their approach.
“Some friends of mine have kids. They’ve talked about, ‘I don’t know if i ever want my grandson or my son to play football,'” said Richey. “The fear of it.”
The Borden County head man has coached two of his sons in his time leading the Coyotes.
His oldest, Tanner, experienced at least three concussions while playing the game – an experience that had a major effect on Trey as both a father and coach.
“When that big hit happens,” Richey explains, “I guess this is where my mindset goes now – that’s somebody’s son that just got lit up like mine did one time. Obviously, you get excited initially because that’s just part of it. But then immediately, you start going to, ‘please get up.'”
Texas has implemented several measures recently in an effort to improve the game’s safety. Chris Henson worked to pass some of those new standards while serving on the Texas High School Coaches Association’s Board of Directors.
“Every Texas high school coach has to be certified in tackling,” said Henson. “Now it’s required starting in 2019. Next football season, every coach that coaches texas high school football – from middle school through high school – will have to be certified tackling.”
Both Henson and Richey say they’re hopeful these steps in the right direction can help preserve the pasttime.
“Of course, football is one of the greatest team sports a young man can play,” said Henson. “It teaches you so many values. It’s something i think every young man should experience.”
Richey concurs: “You show me a guy who is successful on the football field, because of the work ethic he puts in, because of the team camaraderie, because of the techniques that he learns, because of the passion that he learns, because of the ability to take instruction, the ability to be a leader, the ability to be a teammate, the ability to be a competitor, and all those things. You see that and you know what he’s going to become when he leaves you.”