Lasting Impact: New book examines question of should you let your son play football

Lasting Impact: New book examines question of should you let your son play football

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Lasting Impact: New book examines question of should you let your son play football

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It’s a question every parent of a young boy is faced with, and it’s harder to answer than ever.

Will we let our sons play football?

Are the risks of injury – or worse – worth the rewards that come from teamwork, camaraderie and the inherent values that the game and its legend have been built on?

That question “rings differently to every person in every circumstance, defying an objective answer,” Kostya Kennedy writes. “I now believe, and for this I’m grateful, that I understand the question.”

Kennedy, an editorial director at Time Inc. and former Sports Illustrated senior writer, is the author of “Lasting Impact: One team. One season. What Happens When Our Sons Play Football.”

His book chronicles the 2014 season with the New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School football team in suburban New York City not with the intent of finding the answer to what is a personal question, but to understand why the question is asked, and further, why it matters. He notes that the time was a tipping point in the discussion of football’s future and describes the issue as the “existential debate at the center of American sports.”

Kennedy spoke with USA TODAY Sports about why he wrote the book, what he learned, the reaction and the unexpected presence of New Rochelle alumnus Ray Rice.

Q: What was the motivation for you to write this book and what were the goals you wanted to reach?

A: My motivation was to look at the question, will we let our sons play football. That is as much a societal and individual question as it is a question for an expert. But the fundamental question at the heart of this is what will happen with football over the next 10, 20 years and also the American sports landscape. Sports provides a great moral, ethical, financial, social landscape. There are so many parts that go into making that decision so there was so much to go on and I was intrigued. I also wanted to get at it at the ground level. High school is really where it’s more serious and more competitive compared to youth leagues. High school is more organized and there are standing rivalries. You don’t have nearly as much at the younger levels.

As far as goals, I tried to show what it really means to play football. It means something very different than what it seems like it means from television or from a distance. It’s about commitment, sacrifice, danger, brotherhood, discipline, and it’s a humbling game. I didn’t want it to be a clinical book. There are characters and a narrative so you can read the story without necessarily needing specific information about concussions along the way. I wanted a story that could live on its own.

Q: One thing that was clear was that you were trying to be an honest broker. That had to be hard to do, especially given the amount of time you spent with the team.

A: I didn’t want to make up the readers’ minds for them. I was very conscious of that. At times, you have an emotional response to something you see, so of course it affects what you write and how you write about it, but I did not want to impose any prejudices on people. Children and football and the whole mechanism are very individual. Person X might feel something about football or Person Y might feel something different because of personal experience with the game and their personal experiences in life. I wanted to provide a clean window back and forth to look through.

Kostya Kennedy

Kostya Kennedy

Q: You mention in the book about why you picked New Rochelle, but were there other places you considered?

A: I thought about a few other schools … but for various reasons, it didn’t work out. It was partly access, but partly the nature of the program wasn’t ideal. What I really liked about New Rochelle was that it’s a strong program with a strong coach and strong pillars in the community. They’re not a superpower. I didn’t want that. I wanted a school that would have relevance to your son or to my son, to my high school or your high school. That was an important balance to strike.

Football was important with the value placed on it, but it was not the be all end all. What really appealed to me was the different circumstances that people in New Rochelle come from – there are plenty of haves and plenty of have less. It also a big school. That whole milieu appealed to me. Football was a connective tissue not for 100 percent of the people at the school but a good portion. All those things made New Rochelle the perfect place.

Q: As I’m sure you know, not everybody at Permian High loved Friday Night Lights. What’s been the reaction from New Rochelle so far?

A: I’ve gotten very good response from parents and some of the kids themselves and some in the administration. I’ve gotten a lot of silence from certain corners that I might have thought I’d have heard from a little more. I’m not sure not sure how to interpret their silence. I doubt the coaching staff has even read the book. They’re undefeated and going through the season and I know how they work. I went over before the season, I went to the home opener, they know where I am. … If there were serious complaints I think I would have heard them. It’s overall been a favorable response. I image some people said certain things that in hindsight weren’t exactly what they might have liked to say, but I think they think it was even, true and fair.

Q: The timing of this was such that Ray Rice, a New Rochelle graduate, ended up being part of the book because his first public appearance with his family after he was released by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely was at a New Rochelle game. That wasn’t planned obviously, but how did he become a bigger part of the narrative?

A: In some way, it was just luck. I knew Ray had gone to school there, but the situation with Janay (Rice’s wife) had passed in terms of the two-game suspension. He wasn’t part of the book at all beyond a mention.

When the video emerged, not only did it become unavoidable at the ground level, but it was fascinating to see it unfold in Ray’s nest in New Rochelle. It has nothing to do with concussions and that’s clear to anybody who reads the book, but it was also unavoidable in the narrative of football.

That said, it became part of the dangers of football and “the football is bad” narrative in the most simplistic sense. We were really at a tipping point in the fall of 2014 – Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and all the other news. It put a pall over football and it became somehow related in the sense of how football was viewed in the general population. It was an important story to bring forward.

Ray’s story and the way (New Rochelle coach Lou DiRienzo) reacted and the way the team reacted said so much about football in the larger perspective and football in this community and this town. It became a part of the book because it was a part of the book. It touched on every strand of what the book was about. It was a welcome addition.

Q: One of the more interesting conversations that you chronicled was older players advising some of the younger players to essentially cheat on their baseline tests. Was that a surprise for high school players?

A: The specific conversations were at the beginning of the season when most players take the test. It was surprising on some level and on another level, it wasn’t. It is kind of an obvious thing once you figure out how it works. If the kid knows he’s graded on improvement, you better not be too good in the beginning. I wasn’t shocked it was something they talked about it. That said, I don’t how successful you would be if you tried to do it and it was only a percentage of them who talked about. I don’t know how many tried to do it. I don’t think it’s a good idea, but do I understand it.

Q: Tom Cutinella from Shoreham-Wading River on Long Island died after a game in October of 2014. He was the third high school player to die in a week at that point. Long Island and Westchester County are both in the New York area, but it was interesting that the New Rochelle players were so aware of what had happened.

A:  The football community is a huge community in some sense and a small community in some sense. There’s a poem by Ogden Nash that always stays with me called “Old Men.” It says that people expect old men to die so nobody notices but old men know when an old man dies. They knew about it because they are playing the same game on a similar field. They knew about it on social networks.

It wasn’t like it hit home as in, ‘God forbid something happens on our team,’ but it was clearly something that was on their minds that they talked about and thought about. In a sense, that’s not surprising. There is a certain level of fear, whether they are willing to admit it or not. It isn’t necessarily, “Oh my God, I could die.” But they certainly could get injured and that was something to think about in that terrible circumstance.

Members of the Shoreham-Wading River High School football team honor Tom Cutinella after his football-related death this season.

Members of the Shoreham-Wading River High School football team honor Tom Cutinella after his football-related death this season. (Photo: Robert O’Rourke, Riverhead News Review)

 

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