Micah Parsons is a 6-foot-3, 235-pound slab of teen with shoulders as wide as a loveseat and biceps that could’ve been cast in the movie “300.” The Harrisburg (Pa.) High School senior is regarded as the country’s top defensive end, wreaking havoc with his ferocious brand of smash-mouth football.
“I love popping guys, that’s one of the most fun things about football,” Parsons said. “It’s really a rush when you hear those pads pop and see the guy hit the turf. Whew, it’s the best.”
Asked about the safety concerns of said hits, Parsons was dismissive.
“I don’t have any,” he said. “I mean it’s football. We hit hard. Of course, legal hits, but I like to hit hard. We all do. That’s the game so whatever happens after that just has to happen.”
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Parsons’ mentality mirrors that of numerous high school football players around the country whose aura of invincibility won’t allow them to bat an eye over the dangers of concussions or the most frightening three letters in sports: CTE. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the disease caused by head trauma that studies show leads to dementia, memory loss, suicidal thoughts, and personality and mood changes.
USA TODAY Sports asked more than 40 Under Armour and U.S. Army All-Americans their thoughts on continuing to play a sport in high school, through college and perhaps professionally that is proven to cause brain trauma. While most players deem concussions as much a part of the game as ball spikes and cutbacks, some have taken steps to protect themselves.
Last month, brothers Max Wray and Jake Wray, both four-star offensive linemen, left their Franklin (Tenn.) team after being suspended by their coach for criticizing his approach, which they said includes pressuring players to conceal concussions.
“We expressed to the school administration our concern that the culture was creating a perverse incentive for players to conceal injuries, including in particular concussions,” the family wrote in a statement. “Under these circumstances, Max and Jake wish their teammates nothing but success as they finish the season.”
The Wray brothers, however, are in the minority. Many players contend concussion fears are overblown, others are willfully ignorant of the facts, and an alarming number seem to think to worry about the potential dangers isn’t, well, very football player-like.
“We know it’s a violent sport,” Parsons said. “You know the risks. I personally feel like I’ll know when it’s too much for me and I’ll be OK walking away.”
Or, it could be too late.
Boston University School of Medicine recently conducted a study analyzing 202 brains of football players donated to the school. Fourteen were from high school players and CTE was found in three. The same study discovered CTE in 110 of the 111 former NFL players’ brains and 48 of the 53 college players’ brains.
Boston University also found that former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez suffered from CTE. Hernandez was just 27 when he hanged himself in prison while serving a life term for murder. Researchers said the severity of Hernandez’s brain damage is usually found in a person at least 46 years old.
Although the NFL has become increasingly proactive in addressing head injuries, the league’s concussion protocol repeatedly comes under fire. Concussion Legacy Foundation co-founder and CEO Chris Nowinski posted a video of a hit on Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett in Sunday’s 20-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers where Brissett seemingly displayed concussion symptoms yet immediately returned to the game.
Nowinski called the league’s concussion protocol, which requires that a player suspected of suffering a concussion be cleared by the team doctor and an independent neurologist, “a fraud.” Brissett wasn’t placed in concussion protocol until after the game.
In high school, players say they’re less worried about dangerous hits because tackling techniques taught from youth leagues on up have changed substantially. Most coaches now emphasize leading with the shoulder rather than the head, and since 2012 the NFL has funded and promoted a program called Heads-Up Football, a series of courses for coaches to learn better safety procedures and tackling drills.
“Coaches are teaching different now, just trying to keep everyone safer,” said University (Orange City, Fla.) running back Lorenzo Lingard, a Miami commit. “I think the best way to stay safe and not get injured is to stay positive. I just think that when you’re thinking about things like that, they tend to happen.”
Bishop Dunne (Dallas) safety Brian Williams, the top-ranked safety in the 2019 class, is another All-American aware of the dangers who prefers not to think about it.
“It’s a real issue, that’s for sure,” Williams said. “But you can’t dwell on the possibility of things like CTE. As a player, it shouldn’t have that type of effect on you.”
Even when the repercussions hit close to him.
Williams’ older brother, Rawleigh Williams III, a former star running back at the University of Arkansas who led the SEC in rushing in 2016, suffered a career-ending neck injury during the spring game April 29. Prior to that he suffered a ruptured disc in his neck in a game against Auburn in 2015. He announced his retirement in May.
“I’d be lying if I said that didn’t make me think even more about all the dangers,” Brian said. “But I’d be disrespecting my brother if I let that change how I approach the game.”
And he shouldn’t, according to IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) coach Kevin Wright. He contends that, while the dangers of football are “very real,” the game is “as safe as it’s ever been.”
“We’re big proponents of teaching proper form and technique, and I think that’s the case by and large everywhere,” Wright said. “It’s about approach and education.”
In 2014, the National Federation of State High School Associations sent out recommendations and guidelines for minimizing head impact exposure and concussion risk. The NFHS recommended limiting contact in practice to 2-3 days a week and implemented an emergency action plan with clearly defined written and practiced protocols.
As a result, every state has adopted “some shape or form” of contact guidelines, according to NFHS director of sports and medicine Bob Colgate.
“We know more about concussions today than we ever have,” Colgate said. “Our rules are better than they ever have been, the equipment is better and the technology is better. We’re constantly learning new things in regard to concussions, but for a combination of different reasons it’s as safe as it’s ever been.”
Some studies seem to support the claim. Dr. R. Dawn Comstock conducted a High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study that followed athletes in nine sports from 100 different high schools over a 12-year period. The study found that the overall rate of concussions dropped in 2013-14 and has risen more slowly from 2014-17. Also, the concussion rate during practices fell for the fourth straight year, remaining below 5.0 per 10,000 practice athletic events.
Other experts, however, insist that grave risks remain. Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist, first identified CTE in 2002 during an autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. He believes high school football should be abolished.
“The reality is that you can’t make players safe in football,” said Omalu, who was portrayed by Will Smith in the 2015 movie “Concussion.” “For that reason, only adults should be allowed to play. Definitely not high school kids.”
Omalu said that during a game, a player, no matter his position, receives “at least” 60 blows to the head, some of which “are like a car traveling at 30 miles an hour and slamming into a brick wall.”
“People make it about CTE, but that’s the advanced form of brain damage,” Omalu said. “If you suffer 60 blows to the head, you are suffering brain damage. If you have a concussion you are suffering brain damage.”
And simply reducing the number of days players engage in contact isn’t enough.
“Reducing the number of bullets in a magazine doesn’t make a gun safer; one bullet can still kill you,” Omalu said. “When you play football, it is not healthy to your brain. That’s a fact.”
Yet, experts sounding the alarm can’t combat a relentless mentality.
A.J. Lytton, a Florida State commit from Dr. Henry Wise (Upper Marlboro, Md.), said evidence regarding concussions and brain damage is irrelevant because he’s “willing to die for this game.”
“If it happens, it happens,” he said. “They try to use the CTE thing and they think people aren’t gonna want to play football anymore, but that’s not gonna stop us from playing the way we play.”
Most high school players, elite or otherwise, aspire to lace ‘em up on Sundays. Macon County (Montezuma, Ga.) offensive guard Christian Meadows, a four-star recruit, is no different. His take on CTE boils down to a hypothetical question.
He was asked if he would take this tradeoff: play in the NFL, but contract CTE later in life. Meadows paused briefly then replied, “I would.”
“I love this game,” he said. “I know that CTE can be a risk, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. I mean I could take care of my family and make lots of money doing what I love. That’s worth it to me.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY