Glen Brons is all Nashville and all football, born in the former and raised on the latter.
He’s 64 years old and he’s been coaching the sport at the youth level since 1973, imparting it to his kids and now his grandkids, with countless others in between learning from him of leverage and gaps and setting the edge. A Tennessee drawl booms from behind that white moustache, like when Brons gathered his Nolensville Panthers together after their season-ending win on Oct. 28 and said: “I’m proud of you guys, main.”
That last word was “man,” but “main” is how Brons pronounces it and he says it a lot. It’s impossible not to notice Brons or pay attention to him when he’s talking, and these kids hang on every word. He’s an old-school football coach right out of Central Casting. He’s tough but relentlessly positive. He’s loved this game since he played it as a youth and at Father Ryan High, and he has watched with everyone else how it has come under siege in recent years.
And here is what Brons says about all that — about concussions, about CTE, about the links between those two things and his sport: “It’s real, man. I know it’s real.”
When we decided to let our 11-year-old son play tackle football for the first time this fall, we had no idea we’d be lucky enough to have a coach like Brons — a coach who embodies what makes the sport great, yet who also embraces the important and significant research that demands it must change.
CTE is to be studied, not dismissed
We did feel comfortable that the Tennessee Youth Football League was serious about safety. From the up-front discussion about it to the teaching techniques in practice to the presence of a Vanderbilt medical professional at every game. Still, I’ll admit, I watched tryouts and the first few practices like a hawk, searching for any kind of jarring hit. It’s impossible to watch this game the same way we did before learning of the things it can do to a human brain.
Well, unless you want to dismiss all this CTE research and the coverage around it as some big media conspiracy to kill football. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be employed as a sportswriter if it weren’t for football and the massive interest in it. It’s a significant part of the U.S. economy. But sure, media plot. Makes sense.
I’ve heard some folks in football dismiss the 2017 Boston University study conducted by Dr. Ann McKee – in which signs of CTE were found in the brains of 110 out of 111 former NFL players – as illegitimate because only the brains of former NFL players were studied. This is ridiculous. This is dangerous. A 2015 Mayo Clinic study studied 198 brains of people who were not involved in contact sports in their lives. None had signs of CTE.
People are worried about the future of the sport, and I get that, but the answer is not to ignore the information that is being gathered or cry conspiracy. The answer is to digest it and ask for more. To understand that we aren’t close to where we need to be in understanding CTE, and that this research hopefully will allow us to gauge susceptibility to CTE at some point.
I can’t recommend enough that you actually read “Clinicopathological Evaluation of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Players of American Football,” which was published July 25, 2017 by the Journal of the American Medical Association. Watch the 2013 PBS documentary, “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”
Read about Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, former NFL stars who committed suicide and were found to have CTE after their deaths. Read a book by Jim Proebstle about the tragic plight of his late brother titled “Unintended Impact: One Athlete’s Journey from Concussions in Amateur Football to CTE Dementia.”
I’ve consumed it all and more. “Brainwashed: The Bad Science Behind CTE and the Plot to Destroy Football,” is a recently released book by Merril Hoge, and I’ll read that as well because there’s value in his perspective. Also, I can’t wait to hear whom the “plot to destroy football” benefits.
I believe football has destroyed people. Brons believes it, too — a friend of a friend had a dozen concussions in one college season, he said, and ended up killing himself. And yet Brons loves the game and keeps coaching. And yet we let our 11-year-old son play for Brons, and we’re glad we did.
See, the other extreme side of this issue is uninformed as well. There are people who don’t really digest or understand this information, but have determined through headlines or tweets that touching a football means you will develop CTE instantly. Some of these people have platforms. There’s not a media plot, folks, but there are irresponsible people in media.
Football’s hard-headed past
And there are a lot of people who have been scared off from the game more than the available information warrants, in my opinion. Not that I would ever criticize a parent for deciding football isn’t worth the risk. There are times I’ve wished I could put my kids in bubble wrap in a padded, oxygen-rich room, feed them organic vegetables, school them at home and keep them from all of life’s dangers.
Had my son taken so much as a single hard shot to the head or complained about so much as a light headache this fall, we would have reacted. I don’t know how, but we would have reacted. I won’t lie and say we wouldn’t have had a quick trigger.
But Brons and his assistants — coordinators Anthony Johnson and Mike Lacey, and a bunch of other football-loving dads — always kept safety in mind. On the first day the Panthers worked on rugby tackling, in which the head is kept out of the play, I thought back to my first day of tackle football as a 9-year-old for the Marshall (Mich.) Knights.
Our coach (a great guy whose name I have sadly forgotten) organized us into two lines and had us sprint at each other while he threw a football between us. As he told us afterward, he was trying to get us to bang heads so he could see who could take a hit. Seriously! That’s what football used to be. The kids would smash skulls, the parents would laugh and everyone would get orange slices.
I can think back to an inadvertent helmet-to-helmet shot I took the next year in practice in Manassas, Va., in which I saw stars and was out of it for the rest of the day, and figure I got concussed. There’s no question in my mind I was concussed in ninth grade after a session of “bull in the ring” at Prince George (Va.) High, after some facemask-to-facemask blasts with a teammate.
The helmet was a weapon — not the top of it, because we did know about neck injuries then — and that’s how we used it. The coaches would call out a player, that player would call someone else into the ring, and they’d smash into each other until someone prevailed. That player would call out the next player. One day, I was especially far from prevailing and felt nauseous and spacey for a couple days afterward. It wasn’t until CTE research started coming out years later that I even gave that a second thought.
It was called getting “dinged,” and it was part of football. I’ve spent my career covering dozens and dozens of people who got “dinged” way more than that, at a much higher level, high-major college football at the least. I was lucky enough to cover Dick LeBeau for two seasons, and I’d love to know what “concussion protocol” was when he was hunting heads in the 1960s.
“It’s crazy to think back on it,” Brons said.
The Panthers and a special season
That way of thinking is gone now. I don’t know if ever-increasing safety measures will preserve football. We don’t have enough information yet. We don’t know what participation will look like in 10 years, 25 years, 50 years.
I do know that football players are only getting bigger and faster. And that kids start learning how to become human missiles in their teens, and that if Brennan wants to keep playing football, it will be a year-to-year discussion.
We’ll always be grateful for this year. Football builds teamwork like no other sport. Brennan fancied himself a quarterback when tryouts began and was disappointed when he ended up as an offensive guard and defensive tackle. He ended up loving it. It probably helped that he played on a 9-10 team because his 11th birthday was after the July 31 cutoff date.
Watching him penetrate offensive backfields with teammates Brodie Melzoni and Andrew Vick and Walker Garrand was fun. Watching him pull and execute a kick-out block to help spring teammate Isaac “Hammer” Carano for a touchdown run — sprinting behind Carano the whole way and then celebrating with him in the end zone — was a blast.
That was in our “Nolo Bowl” win over Spring Hill to finish 9-1. We had strong lines, power running from Jake Sentell and ball-hawking defense from Peyton Dickerson. Our quarterback, Bryson Manning Wade (son of a former Vols walk-on running back), is a name to remember.
You hate to leave anyone out, so I won’t: Dallas Johnson, Emery Brons, Andrew Ryan, Maxwell Lacey, Hudson Trautman, Rylan German, Chase Mayes, Caden Woodard, Austin Manning and Brenden Cisneros all had a hand in a terrific team. They played with passion, for each other. They got out with some ankle tweaks and bruises. And they got better snacks than orange slices.
I was not surprised to find out that Brons was longtime friends with the late and beloved Dan “Coach Cat” Catignani, who passed away in 2016 on the day the Christ the King 7th/8th grade team he was helping to coach won the Parochial League championship. I was told last week that they still leave an empty seat on the bench for Coach Cat.
People like this impact a lot of lives in a positive way. So does football. But we have to be real about it. Informed about it. Serious about improving it.
“If we teach kids to keep their heads out of it from the start, it becomes natural for them,” Brons said of youth coaches. “We’re the stewards of the game. We either do this right or it goes away.”