Concussion fears continue to drive young athletes away from football
In the world of football, the name Ditka is iconic. It is as instantly recognizable as names like Aikman, Namath, or Brady. Mike Ditka is also one of the only people to win an NFL title as a player, assistant coach, and head coach.
Unsurprisingly, the deep love of football stretches to his extended family. Nearly every man in the family has played, including Mike Ditka’s great-nephews, Connor and Timmy.
High school senior Connor currently plays for the third-ranked football team in Pennsylvania and Timmy has been playing since the seventh grade. That all changed this year, however.
Timmy Ditka has joined the growing number of teens ditching football in favor of safer sports. Over the past summer, he reflected on an injury he sustained when he was 12 and decided to choose a different path.
“I get a phone call from the trainer saying, ‘Your son has sustained a concussion on the field,’ Timmy’s mother, Sam Ditka told CBS News.
“I remember falling, hitting my head and being super dizzy,” Timmy said. “It was a delay in my thought process. Sometimes my eyes wouldn’t follow as fast where I was trying to look.”
“He was out for about eight weeks. We sat down and talked about it and he seemed really emphatic about wanting to get back to it,” Sam said.
For the next few years, Timmy continued to play football under the understanding that he would quit if he experienced another concussion – which never happened.
After a promising experience with his school’s volleyball team, though, he decided he didn’t want to risk his body and mind on the football field any longer.
“I had gone to nationals with my volleyball team. As my dad and I were in the airport on our way back, I looked at him and I said, ‘I think when we get home I’m going to quit football. I just don’t want to take that risk,'” Timmy said.
With the growing awareness of the effects of traumatic brain injuries, the risk of secondary concussions, and the long-term dangers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more and more teens are making the same decision as Timmy Ditka.
Across the nation, high school football programs have seen a 6.5% decrease in participation since 2009, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. That is a loss of approximately 72,000 football players in the last decade.
A study published in JAMA Pediatrics earlier this year had similar findings, indicating a nearly 5 percent decrease in players between 2008 and 2017.
“This decline is associated with media attention focused on concussions or brain injuries among football players,” said study co-author Dr. Chris Feudtner.
Importantly, these young athletes aren’t just quitting sports. They appear to be transitioning to other sports that are perceived to be safer, such as basketball, baseball, and soccer. Since 2001, overall sports participation has grown by more than 500,000 teens, with no sign of decreasing.
Watching Connor on the football field now, Timmy Ditka says he sometimes misses it. But, when he sees the scary injuries and massive hits, he says he always concludes “I’m happy that I’m not hurt.”