September 11, 2011

Bill Reynolds: Estes understands need to play it safe

 by Bill Reynolds, Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE — He's a football guy.

He played as a kid.

He played in college.

He's been coaching in college for nearly three decades, now beginning his 14th season at Brown.

His office looks out over the practice field.

There are football books on the shelf behind his desk.

He's a football guy.

So when Phil Estes talks about football maybe we should listen.

And this was what he said about a month ago about the issue of head injuries in the game:.

"We need to make the game safer, or there won't be football and I won't have a job. There will be football and it will be called soccer."

And this is not some neurologist saying this. It's not some trainer. It's not some player who had a concussion, and now deals with the ramifications of it.

This is a football guy, someone who came of age in an era when guys who took a big hit and got up woozy and disoriented were said to have "gotten their bell rung." This is someone who came of age in an era when you earned your macho badge by how many big hits you took. This is someone who not only grew up in this culture, but embraced it, too, for that was all part of being a football player. To question it meant you weren't tough enough.

"We used to call it 'lineman headaches,' " he says.

That was back at the University of New Hampshire, back there in the late '70s when Estes was immersed in college football and thinking about getting into coaching.

Getting your bell rung.

Lineman headaches.

This was the game's culture, as much a part of football as shoulder pads and helmets, and no one ever questioned it. Not really.

"I remember once in college we had a guy who had a bump on his head the size of a grapefruit," he says, "and the trainer said, 'We're going to have to get you a bigger helmet.' "

That was the culture and it essentially was unchallenged. Football was not for mama's boys. Football was for men. And if you couldn't take a hit, you couldn't play. Those were the unwritten rules, right there with all the slogans on all the innumerable locker room walls.

But things have changed, and for Estes, too.

There have been too many horror stories, too much anecdotal evidence, too many stories of former players having problems. There is the growing evidence that taking too many shots to the head takes its toll, the realization that all those Saturday afternoon cheers can come with a price tag.

So he knows the game has to get safer.

He also has a vested interest in this, not just as a college coach, but the fact that his son, Brett, is a sophomore football player at East Greenwich High School.

"Believe it or not, he has a concussion," he says. "He got hit, he had a headache, and the next day he was bothered by bright lights and had all the symptoms."

So it's become very personal for Estes.

Then again, it has been for a while.

Neal Rooney, a former All-State player at La Salle from Scituate, no longer plays after head injuries suffered playing two seasons ago at Brown. Sean Morey, the ex-Brown great who went on to play nine years in the NFL, stopped playing last season after too many concussions. Brown is now in the midst of a five-year study of monitoring the effects of hits to the head on its football players.

"We have to do a better job with this, and we have to start early," Estes says. "I see it right now in youth football. There's too much hitting at too young an age."

He believes that kids can learn the game without hitting, can learn skills and technique and much of what the game is about without routinely colliding with each other.

But it's more than just his son, and more than just his players at Brown.

He has come to believe that if the sport doesn't start to take these issues seriously then the number of kids playing the sport is going to dwindle, that there will be a plethora of parents who say it's simply not worth it. He has come to believe this is a serious issue, one that can't be dismissed with some tired old bromide that you've got to be tough to play football.

The Ivy League recently put limits on the number of days during the week players can have contact, no more than two. The NFL is concerned about concussions in ways it never was before, as more and more former players talk openly about the neurological problems they are having. There's no question that the issue is on the radar screen in ways it never was before "60 Minutes" did a story on it two years ago.

"I believe the game is safe," Estes says, "but we, as coaches, can make it safer. And we have to limit the amount of contact our guys have. We have to be smarter about it."

He pauses a beat, takes a look out the window, the practice field off in the distance. When he turns back, his voice is firm and full of resolve.

"I'm not going to let something happen to my son," says Estes, the quintessential football guy, "and I'm not going to treat my players any different."

breynold@projo.com