State Rep. Carol Sente (D-Vernon Hills) proposed a state law on January 25 that would ban children younger than 12 from playing tackle football in Illinois. Sente, who stood alongside former football stars and medical experts at last month’s news conference in Chicago, titled this legislation the Dave Duerson Act. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Duerson, a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time second-team All-Pro as a safety, helped the Bears maul the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX on January 26, 1986. Duerson, who the Bears took out of Notre Dame with the 64th pick in the 1983 NFL Draft, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest at the age of 50 in February 2011.
Shortly before committing suicide, the 1987 NFL Man of the Year Award winner sent his family a text message requesting that neurologists examine his brain tissue. Duerson’s kin proceeded to send his brain to researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine. Approximately three months later, medical specialists at the private institution confirmed that Duerson suffered from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE, a rare condition linked to repetitive head trauma, can cause cognitive, physical and emotional difficulties.
“As the science and the data move forward and progress, so must we, and we now turn our attention to CTE,” Sente said. “Children as young as 5 are playing tackle football. … They are taking hits in practice and at games, with forces that are similar to what college players are taking.”
Duerson’s son, Tregg, applauded Sente’s efforts and is pleased that his father’s plight may inspire further safety measures on the gridiron.
“When my father tragically took his own life, he donated his brain to science in hopes of being part of the solution,” said Duerson, who also played for the Irish in South Bend. “Thanks to increased attention and research on brain trauma, we know that part of the solution is to guard young children’s developing brains from the risks of tackle football. This bill honors my family’s hopes and my father’s legacy to protect future athletes and the future of football.”
Robert Rodriguez is a longtime Chicagoan who currently resides in Uptown with his wife and their 5-year-old son. Rodriguez, an avid Bears fan, would have once been vehemently opposed to the proposal. However, in lieu of recent studies, Rodriguez changed his stance and now supports the bill.
“In a different time and era, I’d be frustrated by this proposal,” Rodriguez told Chicago News. “But now that we have so much research showing the dangers of the sport, I feel differently. Whether or not the bill is passed, my son will not play football at any point under the age of 12. When he’s in high school, there may be significant safety upgrades in equipment that can keep my son safe. But we are not there, yet.”
Nine years from now, when Rodriguez’s son is a freshman in high school, he expects to discuss the dangers of football with his boy.
“As of now, I’m totally against him playing football in high school,” Rodriguez said. “Although I won’t decide for him, I’ll sit him down and educate him about the possible health risks and provide stats and share stories about how the game hurt so many great players’ lives.”
Duerson’s former Bears teammate, quarterback Jim McMahon, has been diagnosed with early onset dementia and he battles memory loss and vision and speech problems. The Mayo Clinic reports that dementia and forgetfulness are suspected symptoms of CTE. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound McMahon, who the Bears selected fifth overall out of Brigham Young University in 1982, competed for six franchises before retiring in February 1996. The hard-partying Bear was a standout athlete who effortlessly identified defensive formations at the line of scrimmage. McMahon also played with recklessness and willingly sacrificed his body to gain an extra yard on the field.
“I was having a lot of problems with just forgetting the easiest things,” the 58-year-old McMahon told the Chicago Tribune. “Then I started getting some bad head pains, really sharp pains and a lot of dull pains, but it was constant. A lot of constant pressure on my skull. I didn’t know what to do. I’d leave the house and I’d have to call Laurie (his girlfriend) on the way home and say, ‘I don’t know where I’m at. I don’t know how I got on this road. I told her aliens abducted me and put me over here.’ It was very frustrating. I can see how guys now … how some of these guys have ended their lives, because of the pain.”
Unsurprisingly, many Illinoisans want youth football to proceed as presently constituted. Marty Amsler, who played defensive end for the Bears from 1967 through 1969, believes baseball and hockey are equally as risky as football.
“They’re finding it in baseball, they’re finding it in hockey, so what’s this [bill] going to do? Eliminate all sports for boys?” Amsler told TristateHomepage.com. “No, you’re not.”
The president of the Chicagoland Youth Football League, Geoff Meyer, contends that the proposal would hinder the sport and give kids too much leisure time.
“(The ban) would hurt the sport, and watch out for those unintended consequences,” Meyer said. “You think our young children now have difficulties in life? Let’s put more of them on the street with nothing to do.”
The bill’s sponsor said she simply wants to protect children.
“I know people take it like I’m trying to take away their football, and what do I know?” Sente told the Northwest Herald. “I don’t hate football. That’s not the way I feel at all. We’ve done a lot of work on concussions in Illinois. Our state, we do have work to go, but we’re kind of a leader in that area. The data is showing us that while concussions are bad, the more detrimental thing that happens in tackle football is the repeated sub-concussive hits over seasons, over years.”
If passed, this bill would make Illinois the first U.S. state to place an age restriction on youth football. The proposal has officially been sent and it’s now waiting for a House hearing.
Sente agreed to an interview request for this story via email. Unfortunately, the Chicago News was unable to speak with her prior to this article’s publication.