Tom Brady approaches playing football with a maniacal and almost ascetic devotion. The Patriots quarterback doesn’t see playing football as a job, but as a way of life. While there is constant speculation about when the ageless Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, will stop playing football, when he started playing it is notable, as well.
The guy who looks like he was born to play quarterback in the NFL didn’t play organized tackle football as a kid.
That’s right, Tom Brady never played Pop Warner football. This is like finding out that Mozart’s parents kept him from writing music or that Beyonce was only allowed to sing in the shower. “The first time he ever played was his freshman year of high school,” said Tom Brady Sr., Brady’s father.
That the face of football didn’t pull on pads until after he had hit puberty is a relevant revelation because in the wake of continued studies about the long-term effects of concussions and repeated subconcussive blows to the head many parents are grappling with the choice of whether and at what age they’re going to allow their kids to play organized tackle football. Parents turning their kids away from football is an existential threat to the football industrial complex. The NFL’s biggest concern isn’t drooping ratings or dartboard discipline. It’s protective parents.
A survey of 1,000 American adults conducted in August by the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion found that 53 percent believed playing tackle football before high school was unsafe.
Brady is proof that preventing children from playing football during their youth doesn’t condemn them to a life without the game. When it comes to this difficult decision, parents can be like Patriots coach Bill Belichick and choose to defer, using flag football for formative years.
The latest red flag about the potentially deleterious effects of football was raised last Tuesday. A study of 214 former players by Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center concluded that those who participate in organized tackle football before the age of 12 were twice as likely to experience problems with behavioral regulation, apathy, and problem-solving and task execution. They were three times as likely to be diagnosed with depression.
The study was based on telephone-administered cognitive tests and online testing. Researchers chose 12 because the brain undergoes a crucial development period between the ages of 10 and 12.
The study could be a death knell for Pop Warner football and push people toward flag football as the primary development tool for the game.
The BU study continued a trend of scientific research that reveals a risk of cognitive impairment from playing football. Exactly what that risk is and where it falls on the spectrum from minimal to grave remains the subject of scientific debate.
A study earlier this year by the BU CTE Center found CTE, a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain that can impair cognitive function, judgment, and impulse control and lead to depression, in the brains of 87 percent of 202 people who played football at a high school level or higher and a disconcerting 110 of 111 who played in the NFL. (CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously.)
Former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide in his jail cell in April while serving a life sentence for the 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd, had Stage 3 CTE. His estate is filing a $20 million lawsuit against the NFL and the Patriots.
The NFL likes to point to other studies that dispute a link between football and CTE.
“There is a proliferation of studies using very small cohorts of self-selected groups that make great headlines,” said NFL executive vice president of communications Joe Lockhart on Friday. “But the broad-based scientific studies like the one out of the University of Pennsylvania from earlier this summer looked at thousands of high school football players over a long period of time in Wisconsin and found no increase in cognitive impairment or depression later in life when compared to people who did not play football.”
There has been a concerted effort at all levels of football to make the game safer with rules changes, prohibitions on contact in practice, and a renewed focus on teaching proper tackling technique. As barbaric as football can be, we’re in the age of football enlightenment.
There are programs such as USA Football’s Heads Up programs, which has both financial and administrative support from the NFL, and Practice Like Pros, the brainchild of former New Orleans Saints executive and decorated television sports executive Terry O’Neil, that are dedicated to making the game safer at the youth and high school levels.
Practice Like Pros actually advocates the Brady approach — not playing full-contact football until ninth grade. It recommends only flag football for children 12 and under.
But football is ineluctably and intrinsically a collision sport. You’ll never be able to completely remove those collisions — or the risk they carry — from the game. The best you can do is treat it like radiation from an X-Ray machine — try to limit exposure.
A recent Wake Forest study determined that over the course of 30 practices nine youth football players fitted with helmets with sensors to record impact sustained a total of 2,125 head impacts. The average age of the players was 11.
No one wants to disappoint a child. In this age of sports specialization, holding back can be difficult to do for parents. There is pressure to cultivate the talent of athletes earlier and earlier. It’s an athletic arms race for exposure and scholarships.
But Brady is proof that it’s not when you start, but how you develop that matters.
Obviously, not playing youth football didn’t impede Brady’s development. It might be part of extending his NFL career.
Why did Brady’s parents delay their golden boy’s involvement in the sport that would make their surname famous?
“We had other activities going on, soccer, basketball, baseball. Frankly, I’m not a big proponent of Pop Warner,” Brady Sr. told the Globe in June. “I think that flag football is terrific. Everything you need to know about the game and about playing with teammates you can learn there. You can be as well-prepared for high school as if you started playing [tackle football] at seven years of age.”
It’s hard to argue with the original TB12 Method when you see the results. More parents might soon be following the game plan of the original Tom Brady to nurture the next one.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.