Despite heightened awareness about the dangers of football, Chad Pennington remains bullish on the sport and believes the future is bright — from the NFL all the way down to youth football.
“When I look at how the game has so positively impacted my life — and not only from a professional standpoint on the field, but the people I have met, in media, coaching, players, front office, and all those experiences that the game has provided for me — I have a passion for sharing that and getting more people involved in the game,” the former Jets and Dolphins quarterback told Newsday in a recent interview.
“I think it’s a great game. Our narrative is not correct. We’re blaming the game for some of these issues, and I think we have to blame ourselves and focus on what we can do to make this game better. We’ve got to make sure the game is not hijacked by a few, and that starts at the grassroots level, the teaching, the equipment part of it.”
Pennington certainly isn’t naive to the risks associated with football, particularly with concussions and other issues connected to brain trauma. After all, he suffered three football-related concussions — one in high school, another in college and a third in the NFL — but doesn’t believe his health has been compromised by the injuries. Pennington, a first-round pick of the Jets in 2000, was forced to retire after the 2010 season because of lingering shoulder problems.
He embraces the idea of further research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative neurological condition called CTE that has been front and center in the debate over football-related brain injuries.
“When it comes to CTE and those types of things, the knowledge, research and awareness around the brain is so far behind,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do in the medical field. But it’s also a great opportunity to figure out more and find out more. I love that people are more aware of concussions, and how contact sports play a role in concussions. If we’re smart enough to discover CTE, then we’re smart enough to create therapies for it, too. This is for all contact sports — soccer, cheerleading, lacrosse, all these sports have to be looked at.”
Pennington now has a more personal stake in trying to make the game safer. He’s involved in youth football near his home in Lexington, Kentucky — both as an organizer of local teams and as a coach. He believes that with proper guidance, young players can learn proper technique to better protect themselves and reduce the incidence of brain trauma.
“I started a flag football program five years ago and have three boys in it in different age groups,” said Pennington, who plans to coach at the middle school and high school level for the upcoming season. “My dad was a high school football coach for 30 years, so I’m very passionate about it. What I’ve really enjoyed is taking on the awareness of our game, the health and safety. But instead of being reactive, I want to be proactive.”
He believes there are several areas where proper teaching can positively impact football at the youth level, which will ultimately translate to a better environment as players progress.
“We need to be teaching, educating the young players on the techniques, the type of practice schedules we have,” he said. “Our top-end professional league is where the money is made, but that’s where there is the least impact on fundamentals. Once you get a player [to the NFL], he knows what he knows. As far as his foundational viewpoints of football, how he tackles and blocks, he learned that a long time ago. But in those areas of youth sports that’s where your volunteers are.”
The bottom line for Pennington: Teach the kids to play the right way, and the sport will be better for it.
“I love the awareness about concussions in contact sports and how that plays a role in concussions,” he said. “But then we need to make ourselves more educated around the awareness. Football is still a great game, and we can find ways to make it safer. The grassroots level is where we can truly change the narrative of our game, teach it correctly and make it the best experience.”