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Former NFLers wary of their kids and football

Former New York Giant lineback Harry Carson will

Former New York Giant lineback Harry Carson will be honored for his work on behalf of brain-injured athletes and veterans. (June 4, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

It was just last weekend that a parade of newly minted NFL players had their names announced and walked across a stage into the embracing arms of the league's commissioner. Off to the side, in almost all of those scenes -- and in hundreds of others that did not play out at Radio City Music Hall but in living rooms and kitchens around the country -- parents stood by proudly, some overcome with euphoria and others silently wiping away tears over the accomplishments of their sons who were drafted into the NFL.

"They're saying 'Praise the Lord!' and everybody is so happy," noted Giants Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson, who also watched the draft but with a different perspective than most. "They don't know what they're walking into. They see the contract, all the dollars, the fame. They don't know what they are serving their kids up for."

Carson is one of a growing number of former players who have come out and said they will in some cases discourage and in some cases flatly forbid their children or grandchildren from playing football.

In the wake of the death of Junior Seau -- whose brain will be donated by his family for research into football-related head injuries that many suspect led to his suicide -- the public dialogue has turned into a debate on the safety of the sport and just what the long-term neurological effects of it can be.

Carson said he will not allow his grandson, now a 2-year-old in South Carolina, to play football. "You want your kids to do whatever they want to do, but I was very emphatic about him not playing football, that he do something else," Carson told Newsday in a phone interview. His daughter Aja, the boy's mother, has agreed with him.

Many conversations, however, are not solved as simply as Harry Says So. Many parents have been grappling with the decision whether to allow their sons to play football, leveraging a growing database of potential issues down the road with the enjoyments and lessons that can come through the sport. It's a difficult balance for wary parents who have little experience on the field and perhaps even more so for those who have found fortune because of the game.

Super Bowl quarterback-turned-broadcaster Kurt Warner made headlines when he said in a radio interview this past week that there is "no question in my mind" that he would prefer that his sons not play football. That drew a reaction from former Giants receiver Amani Toomer, who called Warner's comments "disingenuous" and said he'd definitely have his son play football.

In a second radio interview, Warner tried to clarify his statements.

"My kids are 13 years old and my son has already suffered a concussion," Warner said on ESPN Radio. "Do I think about that? Of course I think about that. And the bottom line for me as a parent is as much as I love the game and what it's all about and what it's done for me, the most important thing for me is the safety of my kids."

Al Toon, whose own career with the Jets was shortened by concussions, was one of those parents whom Carson mentioned. His son, Nick, was drafted by the Saints in the fourth round April 28. The elder Toon said that although he has concerns for his son's well-being, he has not discouraged him from pursuing football.

"We raised our children to make their own decisions," he said in a phone interview.

Carson said if he knew now how football would affect him -- he suffers from post-concussion syndrome, has admitted to suicidal thoughts and has become a spokesman of sorts for retired players with neurological issues -- he never would have played the game.

But even he hasn't always had an absolute policy on his heirs' involvement. Both of his two grown sons played high school football and one, Donald, even played in college for a brief time before a concussion ended his career.

His younger son, Kip, attended Auburn and tried out for the team as a walk-on in the spring before the squad won its national championship, but elevated blood pressure prevented him from making the roster.

"If he had made it, he would have been on that championship team," Carson said. "I was happy that he failed the physical because I did not want him to play."

Asked what will happen to the sport that made him a Hall of Famer if everyone comes to believe that football is unsafe and forbids future generations from playing it, Carson gave a gruff but honest answer: "That's not my problem."

There has yet to be a connection made between Seau's suicide and any neurological issues from playing football. Toon pointed out that there are thousands of people who commit suicide each year and that a very slim percentage of them played professional or high-level football. He noted that there are issues such as depression and dementia that do not need football to bubble to the surface.

More than 1,500 former players are suing the league, claiming that for years, it ignored evidence that repeated blows to the head trigger chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which has been linked to dementia and depression.

Carson believes that studies of Seau's brain will show that there was some damage from his 20 hard-hitting NFL seasons and that he'll join the ranks of players such as Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling and Andre Waters who killed themselves after suffering from CTE. Unlike those players, however, Seau's death has grabbed national headlines, and Carson said that will "cast a very bright light on a situation that needs to be discussed."

"I have no ax to grind with football," Carson said, "but I think every parent should be fully informed and every player should be fully informed as to [the risks]."

Risks that sometimes become evident too late -- and through vivid images such as the footage of Seau's inconsolable mother, Luisa Seau, wailing as her son's body was taken away in a medical examiner's van.

"If you go back and look at the draft in 1990 when he came out . . . his family was probably praising God that he was the fifth player taken and he walked across the stage and he shook the hand of the commissioner," Carson said.

"And then look at today."

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