Nick Bouniconti’s Most Impactful Play

Nick Bouniconti’s Most Impactful Play

Nick Bouniconti

Nick Bouniconti

Nick Bouniconti always had a big impact on the football field.

As middle linebacker, Bouniconti anchored the defense of the greatest football team in history, the undefeated 1972 Super Bowl Champion Miami Dolphins. Whether sacking a quarterback or tackling a running back short of a first down, Bouniconti always made his presence felt. And for so many fans in our football crazed society, what Bouniconti achieved is considered the highest of all sports pinnacles – Hall of Fame inductee and Super Bowl Champion on the only undefeated team in NFL history.  

But for a much of an impact he had on the field, that impact on the game pales in comparison to the impact and importance of his recent comment in an article, which appeared in a January 18 article in, regarding youth tackle football.  The article quoted several former NFL players who are calling for an end to tackle football for kids ages 13 and under.

I beg of you, all parents to please don’t let your children play football until high school," said Bouniconti, 77, who has been diagnosed with dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease. “I made the mistake of starting tackle football at 9 years old. CTE has taken my life away. Youth tackle football is all risk with no reward.”

So while many of his plays on the field could bring a crowd to its feet, his comment is truly deserving of full-throated standing ovation.

Here are some links to the CNN article, as well as several essays I’ve written on the subject of youth tackle football.

"Former NFLers call for end to tackle football for kids" : Published on | Jan. 18, 2018

"Why not flag football?" : Published in Philadelphia Inquirer | June 15, 2015

Published on

Brain on Football vs. Brain on Music

Picture this. A magnified image of a cross section of the human brain. The image shows hundreds of tiny brownish bits. These bits are toxic proteins, called tau, that form after brain trauma.  Tau can inhibit cellular functions in the brain, leading to depression, dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.

Now, picture this. Another magnified image. This one shows activities associated with vibrant cellular connections. The brain is seemingly swarming with activity, actually brightening the image.

The first image is of the brain of a former football player. The formation of the tau is the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of repeated hits to the head. These violent hits, in effect, shake or “scramble” the brain, flooding it with chemicals that deaden cellular receptors and tear neural connections linked to learning and memory. In short, the connections necessary for optimal brain function and development are being shaken loose. 

The second image is of the brain while a person is playing music. Brain function is about connections between cells and neurons. Healthy brains have strong, clear and vibrant connections. Research tells us that playing music triggers activity in cells and neurons in the brain that are linked to concentration, memory and creativity, thus refining the development of the brain and the entire neurological system.  Further, playing music not only strengthens these connections but creates new connections, thus widening the brain’s neural network. That activity virtually bursts through the second image.

There has been an increasing amount of discussion regarding how football programs, from the NFL to Pop Warner football, are attempting to manage “concussion risk.”  Without question, the revelations of the serious consequences to brain health and function that result from the repeated hits to the head sustained in football have taken the debate regarding the role of football in our culture to a new level. While most of the debate has centered on the NFL’s efforts to mitigate those negative effects, the significance of the issue as it applies to our nation’s educational system, particularly our high schools and junior high schools, is far more consequential. Specifically, we now have to give serious consideration to the question of whether the potential human costs to children’s and young adults’ health have become too great for an educational institution to assume.

Certainly, there have always been physical costs to participants. Football is a violent game. But we are not talking about sprained ankles and broken bones. Sprained ankles and broken bones eventually heal. We are talking about young people’s brains. Brains don’t always heal.
Football, at its core, is a tremendously violent game. Even if it is made “safer” with increased monitoring and improved tackling technique (an outcome that is not assured as, to date, there is little empirical evidence that such change in techniques will actually reduce the rate or severity of concussions), the risk remains extremely high. Say football starts out at 9 on a risk scale of 1 to 10 and, over a long period of time and with great effort, safety is improved such that the risk factor is lowered to 7. Is that nearly enough?

This is a dialogue that is long overdue, the brain trauma issue notwithstanding. Concern regarding football’s impact on academic values and the ability of schools to meet their educational mission has been growing steadily over the past several decades.

With a growing body of research confirming that participating in music actually energizes and strengthens the brain and brain function, while involvement in football can damage brain function, what are education and community leaders to do?

In the end, this is about community values as reflected through our educational institutions. Should we be investing so much time, energy, emotion and money in a violent sport that destroys brain cells? Or, does it make more sense, not only from an educational but a public health standpoint, to invest in music, which strengthens and develops brain cells and enhances brain function? Is our collective, community goal to develop brains or “scramble” them?

Because a picture is worth a thousand words, a good place to start that conversation would be to observe scans of the brain on football versus the brain on music.

Bo Knows Head Trauma

In 1989, NIKE started an ad campaign for cross training footwear featuring Bo Jackson, a former Heisman Trophy winner and the only man to be an All-Star in baseball and All-Pro in football. The ad featured stars in various sports proclaiming that “Bo knows” whichever sport, whether baseball, football, hockey or golf, was featured in the ad.

Apparently, Bo also knows about the association between participation in tackle football and brain trauma. And given that football season is, once again, upon us, it might be prudent to consider what Bo knows.

Jackson created a stir recently when he admitted during a USA Today interview that if he had known what he does today back then, “I would have never played football. Never. I wish I had known about all of those head injuries, but no one knew that. “

He also said, “there’s no way I would ever allow my kids to play.”

While the football industrial complex’s public relations machine is running full throttle in its effort to convince parents that advancements in equipment, diagnosis, testing, protocol and tackling techniques have made the game safe, the cold, hard truth is that these claims are being made with little concrete, scientific evidence to back them up. Even on the most basic of issues, there is widespread disagreement, an example being how long a victim of a concussion should be held out of action. Is it a week? Two weeks? A month? A season? We simply do not know.

Further, all of the attention being placed on concussions is somewhat misguided. The larger issue is the brain damage sustained by repeated sub-concussive blows to the head. Sub-concussive blows clearly rattle the brain, thus causing cumulative trauma and damage, but not to the extent where the negative impact is immediately and outwardly noticed.

It’s brain death by a million cuts. In other words, your child could be slowly, methodically damaging his brain without showing any immediate signs of doing so.

Until it is too late.

While we have little idea of the effectiveness of various treatments and safety measures, what is absolutely not in doubt is that playing tackle football is damaging to the brain. That is indisputable. The only question is the extent of the damage. And, based on accumulating evidence, the extent of damage is becoming much clearer.

Simply consider the most recent revelation from a study published this week in which 110 of 111 former NFL football players were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. , the degenerative disease believed to be caused by repeated blows to the head. (Note: C.T.E. can only be determined after death).

So here’s the question: Why are so many people fighting so hard to deny the science and promote suspect and unproven safety improvements to continue to justify allowing children to play what is clearly a brutal sport that has been proven to cause brain damage? And how many more young people will sustain brain damage while we wait for the proof of this link to become irrefutable?

Ask Bo. He knows.