So I'm talking with a big, strong kid who's 16 years old and who plays high school football and I'm saying that if he were my son, he wouldn't be playing high school football.
"Old man," the kid says, though he doesn't use those words. He gives me one of those not-quite-silent harrumphs that we old folks hear a lot. What he says is, "Why not?"
I say, "Too many guys get hurt too bad."
"Millions and millions play football," he says. "Not that many get hurt."
It doesn't take many.
Five dates, five places, five names.
Aug. 3, in North Carolina: Evan Raines.
Aug. 7, in California: Mitchell Cook.
Aug. 16, in Georgia: Deantre Turman.
Aug. 27, in California: Tyler Lewellen.
Sept. 16, in New York: Damon Janes.
Each, 16 years old or younger. Each, dead.
Raines, heat stroke.
Cook, heart valve failure.
Turman, broken neck.
Lewellen, brain injury.
Janes, brain injury.
Maybe, statistically, five dead kids in five weeks is a blip on the radar screen of teenage mortality. Maybe five kids in five weeks get dead falling off roller boards and we never hear about them because we all pay attention to football and nobody cares about roller boards except kids about to learn what asphalt does to your rosy cheeks when you fall off a roller board.
You can find numbers saying football is not the most dangerous high school sport. The worst is boys' softball. Yes. Really. Numbers from 1982 through 2011 -- reported by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research -- showed boys' softball with 2.89 deaths per 100,000 participants; next was boys' water polo at 1.06, then boys' gymnastics, .95. Fourth, football at .81.
I believe those numbers are the truth and they lie. I believe teenagers fall dead of congenital heart conditions whatever they're doing, and maybe they're playing second base when it happens. So the numbers don't add much to what I know and one thing I know is that the parents of a water polo player never go to the pool thinking their child is one full-speed, auto-accident-force collision away from becoming a quadriplegic. I also know what I read about the five dead boys of the last two months, each under age 17, each dead.
"Evan Raines was a jewel to me," his father, Rodney Raines, said.
"Once his heart stopped," Mitchell Cook's father, Jim Cook, said, "there was just no getting it back."
"Being the competitor and playing different sports made him happy," said Tarsha Keller, who raised Deantre Turman from the fifth grade (his mother died when he was four).
Raul Larios, a teammate of Tyler Lewellen's, spoke to him in the week he lay in a coma: "I just told him, 'I love you so much and I can't wait to see you on the other side.'"
"God received a new angel today," a high school classmate wrote on an Internet message board dedicated to Damon Janes.
I first wrote about a football death in 1967. The player was Greg Page, a sophomore defensive end at the University of Kentucky. Somehow, he had fallen during a non-contact drill and his neck was broken. For 38 consecutive days, his father, Robert, came to the hospital to be with his son, paralyzed, living on a ventilator.
One afternoon, the day before what would have been Greg Page's first college football game, his father said, "This injury very well could cost Greg his life. A reporter asked me the other day, if I had it to do all over again, would I let Greg play football? Sure, I would. Who knows why something like this happens?"
Robert Page also said, "I believe, though, that if the Lord wanted Greg, He would have taken him the first day." And the player's mother, Wilma Page, said, "I know the Lord has already answered some of my prayers. All we can do now is leave it in His hands."
Six hours later, Greg Page died. He was 19.