Older AFCE

Older AFCE

What I Saw as an NFL Ball Boy

What I Saw as an NFL Ball Boy
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(awesome photo courtesy of Mike McQuade)

With all four AFC North teams out of the game, let’s take a look at what Eric Kester saw on the sidelines on game day, and, more importantly, what we don’t see from our couches. Here’s his piece:

With each new arrest of a National Football League star, I’ve joined our collective finger-wagging at the league and its players, all while repressing a gnawing guilt: As a 17-year-old ball boy for the 2003 Chicago Bears, I helped players achieve heights of on-field violence so brutal that off-field aftershocks were all but inevitable.

Spend an extended period of time behind the N.F.L. curtain, as I did, see eerily subdued postgame locker rooms filled with vacant stares and hear anguished screams echoing from the training room, and you’ll understand how the physical and emotional toll these players endure is devastating enough to erode the morality of a good man or exacerbate the evils of a bad one.

This is not to say players who commit crimes deserve even a little exoneration. But what they and all N.F.L. players do deserve — and need — are improved resources to help them cope with the debilitating consequences of on-field ferocity.

I lay awake at night wondering how many lives were irreparably damaged by my most handy ball boy tool: smelling salts. On game days my pockets were always full of these tiny ammonia stimulants that, when sniffed, can trick a brain into a state of alertness. After almost every crowd-pleasing hit, a player would stagger off the field, steady himself the best he could, sometimes vomit a little, and tilt his head to the sky. Then, with eyes squeezed shut in pain, he’d scream “Eric!” and I’d dash over and say, “It’s O.K., I’m right here, got just what you need.”

A sniff of my salts would revive the player in alertness only, and he would run back onto the field to once again collide with opponents with the force of a high-speed car crash. As fans high-fived and hell-yeahed and checked the progress of their fantasy teams, and as I eagerly scrambled onto the field to pick up shattered fragments from exploded helmets, researchers were discovering the rotting black splotches of brain tissue that indicate chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Known as C.T.E., this degenerative disease is the result of players’ enduring head trauma again and again. Symptoms include dementia and extreme aggression, and C.T.E. is considered at least partly responsible for the string of recent suicides of former and current N.F.L. players, whose anger, sadness and violence eventually collapsed inward.

Cameramen know not to show players sniffing salts, and I participated in similar acts of cover-up. One of my jobs was sorting through postgame laundry. Cleaner uniforms would be set aside for football card companies to purchase for their line of “game-used inserts.” Dirty uniforms, meanwhile, like all the girdles filled with blood and feces because some hits are savage enough to overpower the central nervous system, I’d put in a special bin for disposal.

At one morning practice a player asked me, the smell of liquor on his breath, to run to the locker room and get him some mint gum. For weeks there had been reports that he was going to be released. When I brought the gum to him, he asked me to unwrap it because his fingers were too mangled for fine motor skills. I was later surprised to learn how many players had been arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and public intoxication (according to a USA Today database, since 2000 there have been 237 alcohol-related arrests, nearly three times more than the next most frequent charge, assault and battery).

I’m not recounting these stories to raise sympathy for player-criminals, but to spread awareness that the well of N.F.L. violence is drawing water from more sources than you may realize.

So what do we do, those of us who are appalled by the run of domestic violence, saddened by the brain injuries and utterly in love with the sport of football? Because it is a wonderful game most of the time, and while the big hits do draw millions, we are just as enthralled by the drama of a goal-line stand, the beauty of a perfectly choreographed pass completion, the freakish athleticism of men who represent the pinnacle of human physiology.

We can start by having this conversation about the emotional health of players, and having it frequently enough that the N.F.L. has to start listening, just as it did in 2011 when frenzied media coverage of head injuries forced the league to adopt safer concussion protocols. The N.F.L. can provide its players with more and better mental health resources, and it’s time fans start demanding that it do so.

There are those who would solve the problem by abolishing football altogether. But that would only further ignore the needs of the millions of football players, from youth leaguers to professionals, who rely on the game as a source of healthy emotional fulfillment. It was no different for me: Even with what I witnessed as a ball boy, I still decided to play college football. That decision left me with a permanently damaged knee, but I don’t regret having played. I know the game, during its best moments, is built upon core tenets of courage, perseverance, teamwork and, most of all, sacrifice.

The hope of every football fan is that by mitigating the emotional toll endured by some players, we can not only reduce violent aftershocks — our primary goal — but also save the N.F.L. from slipping further into a downward spiral. Otherwise we might lose football altogether, and with it our weekly chance to put up our feet and forget, for a few exhilarating hours, our own pain and hardship.

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