By Justin Walton
At the beginning of every August, 130 division one college football teams begin formal practice for the upcoming fall season. For an entire month, athletes practice from sunrise to sunset for recurrent days on sun cooked turf football fields. Teams labor in heated conditions while also studying playbooks, watching film, and reviewing assignments. In 2018, 73,557 players participated in college football. From August to December, players ran, blocked, hit, and tackled every day for at least two hours. In the constant stride towards perfection, practices, just as much as games, are accentuated by physical head cracking brutality. A common side effect of practice is a slight headache or foggy demeanor, and it’s not rare for players to take these ailments home for days or even months following their initial occurrences.
After the 2018 season, 6,451 of these players either graduated or left college early in order to prepare for the NFL. Only 251 of them would be chosen in the NFL draft. Yearly, a mere 3.9% of the talented, division one college football players end up pursuing careers in the NFL. The others, like Tulane’s former defensive tackle, Robert Kennedy, and backup center, Hunter Knighton, must take their aching bodies into the world of working life after four, five, or possibly six years of commitment.
Both Robert Kennedy (Rob) and Hunter Knighton started playing football when they were extremely young.
“My first encounter with football was in third grade,” said Rob. “We lost every game…and I hated it,” he said through a laugh.
“I started in fourth grade,” Hunter said, dryly. “I always wanted to play football.”
Before the age of twelve, each of these players dressed in helmets, shoulder pads, leg pads, and cleats in order to participate in our country’s favorite contact sport, football.
According to a Boston University study, athletes who begin playing such a physical sport before twelve-years-old experience symptoms of brain deterioration 2.4 earlier than those who waited. “There is something unique about the age you start playing football,” Michael Alosco, lead author of the study, said in an interview for Boston University Research. “There is something about it that is contributing to those symptoms.” Repetitive hits to the head from an early, developmental age have a way of leading to the slow break down of a player’s mental capabilities. This danger, however, isn’t considered by children who are enthralled by the sport of football.
After that first taste of football, Hunter was hooked. “I immediately grew to love the sport and really enjoyed making friends on the team and that whole atmosphere.”
Rob, after a turbulent beginning to his football career, stopped playing. Though in seventh grade, Rob returned to the game. At that time, not only was he “bigger and more athletic,” but also, while in the hormonal grip of puberty, Rob was struggling to control his emotions and impulses.
“I was having little anger issues, so I kept getting into little scraps or fights after and during school,” Rob said. He paused for a moment, “some of the things I was considering doing were really off the wall… even for my level of crazy.”
Football became an outlet for Rob, a way for him to acceptably release all that backed up frustration and craziness. On the gridiron, he “didn’t have to hold back.” It was a place where Rob could recklessly throw his head and body into another human being without fear of punishment.
In high school, both Rob and Hunter excelled. Rob used his strange mix of straight line speed and raw, almost freakish power to become a standout linebacker for Belle Chase High, a high school in Belle Chase, Louisiana. Hunter became an outstanding offensive and defensive linemen at The Hun School, a high school New Jersey. Due to both his size and athleticism, Hunter ranked as the 26th best recruit in New Jersey for the 2013 class.
After his senior season, Hunter received several offers to play division one football from schools such as The University of Miami, West Virginia University, and The University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill.
“The first offer was a mixture of relief and excitement. Being able to accomplish the initial goal felt really good,” Hunter said. “After that…it was really about someone recognizing your work thus far.” Hunter decided to continue his football career at Miami, “it was big time football, and I wanted to see if I could make it on that stage.”
Rob, on the other hand, received offers from three schools: The University of Southern Mississippi, University of Louisiana Lafayette, and Tulane University. Getting a college football scholarship was a big deal for Rob. He chose Tulane.
Between high school and college “the biggest difference, for me, was when practice ended, the day really just begins,” Rob said, laughing quietly. “You got meetings and all different types of Football related activities you have to go to, and, in all honesty, I didn’t want to go to any of them.” Football went from being a means of expression to “a job, a job you have to be passionate about.”
Hunter viewed his leap from high school to college football much differently, “everyone is stronger, bigger, better, faster. No one doesn’t belong.” In order to compete at such a high level of football, Hunter had to put on approximately 35 pounds of weight before he could even think about playing.
After that first season, during winter conditioning, Hunter propelled himself to the top of the offensive line depth chart. At this time, when he was at the height of his athletic ability, Hunter began to feel sick. “Saturday night I got a sour throat,” Hunter said. “Sunday night I felt awful, and when I woke up on Monday, I threw up.”
The team’s trainer gave him a “throat lozenge” and told him “you’ll be fine.” Hunter attempted to ignore his sickness. The puking didn’t stop. “I was doing bench press, and I was throwing up on myself.” Still, Hunter refused to quit; he struggled through the conditioning, a small amount of puke staining his team-issued workout shirt.
About halfway through conditioning, Hunter blacked out. “The last thing I remember is doing a figure eight hoop drill, from there, my memory goes black.” Even though Hunter has no memory of that time, he nearly completed the entire workout with no noticeable drop in athletic performance. However, towards the end “apparently I started having seizures and stuff like that, and the next thing I know I’m waking up twelve days later in a hospital bed.”
In the middle of a Miami winter, during a taxing, yet standard, college workout, Hunter suffered a heat stroke. This incident put him into a twelve-day coma, where he lost fifty pounds, had a vocal surgery, experienced liver failure, and faced a seemingly endless road to recovery. It looked as though football was over for him.
But, against the advice of friends and family, Hunter was determined to recover and play football again. “A lot of people were saying, ‘Don’t do it,’” Hunter said. “Well it was up to me, and I wanted to be able to do it, to return.” Hunter eventually returned to football, finishing his undergrad at Miami before transferring to Tulane for his last two years of football eligibility—he never reached his former level of play.
Rob, while playing college football, also had his share of adversity. Rob sustained a litany of nagging, minor pains, two, what would be considered, major injuries, and two mind numbing concussions.
A concussion is an “impact” where “the brain is pushed against the inside of the skull” David Menon, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, wrote in an article for Brain Facts. Immediately following the hits Rob suffered, a dense blur replaced clear vision, any light caused sharp pain, and his head was accosted by a pounding headache. Thinking became extremely difficult, as no thought connected to the one that came before it. These symptoms resolved fairly quickly, and Rob returned to play after a week or so of rest.
However, concussions and “repeated, hard blows to the head” are linked to “neurodegenerative” diseases that “can diminish the ability to think critically, slow motor skills, and lead to volatile, even suicidal, mood swings” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (N.I.H.), wrote in an article for the N.I.H. Director’s Blog. Players like Rob and Hunter have been hitting their heads against other people since at least 12-years-old. In spite of the constant jolts to the head, neither mentioned a noticeable decline in their mental health.
In addition to his head trauma, the summer going into his junior year, Rob tore the ACL in his right knee. This injury would sideline him until the final five games of that season. “I looked down and saw my foot was 90-degrees to the right, but my knee was still straight. I thought, ‘That’s not supposed to do that.’”
Then, in the final stretch of his senior season, Rob tore the ACL in his left knee, preventing him from playing in the final two games of his football life. An ACL tear can be tough, requiring a surgery and extensive rehab; though most players eventually find their way back to competition. But two ACL tears (and in back to back seasons at that) can end careers and mentally cripple any athlete. There are still two scars—or lines of balled up skin on the top of his kneecaps—marking off where the doctors had to cut open Rob’s knees and physically reconstruct his ACLs.
Both of these athletes have been battered, bruised, and broken. Neither ended their football careers. “My fingers are deformed, I got cuts from head to toe, and my arms are just shredded,” Rob said. “I always used to tell myself, ‘I don’t have tattoos, I have scars.’ Every time I got a new scar I’d say, ‘Look, I got a new tattoo.’”
Football is a dangerous sport. In every game, practice, or moment spent in shoulders pads and a helmet, it is possible to experience a gruesome injury, permanent brain damage, and, in Hunter’s case, potential death. Even though Hunter and Rob no longer play, football still affects them. They must live with the lasting pains of a physical sport and the fear that, at any moment, the symptoms of mental degeneration may become alarmingly obvious.
Looking back on his time spent playing football, all the cuts, bumps, and possible mental issues considered, Rob said, “in all honesty, for where it took me, I’d say it was worth it. I’d do it all over again the exact same way.”
“I would do it over again,” Hunter said. “You know, obviously, you wish one or two things went differently, but it was overall a good experience.”