Dark cloud lingers over football as season begins

Dark cloud lingers over football as season begins

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- It all sounded so familiar, even comforting, this rite of fall that comes in the midst of summer.

The quarterback barking out the call. The grunts and thuds of giant men running into each other. The screams from the defensive side when one of their own picks off a deflected pass.

An NFL training camp - in this case, it's the Super Bowl runner-up Atlanta Falcons - provides a reassuring symphony to those who cherish America's real national pastime.

But a dark cloud continues to linger over the league and all of football, really, as we begin a new season.

How long can this gladiatorial sport survive when former players are suffering and dying from damage they took on the field?

Should it survive?

Roughly coinciding with the start of training camps around the country, from high schools to colleges to the NFL, we got perhaps the most disturbing report yet confirming what we already knew.

Football is really, really bad for your health.

"Any player who tells you they haven't put some sort of thought into it, they're not being truthful with you," said San Francisco 49ers running back Kyle Juszczyk. "It was a scary statistic."

Certainly, it was impossible to ignore the startling research from Boston University on 202 former football players , sampling everyone from preps to pros, that showed nearly all of them suffered from a brain disease linked to repeated head blows.

Even more compelling, The Associated Press released a heartbreaking series detailing the enormous human toll that CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) has on families when their loved ones became mere shells of themselves, grappling in the latter years of their increasingly diminished lives with memory loss, mood swings, depression and erratic behavior.

One has to wonder if the trickle of players who have walked away so far, most notably promising young linebacker Chris Borland, will turn into a flood at some point.

We're not there yet.

Not even close, really.

Football players are some of the toughest people on the planet, accustomed to dealing with the pain and hardship that their sport demands. Many of them, having grown up in hardscrabble circumstances, turned to football as a conduit to a college education and a prosperous life they wouldn't have had otherwise. They're appreciative of what it has done for them, and they're not about to turn their backs on it, no matter how damning the research.

"In this life, everything comes with pros and cons," Washington offensive tackle Trent Williams said. "I mean, my daddy worked on cars for 30 years and he got a bad back, bad knees and arthritis in his joints. So standing up on concrete working that long is going to have its effects on you. But you have to feed your family, so you've got to make decisions."

He then turned to his chosen profession.

"When you're blessed to play something that you love and get paid handsomely for it, you can't expect everything to be all peaches and cream," Williams continued. "So if that's what comes with it, that's what comes with it."

Nothing wrong with that. As long as he's fully aware of the risks and knows what it could mean later in life, there's no reason he shouldn't be allowed to play, no reason we can't cheer for his exploits.

But there are indications that more and more players are paying attention to the tell-tale signs of trouble down the road.

Receiver Andrew Hawkins, who had just signed with the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in May, announced his retirement at age 31 before he even got to training camp. He said his body "just didn't respond and wasn't feeling the way it should." It came out that he has pledged his brain to CTE research.

Baltimore Ravens linemen John Urschel also announced his retirement right about the time this latest study came out. Only 26, he didn't reveal his reasons for quitting, and it very well could be because he's got a full life beyond football - an accomplished mathematician, he's pursuing his doctorate from MIT. But Urschel had previously written an essay revealing his mother never wanted him to play football and that he envied Borland for walking away rather than endangering his long-term health.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn says he actually thinks football has turned a corner, recognizing the effects of repeated head shots and taking major steps to protect the athletes, from stressing proper tackling techniques to limiting practice time.

"I think you can be tough as hell and still shoulder tackle," Quinn said. "We try to keep the head out of the contact."

Indeed, you can make football safer.

But you can never make it safe, not in its current form.

One can't help but be reminded of Winston Churchill's words after a tide-turning battle in World War II: "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

That's what it feels like for football.

It would be foolish to predict its imminent demise.

But it's possible to see, far off in the distance, an end for America's national pastime.

What rookie CB Ahkello Witherspoon did to earn role in 49ers' defense


What rookie CB Ahkello Witherspoon did to earn role in 49ers' defense

SANTA CLARA – Rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon did not win the right to suit up for the 49ers’ first four games. Behind the scenes, he made it his mission to earn a contributing role.

“He really started to get better with his coordination with his feet from the bump-and-run coverage and from playing ‘off.’ There’s always a light that goes on,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “And we felt that for a couple weeks from Ahkello. Once he did that, he definitely earned the right to be out there.”

The plan was for Witherspoon to rotate into the action and share time with starters Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson. But he played just six snaps on Oct. 8 against Indianapolis before sustaining a concussion. Witherspoon returned to action last week and played 34 of the 49ers’ 74 snaps last week at Washington. He showed enough to coninue getting significant playing time.

“He’s earned the right to play,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He works his tail off in practice. He’s so deliberate in his approach. Whether it was scout team, whether it was team reps, whether it was walk-through, it didn’t matter.”

Witherspoon, the 49ers’ third-round draft pick at No. 66 overall, had a pedestrian training camp. Taking his lumps in August showed him what he needed to do to get into real games in October.

“I really turned up my focus, my intent every day in practice,” Witherspoon said. “What I did in camp wasn’t good enough to be a starting corner in this league, and that’s what I learned.

“I really focused on being aware of what it takes. That’s something I implemented these last four weeks -- that every day focus and competing on every single ball, and taking the mindset that no ball’s caught on me. I think that’s really helped my game, and helped these coaches trust me, as well.”

Witherspoon expected Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins to attack him. But of the 25 plays he was in coverage last week, Witherspoon saw only three passes come his way. He surrendered two receptions for 33 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

“Just being a rookie, I thought it was going to come, where they were going to be taking that one shot,” Witherspoon said. “I kept waiting for it to happen, but it didn’t happen. Going up against a smart quarterback, I know he saw me out there.

“There were a few times he looked my way in coverage. I wasn’t perfect in coverage, but I think he was looking. And I thought I did a good job.”

Witherspoon (6 foot 3, 195 pounds) is comfortable lining up on either side of the field, which he did during his college career at Colorado. He said he has not put on much weight but he has added more muscle, which has allowed him a better chance to compete physically against bigger NFL receivers.

Witherspoon fully expects to be challenged on Sunday when he is expected to see considerable playing time against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium. Witherspoon figures Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will be paying particularly close attention any time Dez Bryant lines up on his side of the field.

“They’re going to be looking at the ‘rook,’ ” Witherspoon said.

Said Shanahan, “They’re going to try to do that with all our DBs, so I don’t think it even matters who’s out there. They’re going to attack when we’re in single safety, which we are the majority of the time. They’re going to go outside and keep going out there until you stop them.”

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Watch Kyle Shanahan's full sit-down interview with Matt Maiocco on "49ers Game Plan," which is scheduled to air Saturday at 9 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3).

49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon handed hefty fine


49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon handed hefty fine

The NFL fined 49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon $24,309 for unnecessary roughness in last week’s game against Washington.

Garçon, who was not penalized on the play, lowered his helmet and struck Washington safety Montae Nicholson at the end of an 8-yard pass reception in the second quarter.

In 2013, the NFL passed a rule that bans the ball carrier from initiating contact with the crown of his helmet in the open field.

Nicholson’s helmet flew off and he remained on the ground for a couple of minutes. He was evaluated for a possible concussion and shoulder injury. However, Nicholson was cleared and he returned to action.

After the play, Garçon and Washington safety D.J. Swearinger exchanged words, and Swearinger took a swipe at Garçon’s facemask. Swearinger was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The NFL fined Swearinger $9,115 for unnecessary roughness.