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Youth Football Might Not Live to See Tomorrow, but It’s Here Today

In the afterglow of one of the best high school state championship games in recent Texas history, one football country resident grapples with the present and future of a sport that might not last the next half-century

John Stephen Jones throwing a pass AP Images/Ringer illustration

No one was talking about the concussion crisis at the Texas high school football state championships in late December. In a year when the biggest stories in the NFL happened off the field, the games themselves took center stage at the high school level. Twelve state titles in six classifications were awarded in a sprawling four-day affair, which began with games between six-man teams from small towns in the most remote parts of the state and ended with showdowns between powerhouse schools from the suburbs of Dallas, Austin, and Houston. It was the climax of a season that began on Labor Day weekend and ended two days before Christmas. Football is a civic religion in Texas, and this was the high church.

The games were played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, a cavernous $1.2 billion football palace built by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Medieval cathedrals were designed to make parishioners feel small and insignificant, and high school games in a building known as the Death Star don’t feel quite to size. Everything is too big. The high school stadiums where many of the teams play could fit comfortably on AT&T’s field and sidelines. Entire towns sat in a few sections of the bleachers. It was hard to even hear the bands. The teams seemed like kids playing dress-up at their dad’s office. That was the case for John Stephen Jones, the star quarterback for Highland Park High and Jerry’s grandson.

I have a personal connection to the Highland Park team. My in-laws live one block from the school. Their youngest daughter graduated last year, and their son is a sophomore. Both kids were in the marching band, so the family has been to almost every game for the past five seasons. My father-in-law has become a die-hard high school football fan in the process. It’s a different experience from rooting for an NFL or NCAA team. He has known the players and their families their entire lives, and he is part of a community that developed around the team. After the game, he and his wife were stopped by so many other parents that it took 15 minutes to get to their car.

The football team was inescapable in Highland Park, a small pocket of wealth and privilege surrounded on all sides by the city of Dallas, in the week leading up to the game. Every third car had some variation of “Take State” stenciled across its back window, and the team’s poster was on every storefront and restaurant. The average home price in Highland Park, which has its own school district and police force, is $1.65 million. None of the kids there need to play football. They aren’t playing because they have no other way to pay for college. The chance to play on the big stage is hard to resist, no matter your background.

There were nearly 25,000 people in the stands for the 5A Division I championship game between Highland Park and Manvel, a school on the outskirts of Houston. The game was broadcast on cable TV, and the outcome was splashed across the front page of the newspaper the next day. It was easy to get caught up in the spectacle, at least until one of the Highland Park receivers crumpled to the ground after a hit, and players from both teams got down on one knee. When he got up, the public address system began playing “Tubthumping,” a popular song from the ’90s released before any player on the field was born. The song’s refrain: “I get knocked down, but I get up again / You’re never going to keep me down.”

No one cheers for big hits anymore. We used to think the players were fine as long as they got up. Now we know better. A 2017 study by a medical researcher at Boston University found traces of CTE, a degenerative brain disorder, in autopsies of 110 of 111 former NFL players. It’s a striking figure, but only representative of roughly one-tenth of former NFL players who have died. Still, the downsides are impossible to ignore. CTE has many of the same symptoms as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and there’s no treatment for it. David Duerson, a four-time Pro Bowl safety in the 1980s, killed himself with a shotgun blast to the chest so his brain could be studied. Hall of Famer Junior Seau shot himself in the heart.

It’s hard to watch the kids playing at AT&T Stadium and not think about Duerson and Seau. The two NFL greats were the biggest, fastest, and toughest players on their high school teams, marked for stardom as teenagers. They had won the genetic lottery, but it turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing. What would they tell the 18-year old versions of themselves? What would they tell any 18-year old with the chance to play in the NFL?

High school football is the start of a vast funneling process that ends in the NFL. According to the NCAA, only 2.6 percent of the 1.08 million high schoolers who play football will wind up playing in Division I, and only 1.5 percent of those will be drafted in the NFL. The average high school player, even in a state championship game, isn’t that big. Highland Park and Manvel combined had only five players who weighed more than 250 pounds. The Division I prospects on the field looked like they were playing a different sport.

The most highly touted player on either team was Manvel wide receiver Jalen Preston, a Texas A&M commit ranked no. 11 in the state. At 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds, Preston was an adventure for the smaller and slower Highland Park defenders to bring down. They usually didn’t. Preston finished the game with five catches for 220 yards and three touchdowns. Even at the highest level of high school football, most of the players he faced didn’t have a chance at tackling him. That will change in the SEC.

The longer Preston plays football, the more damage he will inflict upon himself. NFL players are at the upper bounds of how much muscle can be put on the human body, and how quickly mass can be generated. The human skull isn’t designed to withstand that kind of impact. The NFL has tried to legislate violence out of the game, but there’s no way to make strapping on a plastic helmet and tackling people at full speed safe. Almost all of the league’s biggest stars were injured this season. How many will end up like Duerson and Seau? Larry Johnson retired in 2012 after nine years as an NFL running back, and now he’s experiencing severe memory loss, blackouts, and suicidal thoughts.

The future of the NFL may look like boxing, which was once the most popular sport in the U.S. CTE was first discovered among professional boxers in the 1920s. There are a million reasons for the sport’s decline, but the biggest is that the pipeline of American stars has dried up. Kids in this country no longer grow up dreaming of becoming boxers. NFL linemen would have been heavyweight fighters if they had been born a century ago. Kids might not be playing football 50 years from now. Many NFL players have said they won’t let their children play.

Buts what happens to the 99 percent of high school players who don’t win the genetic lottery, who will never play in the NFL? Will they still be playing the sport in 50 years? Should they even be allowed to? The sport has claimed many casualties. Read this story about the life of John McClamrock, a high school player in the Dallas area paralyzed in 1973, and try not to cry. There are plenty of modern examples too. Corey Borner and Jared Williams in 2009. Diondre Preston in 2010. Every fan of the sport has to make their own moral calculus.

The number I come back to is the 1.08 million kids playing high school football. If they aren’t playing football, what are they doing? They can’t all play a safer sport. There are more kids on a football team than on a high school’s boys’ basketball, soccer, and baseball teams combined. Sports keeps kids involved in school who might otherwise check out, and they keep them busy after class. There will always be teenagers drawn to danger. Football gives them an outlet to channel their self-destructive tendencies. That, at least, is what I tell myself when I’m watching 16-year-olds injure themselves for my entertainment.

Football isn’t just a blood sport. A football team is a small army made up of different platoons who have to learn how to work together and sacrifice for the greater good. Many of the lessons learned on the gridiron can be applied to war. Human societies have always had rituals that help boys become men and train them to become warriors. Football has been our version. It began as a sport for teenagers in college. The professional leagues didn’t emerge until much later. Maybe there’s a reason for that. There are no boys in the NFL, and no life lessons being learned. It’s just grown men killing each other slowly.

The style of play at Texas high schools is only loosely related to the NFL. Highland Park and Manvel were in shotgun the entire game. Even on the goal line, they were spreading the field with three and four wide receivers and the quarterback surveying the action 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Texas high school football is a Darwinian laboratory where only the most high-powered offenses survive. Teams that can’t attack every part of the field on every snap are at a huge disadvantage.

John Stephen Jones is the perfect quarterback for that system. At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, he doesn’t have the prototypical size for the position, but he has the feel for the pocket you would expect from a kid who spent his whole life around the sport. Jones plays like former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. He’s at his best on broken plays, when he can scramble outside the pocket and make passes on the move. He put up eye-popping passing numbers as a senior: a 70.4 completion percentage, 4,911 yards, and 61 TDs on only seven interceptions. He is currently weighing scholarship offers from Arkansas, SMU, and Texas Tech.

Jones had to be nearly perfect for Highland Park to have a chance against Manvel. He was running for his life all game long. The Manvel defenders broke through the line on almost every play and sacked him 10 times. Despite all that pressure, Jones finished with 564 passing yards, a new state championship game record. Manvel QB Kason Martin, a North Texas signee, finished right behind him with 483 yards. The two marched their teams up and down the field the entire game, until Manvel began pulling away in the fourth quarter. Manvel was up 10 points with fewer than four minutes left when some of the Highland Park fans began leaving AT&T Stadium.

However, in a game featuring two high-speed, high-octane offenses, there was more than enough time left. Jones lead Highland Park on a six-play drive for a touchdown in a little more than a minute, and the team executed a perfect onside kick to get him the ball back with two minutes left. Four plays later and they were in the end zone again, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a 16-yard pass from Jones.

Manvel got the ball back down four with 37 seconds left. Highland Park fans could hardly breathe easy. Manvel had been picking up huge chunks of yardage all night. The team finished the game with 640 total yards of offense and only 17 first downs.

The state championship came down to Manvel taking two shots at the end zone from the Highland Park 31. Martin’s first pass fluttered out of bounds. The second was reeled in at the 1-yard line by Preston, his favorite target. All Preston, an Under Armour All-American, had to do was turn around and hold the ball over the goal line, but there was a Highland Park defender right behind him, hitting him in the back and tackling him to the ground as time expired. It was like something out of Friday Night Lights. No one knew what happened at first:

Three generations of the Jones family were there at the AT&T Stadium: Jerry, his son Stephen, and Stephen’s three daughters. Stephen Jones is the executive vice president of the Cowboys, and he has said that watching his son play for Highland Park is a far more stressful experience than watching the team that he runs. All through the fourth quarter, the TV broadcast cut to shots of the Jones family watching from their luxury box at the 50-yard line. There was no color in Stephen’s face. He looked on the verge of passing out several times.

After the game, as the Highland Park players and their families congregated on the sidelines, still in half-disbelief, John Stephen Jones was presented with the MVP trophy. When he saw his father and the two embraced, the emotion was palpable, even through the Jumbotron.

The emotions were running just as high on the opposite sideline. With tears in his eyes, Martin addressed his high school teammates one final time:

Martin and Jones will play football in college, and possibly in the NFL, but none of those games will mean more to them than their last high school game. Everyone who played in that game will remember it for the rest of their lives. The stakes just feel higher at that age. Football is brutal and violent, but it can be beautiful, too.