GREEN BAY – The note was waiting for Jermichael Finley when he returned home that Sunday night.
I’m glad you got off the field, his 5-year-old son Kaydon had written. Because that hit looked nasty.
The Green Bay Packers tight end had suffered a concussion during the team’s Sept. 22 loss at Cincinnati, absorbing a hit from Bengals safety George Iloka that he’d later say wasn’t dirty. It was just football.
And that was the problem. The hit left Finley wobbly. He got up after the hit, stumbled a few steps, and went back down. By the time he regained his senses in the training room, his wife Courtney had called his cell phone more than 30 times.
The next night, Finley was putting Kaydon to bed when his son turned to him with concern in his eyes.
“He said, ‘Daddy, I want you to stop playing football,’” Finley recounted Wednesday afternoon, as the Packers prepared for Sunday’s game at Baltimore. “It was one of those things where you’re like, ‘That’s crazy that a 5-year-old would say that.’ The violence, the intensity of the game …"
Finley’s voice trailed off. He hadn’t watched the PBS documentary League of Denial on Tuesday night, but he didn’t have to. As an NFL player, he lives football, and he knows the risks the game poses to his well-being.
“I get calls from my grandma all the time,” Finley said of the woman who raised him, Clara Mitchell. “I tell her I only want to play 8 to 10 more years, and she says, ‘Boy, you need to quit this dang game.’
“That’s the thing. I know the risks. But family members that care about you, they see it from a different perspective than we do.”
Then, Finley puts himself in that point of view when it comes to Kaydon. His feelings are clear, which is why he didn’t need to hear Boston University professor of neurosurgery Dr. Robert Cantu – the co-director of BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy (CSTE), and a senior advisor to the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee – deliver what might have been the most compelling line of the entire two-hour Frontline report: That his recommendation would be that no child under the age of 14 play football because of the dangers the sport poses to their still-developing brains.
“All the side things that come with being a professional athlete, not just a football player, but a professional athlete, period – you’ve got people worshipping you, the money, the fame – are great. And, I really do love the game,” Finley said. “But with him … I don’t know about football. And, he doesn’t know about football – and that’s the good part.
“Right now we’ve got him in soccer, tennis, and he plays flag football at the YMCA. And that might be as far as he’ll go. The thing is, where is it going to go next in the next 10 years, when he is playing at a higher level and he’s going to really strike people? I don’t think my son will play. He’s really intelligent; he knows when I’m hurt. He doesn’t forget anything.”
There is no more experienced dad in the Packers’ locker room than veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett. The oldest player in a room of youngsters – he turned 34 yesterday – he and his wife Jennifer have six children: Daughters Esther (9), Abigail (8), Lydia (5) and Phoebe (1), and sons Ryan Jr. (6) and Caleb (2).
Like Kaydon, Ryan Jr. is playing flag football and can start playing tackle football next year – and can’t wait.
“I’m playing now. I can’t afford to worry about concussions. That’s part of the risk of the game. But when you think about it for your kids, it’s different,” Pickett said Wednesday. “I watch my son, and it’s tough. Do I hold him back from playing? No. But I hope they get something done to make the game safer.
“My wife and I talk about it. My thing is, I don’t want to hold my sons back if they want to play football. My son loves football. He carries a football with him everywhere he goes. He watches it all the time. That would be taking away a big part from him because he can’t wait until he gets to the age where he can play tackle football. I’m going to let him, but I hope they can make it safer for him.”
Finley acknowledged that he could face the same decision with his son, too. For now, he’s holding out hope that Kaydon falls in love with soccer or tennis. If not, he has one more option.
“If it gets to a debate, I won’t go that far with him. But I’m going to show him the nicks and bruises that I have,” Finley said. “I’m going to remind him, ‘Do you remember this (injury)? Do you remember that?’ Those things stick with him. I’m doing it because I love him, I’m trying to make a living. I’ve been doing it forever, my whole life. I don’t want him to be like me.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.