Can Technology Make Football Safer?

On October 4, 1986, the University of Alabama hosted Notre Dame in a game of football. Notre Dame had won the previous four contests, but this time Alabama was favored. It had a stifling defense and a swift senior linebacker named Cornelius Bennett. Ray Perkins, Alabama’s head coach, said of him, “I don’t think there’s a better player in America.”

Early in the game, with the score tied, Bennett blitzed Notre Dame’s quarterback, Steve Beuerlein. “I was like a speeding train, and Beuerlein just happened to be standing on the railroad track,” Bennett told me recently. Football is essentially a spectacle of car crashes. In 2004, researchers at the University of North Carolina, examining data gathered from helmet-mounted sensors, discovered that many football collisions compare in intensity to a vehicle smashing into a wall at twenty-five miles per hour.

Bennett, who weighed two hundred and thirty-five pounds, drove his shoulder into Beuerlein’s chest and heard what sounded like a balloon being punctured—“basically, the air going out of him.” Beuerlein landed on his back. He stood up, wobbly and dazed. “I saw mouths moving, but I heard no voices,” he later said. He had a concussion. After Bennett’s “vicious, high-speed direct slam,” as the Times put it, Alabama seized the momentum and won, 28–10.

Following college, Bennett was drafted into the National Football League. Between 1987 and 1995, he played for the Buffalo Bills, and appeared in four Super Bowls. During his pro career, he made more than a thousand tackles, playing through sprains, muscle tears, broken bones, and concussions. I asked him how many concussions he’d had. “In my medical file, there are probably six.” The real number? “I couldn’t even begin to tell you.” Fifteen? “More.” Twenty? “I played a long time,” he said. “Every week after a game, I got some sort of headache.”

In 1996, he signed a thirteen-million-dollar contract with the Atlanta Falcons. He received weekly injections of Toradol, an anti-inflammatory drug. “It was magic—it made me feel like I was twenty-four again,” Bennett said. He helped carry Atlanta to the Super Bowl—his fifth. (A more dubious distinction: his team lost in every one.) In 2000, at the age of thirty-five, Bennett retired and moved to Florida. He lived in a hotel in Miami’s Bal Harbour area, worked on his golf handicap, and vacationed with his wife and friends in Europe and in the Napa Valley.

Several of Bennett’s football peers were having a far tougher time. Darryl Talley, a former Bills teammate, suffered from severe depression. Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, had become a homeless alcoholic; he died, of a heart attack, in 2002. Three years later, Terry Long, another former Steeler, committed suicide by drinking antifreeze. Andre Waters, a former Philadelphia Eagles safety, killed himself with a gunshot to the head.

A neuropathologist named Bennet Omalu autopsied Webster, Long, and Waters, and detected a pattern: each had a high concentration of an abnormal form of a protein, called tau, on his brain. Scientists associated tau buildup with Alzheimer’s, but that disease ravaged the elderly. This was clearly a different pathology, and in a 2005 paper Omalu called it chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., which he categorized as a degenerative disease caused by the “long-term neurologic consequences of repetitive concussive and subconcussive blows to the brain.”

“Make a note—their use of tools is both efficient and precise.”

The N.F.L. tried to discredit Omalu’s findings. The league had set up a committee for traumatic-brain-injury research, led by a rheumatologist with a medical degree from the University of Guadalajara; the committee insisted that there was “no evidence of worsening injury or chronic cumulative effects of multiple mTBIs”—mild traumatic brain injuries—“in N.F.L. players.” When Bernard Goldberg, of HBO’s “Real Sports,” asked a committee member if multiple head injuries could cause “any long-term problem,” the member replied, “In N.F.L. players? No.” At a congressional hearing, in 2009, Linda Sánchez, a Democratic representative from California, compared the league’s “blanket denial” about C.T.E. to the defenses once mounted by Big Tobacco.

Bennett, outraged by the league’s stance, joined the board of the N.F.L. players’ union. In 2010, he was elected to head the Board of Former Players, and he participated in heated discussions among league representatives, team owners, and players. “What the hell was a rheumatologist doing talking about head injuries?” he asked himself. Current and former players, he told me, harbored a “lack of trust” toward the league. In 2011, players launched a class-action lawsuit against the N.F.L., alleging that it had “ignored and concealed” evidence about the “risks of permanent brain damage,” and had “deceived players” into thinking that serial concussions did not pose “life-altering risks.” Bennett told Bloomberg News, “If the lack of information and negligence continues, you aren’t going to have moms let their little boys play football.”

His own son, Kivon, had just turned eleven, and was starting to play tackle football. Bennett was flattered (“I’d dreamed of having a son that followed in my footsteps”), but also anxious (“You never want to get that call”). Parenting is about providing children with opportunities while protecting them from harm, and few recreational activities put those impulses in opposition the way football does. Yet Bennett never considered trying to stop Kivon from playing. “This country is built on giving you a chance to pursue your dreams,” he said.

Kivon was big for his age, like his father had been, and performed well on his youth team. Bennett shared safety tips with Kivon: how to protect his head when tackling by hitting his opponent with his shoulder instead of his helmet; how to improve his footwork. “I always tell him, ‘Positioning, positioning,’ ” Bennett said to me. “If he’s going full speed and he’s positioned, I feel as though that’s safe football.” Above all, he stressed to Kivon that he should let someone know if he thought he’d received a head injury.

Bennett wanted to give Kivon the best chance to excel. In 2015, when Kivon was a high-school junior, he transferred to St. Thomas Aquinas, a prestigious Catholic high school in Fort Lauderdale. Kivon, a strong student, enrolled in Advanced Placement classes. He had recently discovered “Macbeth,” he told me this fall. “I like the way the story lines didn’t add up at first but in the last few scenes it comes together,” he said. He has a Twitter account, and in his bio he posts his G.P.A.—currently 3.7.

But Kivon went to St. Thomas primarily to play football. The school has produced more pro players than any other high school in the country. By the time Kivon enrolled, the St. Thomas Aquinas Raiders had won eight state championships and two national titles. Moreover, the school had embarked on a potentially radical experiment. The head football coach, Roger Harriott, had been instituting changes to make the game safer. He limited practices to ninety minutes, and got the school to acquire a pair of motorized human-size robots, wrapped in foam, which players could tackle, saving their teammates from unnecessary hits. Harriott hoped to put St. Thomas at the vanguard of football safety while remaining champions.

“Football is just a vehicle to make these kids better young men,” Harriott said. One day this fall, he told his team, “Ultimately, it’s for you to become a champion in life—a champion husband, a champion father, community leader, colleague.”

The robots, covered in black foam, are known as Mobile Virtual Players, or M.V.P.s.
The robots, covered in black foam, are known as Mobile Virtual Players, or M.V.P.s.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

Such talk pleased Bennett. “My son is getting something from Roger that he’s going to take with him the rest of his life,” he said.

Harriott blew an air horn to signal the start of practice. It was late August. He had on a short-sleeved windbreaker and a sun hat with a wide brim. A stopwatch hung from a cord around his neck, and he had tucked some crumpled notes into the waistband of his shorts. “The other guys are playing checkers,” he likes to say. “We’re playing chess.”

“Look me in the eyes!” he barked, as his players marched past him, single file. He starts each practice by shaking their hands and asking them about their day, or their parents, or their progress in recovering from an injury. “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” he said.

Harriott’s father was born in Jamaica and came to the United States when Roger was an infant. Roger grew up in South Florida, and in the nineties he was a running back for St. Thomas. He won a scholarship to Boston University, and became a star there, then transferred to Villanova. He contemplated a career in the N.F.L., but he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in practice and never regained top form. After graduation, he went into coaching.

In March, 2015, he took the St. Thomas job. His predecessor had just won a state championship, but he had also been hard-nosed and profane. Intimidation was not Harriott’s style. He didn’t scream or grab players by the face mask to make a point. Students should play for the love of their teammates, he told them, not out of hatred for their opponents. He banned cursing and reprimanded coaches who broke the rule.

His tenure got off to a rough start. In the opening game, several first-string players sustained season-ending injuries. The quarterback missed a few games. A standout defensive end, an Ohio State-bound senior named Nick Bosa, suffered an A.C.L. tear. Sports reporters lowered their expectations for the team. Kivon, a third-stringer behind Bosa, urged his teammates to ignore the press. “My pops played in the N.F.L.,” he said at one point. “And one thing he always told me was ‘Don’t listen to these so-called experts. They’re just pencil pushers.’ ”

The Raiders went to the playoffs, but during one game Bosa’s backup was injured, and so Kivon was put in. As his father described it, he looked “like a deer in headlights.” Harriott pulled him off the field. Then, Kivon recalled, “I felt a switch come on.” He went back in and made multiple tackles.

The team advanced to the championship game, and Kivon sacked the rival quarterback twice as St. Thomas won, 45–10, securing its ninth state title. His father watched, proudly, from the stands. “I had my day in the sun—it’s his time,” Cornelius said. This summer, Kivon accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Tennessee. In August, USA Today released its national pre-season rankings. St. Thomas sat atop the list.

“We’re decluttering.”

During the 2015 season, St. Thomas players, despite their many injuries, did not suffer a single concussion. Harriott and the school had made preventing head injuries a priority. The team bought Riddell SpeedFlex helmets, which came onto the market in 2014, and cost nearly four hundred dollars apiece. They have a polycarbonate shell, extensive padding, inflatable bladders, and a cutout on the crown that flexes upon impact, which, according to Kivon, “disperses all the pressure.” Last year, Virginia Tech’s Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science gave the helmet its highest safety rating.

At the start of the season, each St. Thomas player takes an exam known as Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing, or ImPACT. The exam is designed to establish a cognitive baseline; after a suspected concussion, a player is supposed to retake the test, allowing a medical professional to determine whether the athlete requires further assessment. But self-reporting of injuries is inherently unreliable, and no player wants to sit out for a ding. A 2014 study in the Journal of Neurotrauma found that, on average, players reported only one out of twenty-seven incidents in which they “saw stars,” became dizzy, and got a headache. Dwayne Owens, the athletic trainer at St. Thomas, said that he knew players who had intentionally botched their baseline tests. “Their parents might even tell them, ‘Don’t do your best,’ ” he said.

St. Thomas wanted to make the assessment of student concussions more objective, and this summer it agreed to participate in a research project with the University of Miami. Michael Hoffer, a professor of otolaryngology and neurological surgery, had developed goggles, equipped with two high-resolution cameras, that could detect the desynchronization of the wearer’s rapid eye movements—a mark of a concussion. Hoffer was funded, in part, by the N.F.L., but the goggles would be useful to all types of athletes. According to a 2016 study published in Pediatrics, the number of school-aged soccer players seeking E.R. treatment for concussions has risen sixteen hundred per cent in the past twenty-five years. Owens told me that, in the past year at St. Thomas, he had identified concussions in two female soccer players, two volleyball players, and a baton twirler. St. Thomas now requires female soccer players to wear protective headbands.

Studies show that sports practice sessions are a “major source” of concussions. In 2015, nine St. Thomas football players suffered season-ending injuries in training. Harriot decided to ban tackling at practice, and he also introduced the robots, which were designed by four Dartmouth engineering students, in collaboration with Eugene (Buddy) Teevens, the college’s football coach. Teevens was worried about the future of the sport. Since 2009, the number of boys between the ages of six and seventeen who play football has fallen by nineteen per cent. In 2010, Teevens outlawed tackling during Dartmouth practices. He told me, “It’s real simple—the more you hit, the more you get hurt. And I’m in a unique position to add hits to someone, or take them away.” He went on, “If we don’t change the way we coach the game, we won’t have a game to coach.”

Players adjust each other’s helmets during practice. The coaching staff and school officials made preventing head injuries a priority and, in addition to revising the practice regimen, offered players special helmets. In the 2015 and 2016 seasons, St. Thomas players did not suffer a single concussion during games.
Players adjust each others’ helmets during practice. The coaching staff and school officials made preventing head injuries a priority and, in addition to revising the practice regimen, offered players special helmets. In the 2015 and 2016 seasons, St. Thomas players did not suffer a single concussion during games.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

Harriott and George F. Smith, St. Thomas’s athletic director, learned about the robots through an alumni parent, and asked for a demonstration. In the spring, two prototypes arrived by FedEx. The robots, called Mobile Virtual Players, or M.V.P.s, stand just under six feet tall, weigh a hundred and ninety pounds, and look like pillars of black foam. Some players laughed when they saw them, but they stopped when a coach squeezed the trigger on a remote controller and an M.V.P. took off, moving at about sixteen miles an hour. “It just annihilated one of our guys—ran him right over,” Smith recalled. Kivon Bennett told me, “Those things are no joke.” Smith ordered two, at a price of sixteen thousand dollars. (The prototypes were sent off to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who wanted to give them a try.) Smith said of the robots, “You’re taking one player who can get hurt out of the equation, but, more important, your helmet is not hitting another hard helmet—it’s hitting cushion. The helmet-on-helmet is the dangerous part.” St. Thomas can afford such experiments. The football program is huge—the varsity team alone has a hundred players—and its training facilities rival those of top colleges.

The robots arrived in late summer. Adam Bolaños, a science teacher and an assistant coach, put them in an equipment room, among non-motorized pads of various shapes and sizes, and plugged them in. Two days later, the M.V.P.s were fully charged, and Bolaños and another assistant coach joysticked them onto the field. When an offensive lineman reached for the remote, Bolaños jerked it away and said, “Do you know how expensive these are?”

In one drill, a robot simulated a running back breaking into the open field. Ameer Riley, the defensive coördinator, watched a defensive back lunge ineffectually at the M.V.P. “We don’t tackle by diving!” he yelled. “You gotta drive through this guy.” Riley exhibited the proper form: lowering his shoulder, wrapping his arms around the dummy, then wrestling it to the ground. A minute later, the defensive back dragged the M.V.P. down. Riley exclaimed, “There you go!”

Riley wasn’t fully sold on the robots’ utility. “I’m a dinosaur kind of guy,” he said. “I like the old way. I feel a kind of sadness about the way the game has evolved.” Safety, he conceded, was “paramount,” but he feared that the robots might encourage bad habits. The guys, he said, were “launching themselves at the robots as if they were about to jump on a Slip ’N Slide, which is not an effective way to tackle.”

Dave Billitier, the assistant head coach, also observed the robot drill with a skeptical eye. “I just don’t think they simulate a kid tackling someone at speed,” he said. “The way the robots move is so static.” But something had to change in order to diminish the damage done in practice. “The kids are so much stronger and faster than they used to be.” After five minutes, the drill ended. The team, Billitier said, was “dying for some fresh meat.”

One afternoon this summer, Harriott, while shaking hands at the start of practice, noticed a player near the back of the line putting his shoulder pads on, shimmying them over his head. The student, Trevon Grimes, had a temple-fade haircut so bushy on top that classmates compared his head to a broccoli floret. “You should’ve already been suited up, Grimes,” Harriott said.

Grimes was arguably the best high-school wide receiver in America. He was tall and lean, with blazing speed and grippy hands. He referred to himself as a “light-skinned stallion,” and had altered his name on the back of his practice jersey so that it read “CRIME.” He was charismatic like Muhammad Ali, Harriott said.

“Sorry, Coach,” Grimes said. He had forgotten to take off his watch—a red Casio that he calls “my Rolex”—and he flung it against a fence. He was the only St. Thomas player who had chosen not to wear a Riddell SpeedFlex helmet. When Harriott informed Grimes that the Riddell was “scientifically safer” than the one he was wearing, a Schutt Air XP Pro, Grimes said, “I did my own medical research.” (In truth, Grimes simply found the Riddell too “big and bulky.” He told me that “all the college receivers and N.F.L. receivers” wear the Schutt, “because it’s lighter.” According to the Virginia Tech ratings, the Schutt helmet is the second safest.)

After practice, players soak in a training room. The football program at St. Thomas is huge—the varsity team alone has a hundred players—and its training facilities rival those of top colleges.
After practice, players soak in a training room*. The football program at St. Thomas is huge—the varsity team alone has a hundred players—and its training facilities rival those of top colleges.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

Harriott smiled. Grimes felt that Harriott, who has five children, treated him as much like a son as like a football player. As Grimes put it, “He lets us be ourselves.”

Grimes asked Harriott when he could get his game cleats. “I need to break them in, or my feet gonna be sore,” he said. Harriott told him that an expected shipment, from Nike, was late. (St. Thomas has sponsorship contracts with Nike and Gatorade.)

The program’s resources and reputation attract players from across the country. Grimes grew up in Indianapolis, and started playing football at the age of seven. His mother, Leah, told me, “He was a foot taller than everybody else—bigger, faster, more aggressive. Parents used to pull their kids off the field and say, ‘Is that boy really eight?’ ”

In 1953, the American Association of Pediatrics recommended banning children under twelve from playing football. (In 2013, the Annals of Biomedical Engineering published a study indicating that the head impacts sustained by players nine to twelve years old could be as severe as those sustained by college athletes.) But the sport continued gaining in popularity. Three years after the A.A.P.’s recommendation, an American Medical Association official declared that, although football was potentially “a killer and a maimer,” it offered “character-building advantages” for young children, and should not be banned.

After Grimes completed the fifth grade, Leah, a nurse, found a job at a hospital in Margate, Florida, so that Trevon could eventually attend St. Thomas. She worked twelve-hour shifts to save up for tuition, which costs more than twelve thousand dollars. Grimes tested in before his freshman year. In 2014, as a sophomore, he made the varsity football team; during that championship season, he scored two touchdowns. In his junior year, he scored seven touchdowns, helping St. Thomas win the state title yet again. Leah, now a flight nurse at a children’s hospital, kept a crazy schedule, but insisted on having one free day a week. “Friday nights are mine,” she said. “When Trevon gets to the N.F.L., it will be Sundays.”

By the end of his sophomore year, Grimes had received scholarship offers from nearly every top college program. “Laundry baskets” of letters arrived for him daily, Leah said. Privately, Grimes was intent on attending Ohio State. But he couldn’t help doing a little preening: in March, at a Nike-sponsored camp in Fort Lauderdale, he told the press, “Whatever school makes me feel comfortable, that’s one of the biggest aspects that will bump a school up.”

ESPN invited Grimes to announce his college choice on-air, but he declined. In August, he posted on his Twitter account, @GrimeTime™, that he was headed for Ohio State. Urban Meyer, its head coach, had been in frequent contact with him. “I felt loved,” Grimes told me.

Harriott knew that, if Grimes left Ohio State as hyped as he was going in, he had a chance to become an N.F.L. star. But athletic talent is fragile. Harriott had dreamed of the pros before tearing his A.C.L. (For most teen-agers, who tend not to think about long-term repercussions, a busted knee is far more worrying than a concussion. “If you take somebody’s legs out, you instantly take away their livelihood,” Cornelius Bennett said.)

Harriott stressed the importance of character development, and he didn’t make exceptions for his star. Once, in practice, Grimes caught himself on the verge of swearing, and said “fudge” instead. Harriott pointed to the ground.

“Coach!” Grimes said. “I can’t believe I gotta do pushups for ‘fudge.’ ” But he complied.

Harriott blasted the air horn and the offense lined up for seven-on-seven drills. On one play, Jake Allen, the starting quarterback, threw the ball to Grimes, amid double coverage. Grimes plucked the ball out of the air. “That boy is like a magnet,” an assistant coach marvelled. After pulling down a pair of catches against St. Thomas’s top cornerback, Grimes teased his defender: “I’m a machine! Sometimes I just need a little WD-40.”

Harriott is a devout Christian, and he ends each practice with a sermon at midfield.

“How long you think he’s gonna talk for today?” one player muttered. “Ten minutes?”

“Forty-five,” another said.

“He be using them S.A.T. words, talking about Sophocles,” a third joked.

“Improve my vocabulary, though,” the second admitted.

In one post-practice speech, Harriott thanked God for “Your love, Your guidance, Your leadership, Your parenting, Your benevolent nature, Your competitive attitude.” He said to his team, “Concern? Worry, fellas, that’s the opposite of faith. That’s sin. And sin separates you from performing to the best of your ability.”

He also impressed on the students that they were just playing a game. “This is fun, fellas,” he said. “When you get to the next level, you’re going to miss this. When you leave here, it gets real.”

There are three former N.F.L. players on Harriott’s staff. One of them is Glenn Holt, who was a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals, tallying two touchdowns and four concussions in three years. “It’s a different deal at that level,” he said of the N.F.L. “Those guys work for the company. It’s really big business.”

The N.F.L. is not just a sports league; it is also one of the world’s most powerful media companies. NBC, CBS, Fox, and ESPN pay billions of dollars a year for broadcast rights, giving the N.F.L. great leverage. (Ratings dipped before the elections this year, but they have rebounded.) In 2003, after ESPN launched a dramatic series, “Playmakers,” about a pro football team with a player who beats his wife, and others who are implicated in a night-club shooting, the league commissioner at the time, Paul Tagliabue, expressed disapproval. The show was cancelled. John Eisendrath, its creator, accused Tagliabue and other N.F.L. executives of behaving like “bullies.”

A decade later, ESPN again caved to league pressure, terminating a collaborative investigation with PBS’s “Frontline” about the concussion crisis. In 2015, Bill Simmons, at the time an ESPN contributor and the editor of Grantland, an online publication owned by ESPN, lost his job after questioning the “testicular fortitude” of Tagliabue’s successor, Roger Goodell.

The 2015 hack of Sony Pictures e-mails exposed correspondence suggesting that the N.F.L. also influenced the making of the film “Concussion,” starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist. A Sony lawyer had written that “unflattering moments for the N.F.L.” were edited out, removing “most of the bite.” (The film’s director, Peter Landesman, disputes this.)

Whether or not the film was significantly edited, it haunted Garin Patrick, St. Thomas’s defensive-line coach. Patrick played in the N.F.L. for three years, and suffered three concussions, which he described as getting his “bell rung.” Last winter, he left a screening of “Concussion” feeling alarmed. The film, echoing the scientific consensus, puts forth the idea that repetitive subconcussive blows are thought to be the main cause of C.T.E. A one-off concussion likely represents a lesser threat. “That scared the shit out of me,” Patrick said.

Grant Miller, an offensive lineman who plays left tackle, soaks his leg in a hot bath. He will attend Vanderbilt University next year.
Grant Miller, an offensive lineman who plays left tackle, soaks his leg in a hot bath. He will attend Vanderbilt University next year.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

In April, 2016, he contacted a law firm that was representing former players suing the N.F.L. The league settled the case for nearly a billion dollars. Patrick was skeptical of the deal; in his view, it made it too difficult for individual players to receive medical compensation. Not long after the N.F.L. proposed the initial terms of the agreement, its own consulting firm concluded that twenty-eight per cent of former players would likely develop some form of dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, A.L.S., or C.T.E. Patrick, who suffers from short-term-memory loss, told me, “I think I’m one of the twenty-eight per cent.”

Subsequent research has indicated that symptoms of C.T.E. may emerge as early as high school. At a congressional hearing in March, Ann McKee, a C.T.E. expert from Boston University, reported seeing tau-protein buildups “in ninety out of ninety-four N.F.L. players whose brains we’ve examined.” She added, “We’ve found it in forty-five out of fifty-five college players, and six out of twenty-six* high-school players.”

I asked Patrick if, given these findings, he regretted having played football. “Would I do it again, knowing the stakes?” he said. “Absolutely. You could live into your nineties, or get hit by a car tomorrow. You gotta go from something.”

In a classroom one afternoon in August, St. Thomas’s offensive linemen sat slumped at their desks, watching game film as preparation for a pre-season contest, later that week, against Dillard High School. “This is going to be a nut-kicking game,” Ryan Schneider, the offensive coördinator, told the players. “They’re not running complicated coverages. It’s just who’s the bigger, badder S.O.B. up front.” He advised, “Smash the hell out of them! And then let them know it’s coming again.”

On game day, St. Thomas amassed a thirty-five-point lead before halftime. Grimes caught a ball in tight coverage, brushed off two tacklers, and ran for a touchdown. Kivon Bennett made two sacks, and Asante Samuel, whose father was a cornerback in the N.F.L., returned an interception for a touchdown. The Raiders won, 51–0.

Later, Schneider, Harriott, and the team reviewed the game on video. Schneider praised Grimes for a downfield block, adding, “Next time, put him on his butt and rub your balls in his face.” When Samuel’s interception appeared on the video, Harriott paused it to applaud the block that had opened up a path for Samuel: Lashawn Paulino-Bell, a two-hundred-and-forty-five-pound defensive lineman, had de-cleated an unsuspecting Dillard player. “It was, like, boom! ” Paulino-Bell told me, reliving the play. “He was almost on a stretcher.” How did it feel? “It’s a rush,” he said. “It’s, like, Ahhh, that’s live! ” He had no reservations about levelling the guy. “At the end of the day, you know what you signed up for.”

Harriott reminded Paulino-Bell and the others about a new rule: blocking uninvolved players was not allowed. Paulino-Bell’s hit was clean, Harriott said, but he noted that “those plays are over if you’re nowhere near the ball.” In recent years, the youth league Pop Warner, the National Federation of State High School Associations, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and the N.F.L. have implemented rule changes aimed at reducing injuries, and introduced protocols for treating concussions. Helmet-to-helmet hits are forbidden across all leagues. The N.C.A.A. has banned gratuitously hitting the head or neck of an opposing player. The N.F.L. has outlawed two-a-day practices, and helmet-first tackling, known as “spearing,” elicits an automatic fifteen-yard penalty. (At a rally in October, President-elect Donald Trump mocked the N.F.L.’s rule changes as “soft”: “Uh-oh, got a little ding on the head? No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season!”)

Inside the Raiders’ locker room.
Inside the Raiders’ locker room.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

According to today’s rules, Cornelius Bennett said, his sack of Steve Beuerlein would be grounds for ejection. He acknowledged that reforms were needed, but worried about hamstringing defenders. “I don’t want nobody crossing my space if I can’t lay the wood on him,” he said. “I tell my son, ‘It’s nice to be “nice-nasty” on the football field.’ I call it nice-ty. I would lay you out and smile and laugh about it at the same time.”

Ameer Riley, the defensive coördinator, expressed similar concerns about the safety rules. “I fear that they’re taking a big part of the game away,” he said. Now that so many kinds of hits were banned, he said, “the wide receiver don’t have that fear that he used to have of going over the middle.” Riley went on, “All those stats you see nowadays? There should be an asterisk next to those names, just like Barry Bonds”—the baseball player who holds the home-run record, but is accused of having used steroids. “They don’t play the same game as Jack Lambert”—the former Steelers middle linebacker. “If you were coming across the middle, Jack Lambert would annihilate you.” He added, “I’m all in for safety. I just worry about the integrity of the game, and it being a fantasy-football-run generation, where all the emphasis is on offense.”

In 2012, the N.F.L. began promoting a youth initiative, Heads Up Football, which teaches young players tackling and blocking techniques that are meant to “take the head out of the game.” Last year, the league cited a study that seemed to attribute a decline in youth concussions to Heads Up, but the Times subsequently obtained a copy of the study and discovered that the initiative “showed no demonstrable effect on concussions.”

A similar public conversation about safety in football occurred at the end of the nineteenth century. Back then, the sport was played almost exclusively at Ivy League schools. In 1884, Harvard tried to ban it for being “brutal, demoralizing to teams and spectators, and extremely dangerous.” The effort was not successful, and dozens of players died from broken backs and snapped necks. Games increasingly resembled blood sport. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt invited representatives from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House, and they agreed on significant rule changes—including the forward pass—that were intended to make the game safer without sapping its vitality.

The death rate declined, but football did not lose its martial character. Sam Huff, a New York Giants linebacker in the sixties, has described the game as “war without guns.” The special-teams coach at St. Thomas gives his units militaristic nicknames: SEAL team, Delta Six. Conor O’Neill, a former St. Thomas linebacker who played for four years at the University of Wisconsin, told me, “We’re the gladiators of the twenty-first century.”In 2015,* eight American high schoolers died from injuries sustained while playing football. The causes included a broken neck, a lacerated spleen, and blunt-force trauma to the head.

In late August, on the day before classes resumed, Harriott instructed his team to comply with St. Thomas’s grooming standards. “You can’t have parts in your eyebrows,” he warned. He also reminded the boys to complete their summer reading assignments. “Don’t embarrass us,” he said.

That night, Grimes shaved off the inverted V that he had stencilled along his neckline. He ran up to Harriott before practice the next day. “Coach, I got a real emergency situation,” he said. “Why am I in pre-cal? Everyone else is in college algebra. I’m going to have an F! I’ve heard stories. It’s hard.” Harriott told him to stick with it. (He did, and as of December he had a B.)

“Good news, your majesty. We may already be a winner.”

St. Thomas’s first regular-season game was against Booker T. Washington, a public high school in a rough neighborhood of Miami. In 2009, one of its players was shot and killed at a party. Booker T. was the four-time returning state champ. (It competed in a different division than St. Thomas.)

Harriott and his coaching staff had recently scouted their opponent, observing them play against a team from Plantation, Florida. Booker T. won. At one point, Harriott was walking alongside the stadium fence when a Booker T. player jogged over and taunted him: “You’re next.”

Back at St. Thomas, Harriott told his guys, “They think they’re tougher than you. They talk a lot. They’re back-yard brawlers.” Booker T.’s head coach, Tim (Ice) Harris, was featured in a 2003 documentary, “Year of the Bull,” that focusses on another tough Miami high school. In it, Harris and other coaches are shown cursing at and hitting their players. “That was another era,” Harris told me. “Our kids needed a different kind of push to be able to understand and obey. As a coach and a father, I’m completely different from that now.”

Harris still ran tackling sessions at Booker T., he said, but only once a week, for thirty minutes. He said that he wanted to get the kids “to the game,” not “get them all banged up on the practice field.” Booker T. couldn’t afford Riddell SpeedFlex helmets, though Harris was trying to raise funds. And robots? “We wish,” he said. “We got to have a coach that holds the pads and runs with them.” He said that Booker T. embraced “the ‘Rocky’ concept.” When I attended a recent evening practice, at a public park near Booker T.—the school’s field has no lights—the defensive coaches had wheeled out large plastic trash cans to simulate offensive linemen.

The week of the Booker T. game, the air was soupy, the sun devastatingly hot. By three-thirty, when practice started at St. Thomas, rubber pellets dusting the artificial turf were absorbing heat, pushing the field temperature well above a hundred degrees. One player threw up. “I don’t think it’s ever been this hot before,” Grimes said, bent over and sucking air.

Harriott used the weather as motivation. At the end of practice, before a hundred dripping faces, he demanded, “Would you rather be shovelling snow?” He asked if anyone had heard what Booker T.’s coaches and players had been calling St. Thomas. “ ‘P’ cubed,” Harriott said. “Privileged. Private. Pussies.”

One afternoon, Grimes was running a curl route when he pivoted awkwardly, torquing his right knee. He headed to the sideline and adjusted a neoprene strap that he wore on the knee to alleviate the pain in his patellar tendon—a symptom of Osgood-Schlatter disease, an adolescent form of tendinitis. Grimes had been playing through nagging knee pain since the eighth grade. A coach asked him if he was O.K. “I’m good,” he said. “I just got to stretch it out. I told you, I’m a stallion, not a donkey.”

The day of the game, Harriott’s eyes looked feverish. Booker T. was ranked No. 6 by USA Today, and to win the national title St. Thomas would have to go undefeated. “Send a message,” Harriott told his players. “They play. We love. Fellas, it’s what’s expected of you. Live up to your standards and be grateful for the opportunity to prove your love, prove your worth.” His tone suddenly changed. “Right now is our state championship! Right now is our national championship! There is no tomorrow! It’s now! I want their heads! 

Sebastian Sainterling, an offensive lineman who plays right guard.
Sebastian Sainterling, an offensive lineman who plays right guard.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

The game was held at a stadium in Miami-Dade County. Cumulonimbus clouds hung in the sky. An air siren heralded Booker T.’s entrance. As the players ran onto the field, they mimed firing machine guns. “I’m So Hood,” by DJ Khaled, blared over the speakers: “I ain’t gon’ play wit ’em / I’d rather let the AK hit ’em.”

The play-by-play announcer welcomed spectators to a matchup between “two nationally ranked high-school powerhouses.” Larry Little, a former Miami Dolphins guard and a Booker T. alum, and Michael Irvin, a former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver and a St. Thomas alum, met on the fifty-yard line and shook hands. After that, the good-will gestures ceased: a Booker T. defensive end facetiously blew kisses at St. Thomas players; a skirmish nearly broke out among the two schools’ coaches. Rob Biasotti, St. Thomas’s strength-and-conditioning coach, told me that he had never witnessed such a hostile pre-game atmosphere. “This is going to be a war,” he said.

On Booker T.’s first possession, the quarterback scrambled, and he appeared to step out of bounds shy of the first-down marker. But the official spotted the ball favorably. Irvin said, loud enough for the linesman to hear, “That don’t look like no first down to me.”

Irvin graduated from St. Thomas in 1984. He went on to win a national championship with the University of Miami, and three Super Bowl rings with Dallas. In 2007, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. St. Thomas was special to him. He still attended games, and bragged about the school on the NFL Network, where he is a color commentator.

His professional career was cut short by a spinal-cord injury. “I’m not saying I won’t experience some negative effects from the game,” he told me. But football critics, he said, failed to appreciate the sport’s importance to low-income students. Irvin, who is one of seventeen children, asked, “Without the opportunity to play this game, where would they go? What would they do?” Harris, the Booker T. coach, told me that he regarded football as “one of the best dropout-prevention programs in the world.”

In “The U,” a 2009 ESPN documentary about the University of Miami in the late eighties, Melvin Bratton, one of Irvin’s college teammates, described football as “basically a way out of the hood.” Irvin agreed. Youth participation may be down in well-to-do communities, but the Upper East Side has never been a font of football talent. Wealthier Americans might ponder the future of football, Irvin said, but poor and middle-class kids were betting their future on football.

This socioeconomic disconnect is not unique to football: in 1965, after the second heavyweight fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston, the Times columnist Russell Baker addressed the growing abolitionist campaign against boxing, noting, “Fighters usually came from the hungry classes and were risking their brains for the titillation of the overfed.” Irvin put it this way: “When we start talking about ‘Will parents stop letting their kids play?,’ well, some parents will have that opportunity. But many will not. They will say, ‘Son, this is your best chance.’ ” Even some of the St. Thomas players were growing up in dire circumstances: one had been living in a motel, after his family lost their home; another student, whose guardian had been a drug addict, was in foster care.

On the next play, Booker T.’s quarterback, who last year suffered a concussion that left him foaming at the mouth, tossed an interception. St. Thomas, with Jake Allen at quarterback, took over, but Allen fumbled and Booker T. recovered. The score seesawed, and the first half ended with the Raiders in the lead, 17–14.

Roger Harriott, the head football coach. Harriott hopes to put St. Thomas at the vanguard of football safety while remaining football champions. “The other guys are playing checkers,” he likes to say. “We’re playing chess.”
Roger Harriott, the head football coach. Harriott hopes to put St. Thomas at the vanguard of football safety while remaining football champions. “The other guys are playing checkers,” he likes to say. “We’re playing chess.”Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

During halftime, Harriott urged calm: “Encourage one another. Don’t hold your head and point fingers.” He privately regretted having presented the contest as an existential struggle. St. Thomas was obviously the better team—and it was just a game, after all. “Get in the mind-set of enjoying yourselves,” he told his players.

St. Thomas came out in the second half and played more mistake-filled football: dropping an easy interception opportunity, getting penalized for roughing the punter. The team’s supporters, accustomed to blowouts, grew restless, noisily criticizing the coaches’ play calls. Late in the third quarter, St. Thomas drove deep into Booker T. territory, but Allen threw two incomplete passes, and the Raiders settled for a field goal, making it 20–14.

The players lined up for the kickoff. Perhaps no part of football is more dangerous than the kickoff, when both sides barrel toward each other at full speed, like jousters. Ghastly collisions often occur. Pop Warner has eliminated kickoffs for children under eleven, but the kickoff will most likely endure elsewhere, because every once in a while a kick returner shoots the gap and runs all the way to the end zone. For fans, the thrill derives, in part, from the possibility of disaster. Other sports have moments of similar risk: the soccer star Lionel Messi dazzles most when dribbling through, and around, slide-tackling defenders.

As the football sailed through the air, Daniel Carter plunged down the field for St. Thomas, weaving around potential blockers. Booker T.’s returner caught the ball. Seconds later, Carter smashed into his legs, slamming him to the ground—a legal hit. St. Thomas’s sideline erupted in whoops. “That’s what I’m talking about!” a coach yelled. Carter jumped up, his body surging with adrenaline; the returner did not. (“I thought he broke his leg,” Harriott said later.) Booker T. trainers carried the player off the field. “Let’s give him a hand and hope that he’s not hurt,” the announcer said. Carter told me that, for a moment, he felt “a little bit of guilt,” adding, “But at the same time it’s football.”

In the fourth quarter, with St. Thomas down by a point, Grimes came alive. He caught a short pass, stiff-armed his defender, and ran for an additional twenty yards. The Raiders kicked a field goal and retook the lead, 23–21.

The air smelled like car tires. It started to rain, but the boys kept playing. Thunder boomed. Booker T. pushed up the field, and with two and a half minutes to go they scored, taking a four-point lead.

St. Thomas needed a touchdown, and Grimes desperately wanted the ball. He caught a pass near the sideline, but seemed to aggravate his knee injury, and hobbled off the field. He sat out for a play, then went back in and made another catch, advancing the ball deep into Booker T.’s end.

With twenty-three seconds left, St. Thomas had the ball on Booker T.’s twenty-five-yard line. Allen dropped back, swivelled right, and threw to Grimes, who, after catching the ball, cut inside and got by a potential tackler. Another one stood in his way. Grimes lowered his shoulder, plowed over the defender, and fell into the end zone. Ecstatic, he pulled off his helmet to celebrate.

But the head official insisted that Grimes’s knees had touched the ground before the ball crossed the goal line. The ball was spotted at the one. On the next play, Allen lobbed a weak pass toward Grimes, which was intercepted.

St. Thomas had been defeated; for the first time in decades, the team had a losing record. Grimes was crying, as were others. Harriott tried to console them. “I appreciate the fact that you guys are heartbroken,” he said. “It’s going to make us better. Nobody died tonight.”

Jaden Davis, a cornerback, and Vincent Murphy, an offensive lineman, both sophomores, listen to Coach Harriott read a parable called “Hold the Rope,” part of the team’s pregame ritual.
Jaden Davis, a cornerback, and Vincent Murphy, an offensive lineman, both sophomores, listen to Coach Harriott read a parable called “Hold the Rope,” part of the team’s pregame ritual.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

Morale was terrible for days. Biasotti, the conditioning coach, called it “a disaster like I’ve never seen.” He told me that he feared “a breakdown of civil order” if the team didn’t bounce back strong.

An MRI scan of Grimes’s knee revealed that he had a bruised patellar tendon. His doctor gave him a dose of oral steroids, and recommended two weeks off. High-school football was important, but being healthy for Ohio State was essential. In class, he acted out; injured athletes are notoriously cranky. “I ball up my emotions and let them out on the field,” he said. “When I can’t go out and release that energy, I don’t know another way.” (He later apologized to his teachers and teammates.)

At practice, Harriott urged the players not to let anger distract them. “We’re not about that,” he told me. Practicing with the M.V.P.s, he noted, helped keep the players’ emotions in check, allowing them to “focus on strategy.”

The next Friday, St. Thomas won, 42–6. A week later, the score was 49–0. Grimes returned for the homecoming game and caught a touchdown pass. The Raiders won, 42–0. His knee felt strong and the team looked confident.

A few days later, the Raiders flew to Las Vegas for a nationally televised game against the new No. 1 in the country, Bishop Gorman, a team that had not lost since 2013. The players and coaches checked into a resort nine miles southwest of the Strip. There were ten restaurants and a pool with a waterfall, but Harriott prohibited his team from enjoying any of it. This was not a pleasure trip. Nevertheless, Harriott’s tone was more low-keyed than the one he’d adopted before the Booker T. game. He cut back on the motivational speeches. If his players weren’t at practice, meals, or meetings, he wanted them resting, visualizing their assignments on the field.

Gorman had already beaten top-ranked teams from Texas, Hawaii, Florida, and California, and it had an electrifying quarterback, Tate Martell, who, like Grimes, was headed to Ohio State. In five games, Martell had thrown for thirteen touchdowns and run for six. The bookies made Gorman a sixteen-point favorite.

“They saying we underdogs! ” Kivon Bennett said, indignantly. He and the others knew that, if they brought down Gorman, they had a chance of regaining the No. 1 spot in the USA Today rankings. Indeed, ESPN presented the matchup as if it were a prizefight. A commentator declared, “Tonight, two high-school heavyweights square off in the city where champions are crowned.”

Gorman’s stadium was filled to its capacity of five thousand. A row of rugged mountain peaks loomed to the west. Flavor Flav, whose son attended the school, showed up to watch. Harriott told his players, “Enjoy every second of this night.”

Cornelius Bennett made the cross-country trip, as did Leah Grimes. She was wearing a St. Thomas jersey with “16”—her son’s number—printed on the front and the back. Leah’s mother had also flown in, from Seattle. Before the game, some of the players talked about why they were playing. Grimes stood up and said, “I’m doing it for my grandma. She has cancer. She made a long trip to come watch me play. First time she saw me play live.” During warmups, Leah told me that the two weeks of rest had done wonders for her son. She hoped that his patellar problems were over. He was free of pain for the first time in years.

A player ices his shins after a game. Before one kickoff, Harriott offered the team some final words: “Leave a mark forever on this field. The St. Thomas spirit should never leave here. They should never, ever want to see blue-and-gold again.”
A player ices his shins after a game. Before one kickoff, Harriott offered the team some final words: “Leave a mark forever on this field. The St. Thomas spirit should never leave here. They should never, ever want to see blue-and-gold again.”Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

The game started at seven o’clock. Kivon Bennett looked across the field, and said to a fellow defensive lineman, “Let’s show them some of that South Florida shit.” Before the kickoff, Harriott offered some final words: “Leave a mark forever on this field. The St. Thomas spirit should never leave here. They should never, ever want to see blue and gold again.”

From the outset, St. Thomas played stifling defense, but on offense the team faltered. Jake Allen looked nervous and struggled to find his rhythm. He missed Grimes a few times, and then threw an interception. Grimes stormed off the field, and when a coach tried to calm him he snapped, “Everything is not O.K., Coach. Sometimes you got to say, ‘It’s not fine.’ You got to say to Jake, ‘Get your head out of your ass!’ ”

Nevertheless, the Raiders went into halftime behind by only 3–0. The deficit was “no big deal,” Harriott assured his guys, but they’d win only if they played as a team. “God is going to test our resilience,” he said, eying Grimes. Others were more direct. Schneider threatened to bench Grimes if he didn’t stop fussing, and Michael Irvin, who had flown out for the game, said, “I don’t want to hear this shit—y’all fighting each other on the sidelines. We fight together! ” After that, several players looked prepared to run through a brick wall.

Early in the third quarter, St. Thomas had the ball on its own forty-six-yard line, and went into a spread formation. Allen took the snap and pitched the ball to Michael Harley, a wide receiver. Gorman’s defense pinched in around the line of scrimmage, assuming that Harley would tuck the ball and run. But Harley stopped, set his feet, and tossed an arcing pass toward the end zone. Grimes outran his defender, extended his arms, and pulled the ball in. Touchdown.

Grimes swaggered back to the bench. Irvin smacked him on the butt, exclaiming, “That’s how big boys answer the call!” Fans hollered, “Grime Time!” The Raiders kicked the extra point, and went ahead, 7–3. On the next possession, they forced a fumble and recovered the ball. When the third quarter expired, Allen had led the offense to within inches of the goal line.

On the first play of the fourth quarter, Grimes ran a corner route, in double coverage, along the back of the end zone. He routinely outmuscled and outjumped opponents, but this time the ball was thrown short, and he didn’t have a chance. As he and the two Gorman defenders fell trying to reach the ball, Gorman’s safety intercepted it.

Grimes did not get up. When he hit the ground, he heard “a whole bunch of pops.” He pounded his fist on the field, in agony. Hurrying over, the team doctor saw that the injury was to Grimes’s left knee—not the one with tendinitis. He and a coach carried Grimes to the bench. Grimes puffed his cheeks and his eyes looked panicked, as if he were contemplating, for the first time, a future that did not include professional stardom.

Leah ran down the bleachers and unfastened the clips on Grimes’s shoulder pads. By the look on his face, she said later, “I knew it was something serious.” A doctor packed his knee with ice and braced it with a cardboard splint. Grimes left the stadium on a stretcher, with a Gatorade towel covering his face. “I didn’t want people to see me going out like that,” he told me. An ambulance took him and Leah to a hospital for an X-ray.

Trevon Grimes, the team’s star wide receiver. Grimes grew up in Indianapolis and started playing football at the age of seven. After he finished fifth grade, his mother moved to Florida, so that he could eventually attend St. Thomas.
Trevon Grimes, the team’s star wide receiver. Grimes grew up in Indianapolis and started playing football at the age of seven. After he finished fifth grade, his mother moved to Florida, so that he could eventually attend St. Thomas.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

Grimes refused pain medication, so that he could stay awake and follow the game on his phone. He watched Gorman score a touchdown and retake the lead, 10–7; then, with two seconds left, he cheered from the rear of the ambulance as St. Thomas kicked a field goal, tying it up. The game went into overtime. The Raiders scored a touchdown, then Gorman did the same. Double overtime. St. Thomas’s defense prevented Gorman from scoring, and tried to win with a field goal, but the kick was blocked. In triple overtime, St. Thomas scored again, but so did Gorman, and instead of settling for an extra point they went for a two-point conversion. Gorman made it, and won, 25–24.

Fans rushed the field. The St. Thomas players looked bewildered: they had been so close. A Gorman supporter patted a despondent St. Thomas player on the back, and said, “Outstanding athletes. Worked y’all’s butts off. Keep it up.” Gorman’s coach, Kenny Sanchez, said, “We’ve played in some great games over the years, but that was probably the best.”

Cornelius Bennett stood in the end zone, ruing St. Thomas’s lost opportunity. “Shitty feeling to come out on this side of it,” he said.

Harriott was a few feet away, addressing his team. He reminded the guys that their season was far from over. They still had a chance to win a third consecutive state title—something the team had never accomplished.

While the ESPN crew packed up their gear, little kids, basking in the bright lights, pretended that they were the stars. A group of twentysomethings crossed the parking lot, trying to find their car. “I think that’s the best ten dollars I’ve ever spent,” one said.

Two days later, Grimes had another MRI, which showed what he, his coaches, his family, and Ohio State feared the most: a torn A.C.L. His high-school career was over. He needed surgery and months of rehab if he was going to be ready for the start of the college season. “I will be back and stronger than ever,” he promised on Twitter.

In November, Grimes visited Columbus; he toured the athletic facilities and the dormitories, sat in on meetings with the coaches and the players, and had his knee examined by the team doctor. He and Leah met with a guidance counsellor to discuss his plan to graduate in three years. “I want to be done with all my credits, just in case I declare early for the draft,” he told me.

He insisted that his injury had not made him consider seriously a life without football. “If you’re thinking of a Plan B, you’re distracted from a Plan A,” he said. “I’m going to the N.F.L. There’s not a question about that. I’m just thinking about what I want to do after. I want to have a business or invent something. Like, you know those little plastic pieces that you put in the wall that keeps you from putting metal things into the thing? The guy who invented that is a billionaire!”

Ohio State played at home that weekend, against Nebraska. Grimes and his mother had front-row seats on the forty-yard line. In the second quarter, Nebraska’s quarterback, Tommy Armstrong, Jr., was tackled while scrambling. His head bounced off the turf and, for several minutes, he lay lifeless a few feet from where Grimes and his mother sat. Armstrong was strapped to a backboard and taken away. “My heart skipped a beat,” Leah said. “He could have turned his neck the wrong way and been paralyzed.” (Armstrong has since returned to play.) For the first time, Leah feared for her son’s safety. “I had to take a deep breath and refocus,” she said. “These are ginormous, mammoth men that are going to be tackling my son.”

St. Thomas crushed their next four opponents: 42–8, 42–7, 49–0, 45–19. With Grimes out, other players stepped up. In one game, Kivon Bennett made six tackles, and his general performance, along with his classroom success and locker-room leadership, led Harriott to name him a team captain.

Jake Allen, the starting quarterback, stretches in the locker room.
Jake Allen, the starting quarterback, stretches in the locker room.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

When the junior-varsity season ended, Harriott invited a few J.V. players to attend varsity practices. One day, during punt-formation drills, an eager J.V. call-up collided helmet-to-helmet with Kaleb McCarty, a junior. McCarty shook it off, but he had a terrible headache that night and couldn’t sleep. He woke up feeling dizzy, nauseated, and a little scared. “I knew something was wrong,” he said.

The next day, McCarty went to see Dwayne Owens, the athletic trainer. Owens told me that the researchers from Miami had completed a trial of the goggles that measured rapid eye movements, but had failed to provide St. Thomas with a pair to use. Owens, using a cell-phone flashlight and a series of balance tests, determined that McCarty had likely suffered a concussion. His mother took him to the hospital, where he was given an MRI. “Doctors know so little about concussions,” McCarty told me. On the Internet, he had seen “all these tests that they do on N.F.L. players and, like, all of them showed something they find on their brains”—tau deposits—“that triggered them to commit suicide.”

McCarty was unsettled. “All of this can heal,” he said, running his hands over his body. If you sprain an ankle and try to run before it has healed, you can cause further damage, but pain usually dissuades you from pushing it. “What can tell your brain that it hurts?” McCarty said. “Nothing.”

McCarty did some research. He was troubled to learn about Tyler Varga, a Yale graduate who played in three games for the Indianapolis Colts before suffering a concussion that lasted four months; Varga eventually quit the sport. Other players were retiring early. Chris Borland was the kind of football player McCarty wanted to be: a linebacker who relished a dirty jersey and the roar of the crowd. In 2014, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Borland secured a multimillion-dollar contract to play for the San Francisco 49ers. His rookie season was sensational: he had two interceptions and a sack, and in one game he made eighteen tackles.

But, in the pre-season, Borland had sustained a concussion, and it made him wonder what would happen to his brain if he kept taking blows to the head. He discreetly read “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, hiding the paperback inside a generic hardback. “I was reading about players who took their own lives, because they were demented and depressed from C.T.E., and then I was going to watch game film,” he told me. “It was fucked up.”

In March, 2015, Borland announced his retirement, saying, “I don’t want to have any neurological diseases, or die younger than I would otherwise.”

He went on TV and attended conferences on head trauma. Other professionals, like Varga, asked him for advice. ESPN The Magazine called Borland “The Most Dangerous Man in Football.”

A few months ago, in Atlanta, Borland appeared on a panel about concussions and the N.F.L. He was asked how to make football safer. “I don’t know how you do it, if it’s even possible,” he said. Violence was central to the sport’s appeal. Incredibly, football seemed more popular the more people learned about the risks. “It’s like a religion in America,” Borland said. Another analogy might be climate change: we know that it is happening, and we know that it is harmful, but are we willing to sacrifice the convenience of air-conditioning and jet travel in order to combat the problem?

At practice, Harriott urges the players not to let anger distract them. He encourages students to play for love of their teammates, not out of hatred for their opponents.
At practice, Harriott urges the players not to let anger distract them. He encourages students to play for love of their teammates, not out of hatred for their opponents.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

Changes could be made at the youth level, Borland told the audience: “No way a child should be allowed to play tackle football before high school.” In September, the parents of two former Pop Warner players who died, and subsequently were given a diagnosis of C.T.E., filed a class-action suit against the organization, contending that it had created a false impression of safety. The case raised several questions: What role should courts and lawmakers have in making football safer? Should we regulate activities that, if pursued for an extended period, might physically endanger the participants? When it comes to, say, shooting heroin, the answer is simple. But football, which can create tremendous financial and social opportunities for those who play it, cannot be categorized as purely harmful. The Times has described the class-action suit as “the next front in the legal battle over concussions.”

On the panel, Borland said, “We get into informed consent with college and pro players. There’s a huge reward if they want to take the risk, and if all the right information is made available. It’s a free country.” But, he added, “I think it’s wrong for children to hit their heads thousands of times.”

Kaleb McCarty told me that he once dreamed of going to the N.F.L., but now he just wanted to get into a good school. “Football is a vehicle for me to get an education,” he said. “I want to try to go to Penn or Duke or Syracuse. There’s no way I’ll get into them without football.”

George Smith, St. Thomas’s athletic director, was furious when he learned about McCarty’s concussion. Since Harriott had revised the practice regimen, there had been no serious injuries outside of games—a marked improvement. Why, Smith asked, weren’t the coaches using the robots more? Harriott told me that he considered the M.V.P.s “a great tool” and a “welcome innovation with regards to safety and injury prevention and concussion awareness.” But they were glitchy—a “work in progress,” as he put it. For one thing, the robots had hard plastic bases that tended to bruise shins, so the players didn’t like tackling them. (“They hurt,” Grimes said.) Ameer Riley, the defensive coördinator, said that, starting in the off-season, he hoped to incorporate the robots in more “realistic” practice scenarios.

Sometimes, Harriott said, “you have to go old-school and use bodies.” He said of McCarty, “This was our first concussion all year,” adding, “We’re doing something right.” A school that used practice robots was at the cutting edge of conscientious football, but Harriott wasn’t about to deny the brutality. He said, “We haven’t had any concussions in games—though we’ve given plenty.”

McCarty expected to be out for three weeks while he completed a “return to play” concussion protocol, which meant missing St. Thomas’s first playoff game, at home, against Palm Beach Lakes High School. Fortunately, the Raiders were the heavy favorite. McCarty attended the game in street clothes. When teammates asked him about the concussion, he told them that he had experienced blurred vision and skewed depth perception. One of them joked that it sounded like he’d been smoking weed.

Thirty minutes before the kickoff, the players lined up in the tunnel leading into the stadium. Grill smoke from the snack bar hung over the field. Michael Harley, a team captain, reminded them of the Bishop Gorman game: did they remember how awful it felt to lose? “Let’s ball out tonight!” he said.

The Raiders started strong, with a rushing touchdown on their second play from scrimmage. By the end of the first quarter, they were ahead, 27–0. After eight more points, the Mercy Rule—a constantly running clock—would take effect.

At one point, Kivon Bennett hurt his knee. He limped off the field, but he didn’t think the injury was serious. Ice, rest, rehab. “I’ll be fine,” he said. “Back in a week or two.”

Grimes is headed to Ohio State next year, but this fall he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Grimes is headed to Ohio State next year, but this fall he suffered a season-ending knee injury.Photograph by Thomas Prior for The New Yorker

Trenell Troutman, a safety, scored two of the first-quarter touchdowns, running in a fumble recovery and returning an interception. “This is my first playoff game,” he said, in a pregame speech to his teammates. “I’m hungry.” At one point, he hit a Palm Beach Lakes running back so hard that the player stumbled grotesquely around the field before collapsing. (He was assisted off the field.) After the play, a putrid smell on the St. Thomas sideline made one player say of Troutman, “I think he hit the shit out of that guy.”

At halftime, the score was still 27–0. Harriott felt pleased with the performance of Troutman and a few others, but otherwise he was frustrated. “That’s the first time I saw you guys get off to a great start and then take your foot off the gas,” he said. He expected clinical, disciplined play. Instead, he saw senseless penalties and mental mistakes. Two coaches had been shouting at each other on the sidelines. St. Thomas would never win the state championship if it performed this way. “That was pathetic,” he said. “First time I’ve ever been so embarrassed by you guys.”

The team added to its total in the second half—a touchdown and a two-point conversion. After the game ended, with a score of 35–0, one of the opposing coaches called across the field, “You guys are one helluva football team.”

Harriott’s team clustered around him. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. Their next opponent, Dwyer High School, was more formidable. “Heavenly Father, we didn’t give our best effort tonight. We did not represent You well,” he said, over the sound of the marching band. “We’re thankful, Heavenly Father, for the opportunity to redeem ourselves, to make amends.” He added, “And, as we prepare to take out Dwyer, keep us safe.”

St. Thomas trounced the team, 37–0. McCarty sat on the bench again, but he said that his head now felt fine. Concussions, he said, “are just part of the game,” adding, “You just got to recover and learn from it. They are bound to happen, just part of the sport.” The Raiders defeated their next two opponents by a total of seventy-eight points, and secured a berth in the state-championship game.

On December 9th, the Raiders travelled to Orlando, to face an undefeated team from Tampa. Grimes, no longer on crutches and already pressing eighty pounds with his bad leg, watched from the sidelines. Kivon Bennett was back on the field, and so was McCarty. St. Thomas dominated from the start, getting so far ahead that the Mercy Rule went into effect. The final score was 45–6. McCarty was elated. He remained determined to get an excellent college education—“I wouldn’t go to ’Bama just to play football”—but a pro career was back in his sights. “The N.F.L. is still a goal,” he said.

A few days after the game, Harriott said that the victory was the “culmination of an extraordinary season.” He paused. “Whatever happened, we had each other—the players had authentic love for each other,” he said. “That’s the power of family, friendship, and brotherhood.” 

*An earlier version of the article cited Ann McKee’s congressional testimony incorrectly.

**An earlier version of this caption incorrectly characterized the room pictured.

***An earlier version misstated the year in which the findings were made.