Commentary

Tony Dorsett's issues hit home

Ex-Cowboy's plight brings internal conflict for those whose children play football

Updated: November 7, 2013, 4:41 PM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

My mom earned a Ph.D. So did my father and his father. So education was never compromised in the house where I was raised in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas.

School was my job, and I was expected to excel. Missing it because I felt less than 100 percent was never an option.

[+] EnlargeTony Dorsett
AP Photo/Martha IrvineTony Dorsett, who rushed for more than 12,000 yards with the Dallas Cowboys, was told Monday that he's been diagnosed with signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

The only time my mother ever took me out of school early occurred in the fall of 1980, when I was in the seventh grade. She knew of my interest in being a sports reporter, so she took me to see Brad Sham, the voice of the Dallas Cowboys, do his "Sports Central: Dallas" radio show live at a North Dallas restaurant.

The guest? Tony Dorsett.

He was my hero as a kid. Sure, I loved Roger Staubach and Drew Pearson, with his fancy spikes after touchdowns, but Tony D was my guy.

The speed. The moves. The swag.

As an adult, I've met every member of the Cowboys I rooted for as a kid. None made the pitch of my voice change or my palms sweat like meeting Dorsett the first time.

Even now, after I've talked to him countless times, been to his home in Frisco, and saved his phone number among my contacts, he remains No. 33 to me -- the dude I grew up worshiping.

And that's why it's so painful to learn he's been diagnosed with having signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition many scientists say is caused by head trauma and linked to depression and dementia.

It hurts to hear the desperation in his voice when he talks publicly about the quality of his life diminishing each day. It's painful to hear the despair in his words, when he discusses forgetting the route to take his children to school.

You look at Dorsett and he's still fit. He looks 40, not a few months shy of 60. He looks like a man who should have 40 or 50 years left to live. Maybe more. God willing, he will.

Then there's the irony of Dorsett's situation.

I've thought about crazy stuff, sort of like, 'Why do I need to continue going through this?' I'm too smart of a person, I like to think, to take my life, but it's crossed my mind.

-- Former Cowboy Tony Dorsett,
who has been told he is clinically depressed and has shown signs of CTE.

Remember, coach Tom Landry never gave Dorsett the ball as much as the Hall of Fame running back wanted it. Landry wanted to protect the 5-foot-11, 192-pounder.

Dorsett played during a golden age of running backs, yet he averaged only 15.9 carries per game. In 11 seasons with the Cowboys, he had 20 carries in a game just 57 times. In 157 games with the Cowboys, Dorsett had 30 carries in a game just twice.

Compare that to Emmitt Smith, the 210-pound workhorse who had 20-plus carries 115 times in 201 games with the Cowboys. Eleven times, Smith carried the ball 30 times or more.

If Landry had given Dorsett the ball more, would the symptoms have occurred more quickly?

CTE is scary stuff. It's stealing the lives of our heroes, whether it happens naturally or the depression it often triggers leads to suicide.

Mike Webster. Dave Duerson. Junior Seau. They're just a few who, we learned after their deaths, had signs of CTE. Sadly, there will be many more.

We don't know much about CTE. Is it genetic? Or strictly from football or all contact sports? Will medicine stop it or slow the symptoms?

All these questions and few substantive answers. That's why I'm conflicted as a parent these days.

My 9-year-old son, Ashton-Jude, enjoys football. He craves the physicality and the contact. He has little use for offense. He's all about defense because he loves to hit. He counts the scratches on his helmet on the way home from games, and he can tell you which blow produced which scratch.

He's always been like that. He asked me to play flag football when he was 6. Then he spent every waking moment asking me when he could put on some shoulder pads and a helmet.

When he was born, I looked forward to these days when we would bond over sports. Now, I spend time each week wondering whether we're both going to regret this someday.

I don't believe in living scared. None of us, the Good Book says, is promised tomorrow. Still, smart folks don't go around tempting fate.

Am I overreacting? Am I not going to let him drive because thousands die every year in car accidents?

Should I let him read this column and all the information available, and let him make his own decision about playing football -- even at this tender age where adulthood seems a zillion years away?

You talk to players in the Cowboys' locker room, and some of them look at you like you're crazy when you ask whether they'd let their children play. Others say they play football and deal with the mangled joints and pain-killing injections so their kids won't have to play.

The conflict is real.

Whenever possible, I attend my son's football practices. The time we spend alone together to and from practice is meaningful, but I like attending so I can monitor him during practice.

I study his body language after every collision. Is he shaking his head to clear cobwebs, a sign he's been concussed? Did he use the right technique? Did he see what he hit?

Ten years ago, none of these thoughts would've crossed my mind. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

Those days are over.

My childhood hero has a degenerative brain condition, and my son loves the sport that has been linked to causing CTE.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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