POV: There Are Many Benefits to Youth Sports. My Son’s Tragic Story Highlights the Risks
With Super Bowl LVIII here, a father who lost a football-playing son and donated his brain to BU’s CTE Center tells his cautionary story
California Assembly Bill 734, authored by Sacramento Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, would prohibit a person younger than 12 from playing tackle football. The objective of the bill closely aligns with the most current research, much of it coming out of Boston University’s CTE [Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy] Center, that the younger someone starts playing tackle football, the higher their risk for developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy and other cognitive issues later in life.
Yet, Governor Gavin Newsom said he would veto the bill if it reached his desk, and in mid-January the bill was pulled, effectively killing the effort to enact the nation’s first minimum age requirement for youth tackle football. Five other states have tried similar bans as well, and they failed.
Newsom’s decision came shortly before more than 100 million people are expected to watch Super Bowl LVIII, a game that will be fought by men who have been playing football since they were boys. In making his decision, Newsom said, “I am deeply concerned about the health and safety of our young athletes, but an outright ban is not the answer.”
I am not a medical doctor or a research scientist; I am a parent with a very personal experience of this issue. Our son, Taylor Dever, played football for Nevada Union High School. He competed in a few of the famous Grant Union vs. Nevada Union rivalry games and played on the 2005 Sac-Joaquin Section championship team. Taylor continued his football career at the University of Notre Dame. He would have told you it was one of his greatest experiences of his life, and earning his marketing degree was Taylor’s proudest accomplishment.
In his mid-20s, my son began to struggle with various mental health issues—the same symptoms common after a traumatic brain injury. This continued and intensified until a day in early December 2020, when Taylor passed away as a result of an accidental drug interaction. He was searching for some relief from the pain, another common outcome for those suffering from this debilitating disease.
We donated Taylor’s brain to the UNITE Brain Bank at the Boston University CTE Center, in collaboration with the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Our objective was to further CTE research and help find answers about what happened to Taylor.
Clinicians determined that Taylor suffered from stage two CTE (there are four total stages). The analysis did provide answers and some explanation for my son’s rapid decline and changes in his behavior, and it also sparked a personal passion and mission to increase awareness of CTE, to make changes to prevent the disease and help find a cure. AB 734 would have been an important first step.
Organized sports provide positive experiences for our children—from staying fit, engaging in teamwork, and learning how to get along with others. But research shows that repeated hits to the head can cause long-term brain trauma, including the neurodegenerative brain disease CTE.
For active children, these hits often come from heading a soccer ball or playing tackle football. We’ve learned from research that various mental health symptoms, including depression, anxiety, paranoia, and impulse control, are possible after both concussive and subconcussive hits.
I supported AB 734. The research, data, and science all support what the bill set out to accomplish: Protect our children.
Our responsibility as parents is to look out for the health and well-being of our children. That means we should all support this type of legislation. National governing bodies for soccer, hockey, and lacrosse have all made changes to mitigate CTE risk for their youngest players. I understand parental rights and I believe in family choice, but not at the risk of our children.
I don’t want anyone to go through what we went through. It’s a cliché statement, but it’s true.
I’m frequently asked: “If you were to do it all over again, would you do anything different?” Every day, I wish I had the opportunity to go back.
Tom Dever, a former youth coach and board member of various youth sports organizations in Nevada, can be reached at email@example.com. A version of this column originally appeared in the Sacramento Bee.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at firstname.lastname@example.org. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.