O’Brien: Kids should start football at later age

Football season is back, which means decision time for many parents around the country.

Will you let your kids play football? If so, what’s a good age to start?

Penn State’s Bill O’Brien makes his living coaching college kids, and he began playing football at age of 9. Looking back, he now believes that was too young.

“I can tell you I didn’t love it because I went up against some big kid who knocked the living you know what out of me,” said O’Brien, whose Nittany Lions start training camp today.

Many kids don’t start playing tackle football until age 10, or fifth grade. But as we’ve continued to become more aware of the risks, especially the long-term impact of potential head injuries, more and more parents are deciding not to let their children play football.

O’Brien and his wife, Colleen, will face the decision before long as their son, Michael, is 8 years old. O’Brien said he won’t discourage his son from playing football – he wants him to do whatever makes him happy – but the coach definitely has an idea about what to look for when deciding if Michael is ready.

“This is just me as a dad, I want Michael to be confident in his own body before he goes out there and plays football,” O’Brien said.

“My personal belief is if they start playing like eighth or ninth grade, 14, 15 years old, they feel a little bit more confident in their bodies and they’ve begun to lift weights a little bit,” O’Brien said. “I think when you’re 8 and 9, that’s tough.”

Penn State has one of the smartest players in the nation in guard John Urschel, an Academic All-American and brilliant mathematician. His brain is as valuable as there is in college football, so if anyone should be worried about protecting his noggin, it would be someone who lines up in the trenches every play and collides with massive defensive linemen.

Urschel is smart enough to understand what he’s doing and why it could be dangerous, but fear of something bad happening isn’t enough to keep him from the sport he loves.

“It’s a risk I take, it’s a risk that we all take,” Urschel said. “We’re very conscious of it. We’re adults here. I love the game that I play, and I’m well aware of the risks that come with it.”

Like O’Brien, though, Urschel believes some of the risks posed by football can be curtailed by starting at a later age.

“I would not let my kids play football when they are young children,” he said. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how I feel about little kids playing pee-wee football when their brains aren’t completely developed, their bodies aren’t completely developed. But I’d let my child play football in high school [or] maybe junior high.”

Football participation numbers have declined significantly in recent years – various studies have shown more than 10 percent at the youth level – and with parents being more cautious, don’t count on that trend reversing.

O’Brien and Urschel have a good point about starting kids when they get older, but obviously the disadvantage to that is if your kid starts when he’s 14, he’s probably going to be drastically behind the learning curve compared to a kid who started at 10.

So what’s the answer? Should tackle football be banned altogether until a certain age, say 12 or 13? Or do parents keep sending their kids out at 9 or 10 and let them get exposed to the sport, even when their bodies and brains are still very vulnerable?

It’s a tough decisions for parents.

Football is undoubtedly the king of all sports in this country, and having a kid play it almost guarantees a certain social status in junior high or high school.

But is it worth the risk of potentially hurting your child’s chances of reaching his full potential, especially if medical science eventually is able to link youth football injuries to medical issues later in life?

I have an 11-month-old son, and I can pretty much guarantee he will play football down the road. Now, whether my wife agrees with that is another situation, and that in itself is an intriguing part of the discussion.

Most dads want to see their boy play football. And at the risk of sounding sexist, many mothers won’t want their sons having anything to do with the violent sport.

What’s most important is that we are at least having a national dialogue now about football safety and the sport’s impact, not just on college and professional players, but on kids.

Whatever ultimately is decided in households across the country, at least parents will continue to have more and more information available so they can make educated decisions about whether football is right for their children.

Follow Giger on Twitter @CoryGiger.