(Second in a series)
Tony Boselli stood 6-foot-7 and weighed 322 pounds back in 1995 when the Jacksonville Jaguars made him the first No. 1 draft pick in franchise history, and as a left tackle throughout his career he made his living in the most violent ZIP Code on a football field. Boselli was good at his job. Four times he was an Associated Press All-Pro selection; he was voted to the Pro Bowl five times; he was named NFL Lineman of the Year twice; and he was a member of the NFL's All-Decade Team of the 1990s.
But Boselli only was able to start 90 games during his NFL career because of injuries, and his career was cut short after eight seasons by a chronic shoulder condition. Today, Boselli and his wife, Angi, live in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, with their five children, and through The Boselli Foundation, they work to provide children with limited financial resources a comprehensive after-school learning environment. Their message is: "When a child achieves, a community thrives."
Tony Boselli's football career was ended prematurely, and likely painfully, because of his shoulder, but that has not soured Boselli on football, or on the role football can have as a teaching tool for the boys who play it.
"It bothers me a lot, because there are a lot of things that are dangerous in this world," said Boselli during a recent appearance on ESPN's Mike & Mike in the Morning. "Football, as far as the game, is a great game. It's great for young people to play. It has been great to me, been great to my boys. I think it teaches you a lot. I understand football is dangerous, and we need to make it safe, but I also think we can go too far on that and change the game too much. But we've allowed the perception of the mainstream media to be slanted in a way that views football, somehow, as a barbaric, dangerous, out of control game."
Larry Foote needed football in ways that his oldest son, Trey, does not. As a student at Pershing High School in Detroit, Larry Foote came to understand that football was a means to a college education. "I wasn't too fond of football," remembered Foote of his high school days, "but my mother kept encouraging me to play. Thank God I liked it. It kept me occupied between baseball and basketball seasons."
It also got him a scholarship to the University of Michigan. It gave him an opportunity for a career.
Now, with 11 NFL seasons under his belt, with two Super Bowl rings on his fingers, Foote doesn't need football to provide for Trey, now a 17-year-old sophomore at Southfield Lathrup High School in Detroit, or for his other two sons, Larry and Trammell. But he still sees the sport as being valuable to them and worthwhile for them.
"The great thing about football is it breaks down the barriers," said Foote. "Some kids are shy, but when you're part of a team friendships are built. It's a good chance for young kids to open up and meet friends. The main thing with football – especially since it's such a demanding and difficult sport – is that there's always growth. If you work hard and keep working hard, you'll get better. You can see it in football from one level to the next. Each year you keep at it you can see (the improvement)."
There is another, more tangible benefit that football is providing Trey right now.
"At his school you have to keep a 2.5 grade point average to play," said Foote. "Some of his teammates aren't eligible, but he has to keep up his grades to do it. For a lot of kids it's a good discipline thing. Kids love sports, but if you don't do well you can't play. It's extra motivation to do well in school. That continues in college when you get a scholarship. You have to keep your grades up if you want to play football, and they work together.
"I encourage him and tell him this can open up a lot of doors, and that college is a key. That's the way the world is. You have to get that degree."
Larry Foote also recognizes and understands the need for good equipment and having boys taught the proper way to play football, and so he has done what he can to provide that for Trey.
"The school he goes to now, my high school coach is there," said Foote. "I have him going there because I know he's going to be taught the right way."
Ivan Taylor is learning about football the hard way. What truly makes football difficult is the out-of-season training required to condition oneself for the actual playing of the sport. Only 6 years old, Ivan is already being exposed to the training techniques used by the pros, including his father, Ike.
Ike Taylor just completed his 10th NFL season, and one of the keys to his longevity and durability has been his offseason training regimen, which is done at the Tom Shaw Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction and Quickness Training Program. Recently, father has introduced son to this program, albeit in a very informal and voluntary way.
"Coach Shaw works with him on his technique. He shows Ivan the proper technique at a young age, which is something I didn't get," said Ike. "He shows him the proper running technique, drills, speed. Running fast is something that comes with the territory, but it's also about learning how to run and be patient. Ivan plays running back, and I've never seen a kid more patient than when it's time to hit the hole and run. When he sees an open field, that's what he does. Also he has good hand-eye coordination, which works for him when he sees that flag."
Alas, it's been only flag football so far for Ivan, but when he gets old enough to wear equipment and play tackle football, Ike will allow his son to decide for himself.
"In flag football, there isn't too much contact," said Ike. "Since he was little he has been hanging with my teammates and has been around these guys and he has asked me, 'Daddy, doesn't it hurt?' I told him it hurts for a little while, but you have to make that decision whether you want to go through it or not. I will let him make the decision, but flag football is developing him. I have no problem him playing contact football. He wants to play with the equipment on right now."
And in the meantime, Ike is seeing some things developing in his son as a result of his exposure to football.
"He's a team guy for sure. That's the first thing he learned," said Ike. "He knows without the team you can't win. I want him to lose sometimes so he can understand it's something you don't want to do, so you learn what you can do as a player to help your team win. I let him learn on his own. I don't say too much. I let them teach. If there is something I need to say, I'll say it."
Two of Jeff Hartings' sons – Michael, 12, and Lucas, 11 – already play football, for the Avonworth Eagles Youth Football League, and Bob will be joining his brothers in the coming year. The interest in football came from the boys themselves, and Jeff Hartings said he likes the lessons they are learning along the way.
Jeff Hartings, an 11-year veteran of the NFL, lists those lessons this way: "Commitment, learning to make a commitment to something. Hard work, doing something that's hard work and working hard at it. There is also perseverance, especially through disappointment. I think athletic activities are constantly providing you opportunities to get up after being knocked down, having your hopes built up for winning and then losing and how you respond to disappointment. In the culture we live in, there aren't many opportunities for that to happen. We can avoid a lot of disappointment on a daily basis, and that's why I like that they can learn that. It's hard work, commitment, perseverance and happiness, too. When you do something you really enjoy it brings you happiness. Fellowship is a big one, and friendships, loyalty and unselfishness. Playing football gives you an opportunity for humility, to think about others being more important than yourself.
"But I know 11- and 12-year-olds aren't ready for all of that, but they are learning. If they weren't playing football, I would have to find something else for them to do to learn those things. Today in our culture, sports is a big deal at every level. It provides a great opportunity for boys to learn those character traits. They are building their own story, their own character and integrity, and what they are going to stand for. Sports, other than the family, can provide the best atmosphere for that to happen."
And through his own interest and expertise, Jeff Hartings is working toward providing the best and safest atmosphere for his sons to experience and enjoy football.
"I take a hands-on approach," said Hartings. "I coach their teams, and I also do extra coaching at home. When you get to the age my kids are, you have to learn proper technique, for tackling, hitting, and the positioning of the head. All of those things help avoid injuries. You also have to do proper conditioning, training and stretching. All of those things contribute to preventing injuries. Safety definitely is a focus, both from an equipment standpoint and with things like unnecessary roughness. In the past coaches thought things like a late hit were macho. What I think is great is they're eliminating those hits. I still see that at the high school level where I coach, and we don't stand for it. I'm thankful the officials are penalizing those things more."
Chris Hoke was a product of his environment, of a certain way of life, when it came to playing football. But he knows that way is no longer the right way.
"The way I was brought up in sports, there was no thought about getting a concussion," said Hoke. "If you're tough, get back in there. Football is a grind, and that was imprinted in my mind. Now when you coach you pay more attention to it. If a kid comes to you and says, 'My head hurts,' you make sure you pay attention to those things and look out for them."
Hoke, who retired a year ago after playing 11 years for the Steelers as a nose tackle, has two sons playing tackle football for the a community team called North Allegheny Tiger Pride. Cade, now 12, started playing when he was 8, and Nate, now 9, started playing when he was 7.
"You worry a little bit, but you understand things can happen to people, but it can happen by walking outside and getting hit by a car," said Hoke. "There are so many lessons you can learn by playing football.
"You learn to dig deep in life situations. There are a lot of situations you go through in football that can relate to real life, even in the business world. You learn how to be a teammate, how to be a mentor, how to compete and work in a group. In life there is a lot of competing going on. People win and lose every day. You have to learn how to compete and be a good sport. I see my sons learning these things. I see a lot of growth in them, especially my older son.
"Teamwork, leadership, perseverance, determination, those things go beyond some of the risks you might take playing football. And I bought new helmets and shoulder pads for my kids, because that was important to me. I make sure there is enough air in the helmet. Plus you have to know the signs if something is wrong and take it seriously. Kids now understand the symptoms of a head injury, and you have to pay attention to it."
NEXT: The safety issue