(First of a series)
Mike Tomlin has heard the opinions. Kurt Warner's, when he said back in May 2012 that he would prefer his sons not play football. Ed Reed's, when he said at a Super Bowl XLVII media session a few days ago that he would tell his son, "I played it so you don't have to." And everything that has come in between.
Mike Tomlin heard it all. Now he has something to say.
"That's an opinion, and from that perspective I respect opinion," said Tomlin, "but sometimes opinions are reported as fact. That's why people who have a different opinion, like mine, need to stand up and say theirs as well."
There always is a heightened level of media scrutiny associated with the staging of a Super Bowl, and the one played yesterday in New Orleans maintained the standard. Thousands of stories must be generated during the run-up to a Super Bowl, and prior to this most recent one the future of the sport emerged as a compelling topic. Then when President Barack Obama chipped in, even though his response to the hypothetical question of whether he would allow his sons to play football if he had sons essentially was nothing more than a lukewarm "I don't know" within an otherwise wide-ranging interview, the result was that the perception of football was being slanted in a particular direction.
"I just don't think now is the time, or the climate, for those who believe in the game and believe in the positive things it provides to sit around and be the silent majority," said Tomlin. "I wanna sing it from the rooftops. Football has been great to me in my participation in it, not only as a coach but as a player. I buy into it. I believe it to the core. I want my sons to share those same experiences if they love the game, and to this point they've proven that they do."
That's one of the things that separates Mike Tomlin's opinion from many of the others, including Mr. Obama's. He actually has sons, two of them, ages 12 and 11. Both boys play tackle football and have for going on two years now, and they aren't doing it because it has to be a means to a financial end, because their father has the ability to provide them with every opportunity.
"They came to me, and I was interested in waiting until they were a little bit older so that they could appreciate some of the rules of the game, because the more you understand the rules of the game, the safer the game is," said Tomlin of sons Dino and Mason. "But so many of their friends were playing, and they approached me with it. I consented. They enjoy it. I enjoy it for them."
Tomlin's belief in what football provides comes from personal experience. He was able to go from the halls of Denbigh High School in Hampton, Virginia, to being a graduate of The College of William & Mary because of football.
"I think there are enrichment opportunities (from football) that are above and beyond finances," said Tomlin. "The financial gain, or the potential financial gain, is evident. For me, it was a means to educate myself, it was a means to go to college. But also, the experiences I had while I was in that situation are ones I can't quantify or put a price tag on. I'm better for it. The places I've gone, the people I've met, just the quality of my life has been enriched by playing the game of football. I want that for my kids, even though the financial end of it might not be highlighted for them. But I do want them to share in some of the enrichment experiences I've been involved in because of my association with the game of football.
"For example, I never had a passport or had been out of the country until I played a game in Tokyo, Japan, during my sophomore year in college. Some of the best people, some of the most influential people in my life, people who have given me the recipe for success outside of football – making good, sound business decisions, doing the right things from a life perspective, setting up things for your children and your spouse – I have developed some great relationships with people who have helped me in those ways, and quite frankly the only reason I met them was through the avenue that football has provided."
The issue of player safety is what most parents identify as their biggest concern, but for Tomlin, the issue is more about the general welfare of children in general and not with those playing tackle football in particular.
"I fear for their safety when they walk out of my driveway in the morning. When they go to school. When they participate in a myriad of activities," said Tomlin. "There's a certain element of risk to everything that you do in life, and I'm not alarmed in any way by their participation in football."
A man in his position, with his knowledge and experience, can impact how boys learn to play football, and Tomlin is happy to contribute his time and skills toward that end. He has a free football camp every summer for those who couldn't otherwise afford to attend something like that. He has teamed with Dr. Micky Collins, the clinical and executive director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, for the "Don't hit the head; Don't use the head" initiative designed to help make youth football safer for kids. And he stays involved in his boys' lives.
"Those of us who love the sport of football better have a keen interest in safeguarding its integrity and making sure that young people are taught the game properly. I just believe that," said Tomlin.
"I not only make sure that my boys are instructed properly but also those boys they play with. I lend my services and my expertise to those guys in terms of teaching proper blocking techniques and proper tackling techniques. That's important for young people. But also the proper way to play a game and the rules of the game are central to playing it right and fair and safely, and that's true no matter what the game. Football, basketball, baseball, track and field – my kids are involved in a lot of activities, and I take that same approach in all of the activities they participate in."
And in the Tomlin household, it truly is a family affair, because before she was Kiya Tomlin, wife and mother, she was Kiya Winston, William & Mary student and gymnast.
When asked what Mom thinks of her boys playing tackle football, Tomlin laughed when he said, "My wife is the lady in the stands yelling, 'Get 'em,'" but then he turned serious.
"But that's her gymnast's mentality, and there's a price to be paid for participating in that sport, too. I watch my wife get out of bed sometimes, and she has some of the same issues that 39-year-old football players have. That's just life.
"It's just that the commitment associated with what is required to be good at these activities, the teamwork that's required, all of it teaches and provides avenues for life lessons that you can't simulate. Football is an avenue that teaches great life lessons. I think it parallels life in a lot of ways – there are repercussions for actions, teamwork is highlighted. I just believe it's a great teaching tool for young men."
NEXT: Current and former players speak out in favor of football and what it can offer, and why they allow their boys to play the game.