Matt Bowen is in his late 30s and he and his wife have four boys, ages 18 months to seven. The four-year-old in particular loves football, always wanting to play in the basement of the Bowens’ suburban Chicago home.
The Bowens are sure they will have to answer the question, “Can I play tackle football?” many times, from at least one of their boys. They have an answer ready.
“My wife and I have decided that we want our boys to wait until high school,” says Bowen, who played safety and special teams for four teams over seven years in the NFL. “The reason why is the contact.”
It’s a complicated issue, and no one knows better than Bowen the effects of half a life of full-contact football, perhaps the world’s most violent sport. He admits to as many as 50 concussions, endured surgeries for leg injuries, and does physical therapy twice a week for neck and back discomfort though he last played in 2006.
But Bowen’s decision to make his kids wait until high school is not because he fears for their bodies; he doesn’t think youth football players are large enough to cause each other much damage. Bowen simply believes there’s not enough reward for the risk.
“You know what you’re doing as a pro athlete, you know you’re going to get hurt,” says Bowen. “You’ll blow knees, break bones, get concussions, it will impact you the rest of your life. But the great start it gives you, the opportunities after the career is over, is well worth it. But is it worth it when you’re eight?
Bowen says comparisons between pro football and youth football are meaningless because of that risk/reward difference, as well as the size, strength and speed difference. He also has a message for parents who worry that their child will fall behind in the competition for scholarships if he doesn’t start playing tackle football before high school.