Still In Love With Football? HHS’ Relationship With the Gridiron


Isabella DePreist-Sullivan, Contributing Writer

Football is the quintessence of American culture and obsession. The Superbowl, which this year featured a Hastings graduate, Ali Marpet, is the most-watched television event every year, and entire communities are built around their high school’s football teams. Even Hastings dedicates close to a million dollars each year to its athletic programs, and according to treasurer Maureen Caraballo, “[the town spends] more money than most other districts [in and near the Rivertowns] do on sports for the [number] of students we have.” But what is it about sports – especially football – that makes it such an integral part of American society? Why do we continue to invest in the game despite the overwhelming evidence of the risk of brain damage? And how does this manifest in Hastings?

From HHS head football coach Sam O’Hare’s experience, football is popular because “[it’s] a social event. It’s a time where no matter what your differences are… you’re still at the game watching these athletes trying to put their best foot forward on the field. As a kid, you watch these guys play and they become heroes to you, so you want to play because it looks like they’re having so much fun out there.” O’Hare described how he played every sport growing up, but the “love [he] had for football was something different.” 

For senior left guard and middle linebacker Johnny Amaral, “it’s the athletic rush… being on the field, playing with my team, and people watching.” 

From a coaching perspective, O’Hare loves the game because “there are so many nuances to the way it’s played, and how you have to highlight each individual talent and bring the best out of it.” Both HHS football coaches O’Hare and Ortiz also spoke to the character-building elements of the sport as well: “Football is not an easy sport to play,” O’Hare explained. “If you can overcome losses, if you can get hit and get back up, that mental fortitude helps you in any aspect of your life because there are times where you are going to be knocked down.” 

Football is also popular because of the economic opportunities it can bring. For some, getting a scholarship for football is the only way to get into college, and it opens doors for a better life. A New York Times article written by Albert Samaha discussed the experience of two boys, Andrew Hart and Isaiah Anthony, whose talent in football was the way for them to succeed after high school: “football, to these boys, was not the end but the means.” 

Amaral echoes this situation: “We don’t see it as much in Hastings, but if you travel down south to South Carolina, or Texas, or Florida, football is a religion and it’s worth your life. Friday Night Lights, it’s fiction, but it’s based off of this football culture that if you don’t make it out for football, that’s it. It’s football or nothing.” 

As a history teacher focusing on race relations, Coach O’Hare has studied the role of football in creating opportunities as well, mentioning that “in these lower socioeconomic groups that have a lack of education and lack of funding, a lot of these kids have to rely on sports to help them get out.”

This is also a reason why some may play football despite the abundant evidence of, and conversation about, the risks of brain damage. Neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee, in 2017, studied the brains of 202 deceased football players and found that 110 had CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Another recent study from Boston University examined the brains of 266 deceased football players—223 of whom had CTE—and found that the risk of the disease increases each year of playing football, and doubles every 2.6 years. One of the NFL’s top health and safety officials has officially confirmed the link between the disease and football, and some even claim the relationship between years of football and developing CTE is stronger than the link between smoking and cancer. 

CTE is a disease of brain degeneration as a result of repeated head trauma, but can only be diagnosed from an autopsy. There are no specific symptoms, and the disease develops over many years. However, people with CTE may appear to have another neurodegenerative disease, like Alzheimer’s or ALS, or have memory problems or suicidal thoughts.   

“[Some kids] will sacrifice their bodies and their health if it will give them a chance to remove themselves from a bad situation or give themselves a better life,” said Coach O’Hare. Amaral agrees, saying that he thinks “[football is] almost seen as worth it. [For some people,] if you’re going to get hurt, get hurt playing football.” 

Luca Cobucci, a quarterback who played for Hastings from 2007-2010 described how he thinks the benefits of the sport outweigh the risks. “When I was playing,” he said, “the focus on concussions wasn’t as strong as it is now, but even if I had known then what I know now, it wouldn’t change how I played the game or my desire to play,”

 Additionally, both Amaral and coaches O’Hare and Ortiz pointed out the ways players are taught to protect themselves from injuries given the possibility of brain damage. “As coaches, we teach our kids the proper way to play the game, to be aware of their surroundings when they’re playing, and how to tackle and hit someone correctly,” said Coach Ortiz.  

Amaral thinks “the biggest risk is when you don’t know what you’re doing. Something that I learned was to exert strength from my lower body—I play offensive line, what I do is block people, pretty much push other kids, so instead of pushing with my head, or my neck, or my arms, I drive from my legs.” 

Coach O’Hare elaborates on the importance of using the power from your lower body, saying that “when we teach our kids to tackle, we use Pete Caroll, the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, his ‘eagle tackling’ philosophy [where] you’re generating power from your lower body and using your shoulder, not your head to tackle. You’re aiming for their hip, so you’re not at risk and neither is the person you’re tackling.” 

Both coaches emphasized the importance of player safety, and how they remove players from the game to be professionally evaluated if there is a concern and start the season by holding a parent meeting to go over risks and preventative measures. 

As for the football culture in Hastings, Cobucci noted how, at a time when the team was successful and there was a lot of buzz around Ali Marpet, “football had strong numbers and a strong following within the school.” But today, Amaral recognizes the lack of this intense community involvement in the program. “My genuine hope is that the football program can be on the come up now. I think Hastings has potential to be, not a ‘football school,’ but a school that is enthralled by and values football culture.[…]It’s my hope that people will be hoping, expecting the football team to win.” 

Amaral also thinks that community investment would impact the performance of the team. “For football, anyone who wants to play can play because there just aren’t that many kids that want to. If it had the hype to it that other sports do, we could have more players. There are plenty of kids [in Hastings] that could be good, but they’re not involved because no one introduced it to them. More community involvement could lead to success.”

 Both Amaral and the coaches agree that the first step is starting kids earlier. “Football in Hastings needs a Pop Warner program,” said Coach Ortiz. 

“There used to be a Hastings ‘Little League’ football program, and when the kids in my grade were doing it, those were the years when Hastings was really good at football—around 2011,” said Amaral, “Then the varsity got worse and worse, and there were fewer teams for younger kids. It needs to start younger. I started picking up a football junior year, and I started every game last year. I don’t want to know what I could be capable of if I had picked up a football when I was in second grade.”

“I think building that successful [football] program just kind of enhances what Hastings already has,” said Coach O’Hare, “it’s a bunch of enthusiastic people who want to see the town and the kids succeed, so the more we are able to contribute to that the better.”