Former soccer player’s view on U.S. Soccer’s header guidelines

Like many children, I started playing recreational sports when I was 5 years old. I played soccer in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring — summers were for the beach.

As I got older, I realized I didn’t dribble a basketball too well nor could I hit a baseball that well either, so I ditched those sports and focused all of my energies on soccer.

I played year round through high school. I loved the sport and didn’t really suffer any significant injuries aside from a sprained ankle here and there or bruises on my calves and shins until senior year of high school. I remember playing a game behind my high school in Middlesex, N.J., at our field we referred to as “The Pit.” I don’t remember what time of year it was or who our opponent was, but I remember that I felt some of the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life that afternoon. I was going up for a header along with another player. I got my head onto the ball and he got his head onto mine and BAM, I went down like a sack of potatoes. I was basically head butted. My nose began gushing blood and I was taken to the sideline. When the bloody nose wouldn’t subside, I walked to my parents on the other side of the field to be taken home. That’s when I felt queasy and weak in my knees and I lost my balance. My mom took me to the hospital where I was diagnosed with a concussion, a fractured orbital (cheekbone) and two fractured sinuses. Simply put, I had an indentation at the bottom of my left eye socket. I underwent surgery and was left with a scar along my eyebrow, but I longed to return to the field. I could have played again that season, but a customized Rip Hamilton-esque protective face mask cost near $2,000 and there were only a few games left in the season, so I hung up my cleats.

Like Michael Jordan wearing the 4-5, I came out of retirement and took to the field again in college. While I was only playing intramural, it was still exciting to return after my injury. Bad luck struck again as I tore my ACL playing indoor soccer during my sophomore year. I had surgery that summer and went to rehab three days a week for most of the ensuing fall semester while balancing an 18-credit workload as an English major.

With all of that being said, I have never shied away from the sport I loved and still love to this day. I played in two separate leagues following my move to New York City in April. Injuries happen whether you play football, field hockey, soccer or run cross country. Injuries happen when you walk across the street, drive in your car or roll out of bed. What I’m saying is that there is a risk with everything you do in life, especially in sports. Those risks are certainly worth it when a professional signs his/her first contract or wins an award. Players get hurt, they rehab and they return to the field or court.

While I understand the health benefits of U.S. Soccer suggesting the ban of heading for players 10 years old and younger and limiting headers for those 11-13, I think it’s outrageous. How can you expect children to learn, develop and master something, especially a sport, when you limit their skill set? It’s like telling Pop Warner football players they aren’t allowed to tackle until they get into high school. It changes their mentality completely.

Heading the ball in soccer and tackling in football are key components to the respective sports. Are slide tackles going to be limited or banned in soccer because players break legs or tear knee ligaments? Are youth baseball players going to be capped on a number of pitches because they might need Tommy John surgery when they’re 30? Players are going to get hurt because it comes with the territory. It’s a risk they all know and all take to make millions of dollars, have hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers, sign endorsement deals with Nike or star in commercials for Papa John’s.

If we want to force our youth to play sports and not get hurt, give them a video game controller. But then they might develop blisters and they’ll be limited on how many hours they can play that, too. There are many other more important issues with the youth in this country — education, healthy eating habits, exercise (which is now in a way being limited) — than the possibility of a sports-related injury. Let’s focus on those instead.

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