“Using Our Heads”

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on October 28, 2010, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

It’s not hard to see the impact of the NFL on Stratford during a crisp autumn night under the lights. As Stratford High took on Pomperaug last Friday, the jerseys of the New York Giants, Jets, and Patriots were sprinkled liberally throughout the stands amid Devil red. Football has replaced baseball as America’s pastime, and I’m sure every young man on that field (like most of us in the stands) has dreamed of what it would be like to play in the NFL.

However, a spate of vicious hits on defenseless players has rocked the football world in the last week. Several players were barely able to walk off the field in NFL games, victims of helmet-to-helmet collisions and the concussions that followed. The NFL responded quickly with a crackdown on illegal hits through the stricter enforcement of existing rules designed to protect players most vulnerable to these life-altering hits.

Normally, this would be heartening news, as rule changes and extra provisions for player safety inevitably trickle all the way down to the level of peewee football. Unfortunately, the very players this renewed enforcement is designed to protect are its most vocal critics.

Former Denver Broncos tight end Mark Schlereth screams on ESPN, “Why not just lose the pads and play touch football?” Respected coaches like Mike Ditka bemoan the missed tackles that will result, then ruminate on the possibility of increased knee injuries as players aim lower. Even former players like Daniel Morgan, a linebacker forced from the game due to repeated concussions in 2007, rail against the stiffer penalties for the same hits that hastened his early retirement.

They are unanimous in their refrain: That’s just the way football is played. We shouldn’t penalize players for doing what they were taught to do. These same plays are celebrated on highlights and in team meetings with the coaches. In a split second, you have to rely on instinct. James Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, is the current poster boy of those who feel the NFL has gone too far, turning the game we love into flag football. Of course, in less than eight minutes last Sunday, Harrison knocked two players out of the game with concussions after aiming at their necks and heads, then made post-game comments that he tries to hurt, not injure, opponents because it increases the Steelers’ chances of winning. The next day, he threatened to retire because of the new penalties that he played a major role in instituting.

Do it, Mr. Harrison—I dare you. You signed a six-year, $51.175 million contract after the 2008 season, and I’d love to see you take your high school diploma and try to make up the rest of that money while the rest of the NFL moves out its dark ages. The game cannot be hijacked by knuckle-draggers who view head injuries as a rite of passage. These are elite athletes. If they can’t manage to stay away from someone’s head on a tackle, find someone who possesses the talent to do so. Like the institution of the helmet itself in 1941, it won’t take away from the violence of the game as much as prevent that violence from needlessly taking someone’s life.

I admit that I have selfish reasons for hoping the NFL maintains its hard line: as a teacher, I’d like the brains I instruct at school to continue working into adulthood. A middle school student once shared how his parents were scrambling to find another doctor to write off his latest concussion so he could get back on the field. “We’re going to buy some kind of expensive helmet so they’ll get off my back,” he said. He figured it was his third concussion, but he hadn’t told anyone about the first, nor the neck pain that had been bothering him for weeks. I hope he saw a different game last week that didn’t get as much press, a game where Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed when he rammed the top of his helmet into an opposing player during a kickoff.

The truth is that the NFL’s attempt to protect its players truly does affect our kids, and the culture has to change at every level in order for player safety to be taken seriously. The NFL’s impact on Stratford must not come from the top of a helmet; one hopes they will use their heads before some of our kids lose theirs on a senseless hit.

“Hair of the Dog That Licked Ya”

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on October 14, 2010, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

The Town for All Seasons showed its furry side during the wildly successful Dog Walk & Festival held on Paradise Green this past Saturday. The fifth annual benefit for homeless animals packed the green with dogs of all breeds as they led their befuddled owners around Stratford’s largest canine meet ‘n’ greet. The free admission and fantastic weather combined to provide hundreds of happy families the opportunity to imagine life with a dog park, if only for one magical day.

We Stratford dog owners rarely get the opportunity to socialize in large numbers, instead reduced to small packs scrambling to throw on clothing for morning “constitutionals” around the yard, fumbling through pockets for baggies to pick up what remains of last night’s dinner bowls. It’s at times like these that many of us secretly yearn for the simplicity of cats, but those moments are fleeting. Festivals like this allow us to find comfort in the fraternity of dog lovers.

My wife and I packed up our pups and arrived an hour into the festivities, hoping to miss the initial wave of dogs who were shuttling out for the one-mile walk. Unlike their owners, our spaniels are incredibly social, and the sight of even one dog or child sends them into spasms of joy. Our “middle child,” ZuZu, also happens to be our “special child.” Hobbled by a myriad of mysterious ailments that reduce her to the ZuMobile (like the Pope Mobile, only without the bulletproof netting), she shudders and yelps out greetings to any form of life at eye level. Because she so desperately wants to play with anything in sight, sometimes less is more.

As soon as we entered Paradise Green, however, our dogs were on sensory overload. It was as if a dying man, lost in the desert and wearing Spock ears, crested that final mountain of solitary sand and stumbled upon a Star Trek convention. Our spaniels set their own agenda: a sniffed butt here, a quick stop to accept pats on the head there, and then onward around the ring of vendor tents. Our girls seemed disappointed in us as they saw the many outfits other dogs were wearing as they paraded through the park. By the time we saw the beagle in its tuxedo, our spaniels ignored us completely. Two of our dogs tried out the agility training with Nikki Stollman of Four Paws Pet Services in Stratford, where we got the opportunity to see how well behaved they can be with someone who actually knows what she’s doing. We saw Rescue Ink’s Nicholas “Batso” Maccharoli as he set up shop for pictures, but our dogs had already begun a new game of “How many knots can we tie in these leashes?” as they rushed after a yellow lab in a nurse’s outfit.

 

The North Shore Animal League brought their adoption bus, where a few confused cats looked out over the sea of dogs and wondered whether it wasn’t time to plot their escape. It was great to talk with Stratford Animal Control and the people providing the microchip clinic to get a feel for how important pet ownership is in town. I never knew how many different animal rescue groups there were that helped find homes for Stratford pets: German shepherd rescues, bulldog rescues, even blind dog rescue groups had representatives available to explain their crucial role in maintaining the special relationship with man’s best friend.

Still, the best part of the day was watching the tiny faces of children light up every time they saw a new dog. If anyone had any doubt why Stratford is finally building its new animal shelter, one need only spend a few moments wandering the grounds to see what an amazing effect our pets have on us. The sheer number of people who volunteered at this event speaks to the importance of animals in our community. For a few hours, Stratford citizens showed our best side—our furry side—on a day that could truly be enjoyed by all.

To find out more about the Stratford Animal Rescue Society and donate your time, money, or old bedding to a worthy cause, please go to: www.stratfordanimalrescue.com.