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The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
A huge portrait of a kneeling Woody Hayes stared down at the more than 700 females, many of them mothers, who participated in the Ohio State football women's clinic yesterday at the athletic facility named in his honor.
It was a gathering of gals the likes of which Hayes never could have imagined in 1978, the last year he coached the Buckeyes. Women? Hitting tackling dummies? Running wind sprints? Playing football?
The knee-jerk reaction is to assume the Old Man would have frowned upon any invasion of estrogen into the inner sanctum of Ohio State football, but my suspicion is that Hayes would have been more intimidated than angered. Woody was old-school tough, but melted in the midst of that most dangerous of threats -- the mother.
As any former Ohio State player with graying temples will tell you, Hayes the Terrible became Woody the Teddy Bear when he entered a recruit's living room and sat face-to-face with the player's mother. Woody knew that, to win the kid, he first had to win the mom. And moms want a guarantee that their boys will be safe.
Football being a game of collision, Woody could not promise total safety. But, always the charmer, he would offer a reassuring nod and an understanding "uh-huh, uh-huh," after which Mama would tear up and release her baby into Hayes' care.
It's not that easy today. A paternal pat on the head does not convince a mom that her size-XXL son won't take a bump to the head that results in a concussion, a brain injury that studies show can lead to damaging side effects later in life, possibly even a direct link to CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
Concussions, in fact, have become the most-scrutinized safety issue in athletics. No contact sport is immune to the current glare, but football garners most of the attention.
Given the increased awareness of the dangers of concussions, some national conversations have included speculation that football's days are numbered. What parent is willing to subject a son to the risk of long-term brain disability?
Has the concussion climate become unnaturally overheated by an overemphasis on doom and gloom?
That's what I wanted to find out by talking to mothers at the women's football clinic, which was established three years ago by Urban and Shelley Meyer to allow women to experience and better understand the game. The clinic, proceeds from which go to the Urban and Shelley Meyer Fund for Cancer Research (at the James Cancer Center), has a little bit of everything, including coaches screaming at, er, encouraging the ladies to run their drills with precision.
During one drill, after a woman caught a pass on a crossing pattern, one needling voice called out, "Lucky there was no linebacker."
But the women didn't need a crash course in tackling 101 to understand the risks. Safety education has come a long way since Woody stalked the sideline. And increased education generally leads to more options and stronger opinions, which means more mothers are hesitant to let their kids play football than they were even 10 years ago.
Clinic attendee Jennifer Nagel of Milford said she would rather her young son choose basketball or baseball over football because of the risk of head injury in football. But she is open to letting him play when he reaches middle school.
Nina Cannon of Columbus had two sons play high school football and now has a grandson in the game.
"Grandma says, 'Get your helmet on and suck it up,' " said Cannon, who thinks football has become "too sissified." As she put it, "You can get hurt riding your bike."
Woody would hug her if he could.
Meanwhile, Ohio State assistant coach Stan Drayton felt the need to tell campers that football is safe when capable coaches teach proper tackling techniques.
"That's the first time I've done that," he said.
The times, they are a-changin.'
Rob Oller is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.
JENNA WATSON / DISPATCH Leslie Horne, right, celebrates with Ohio State junior running back Rod Smith at her first Ohio State women's football clinc.