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Micah Parsons is 6-3, 235 with shoulders as wide as a loveseat and biceps that could've been cast in the movie 300. The Harrisburg (Pa.) High School senior is regarded as the country's top defensive end, wreaking havoc with his ferocious brand of smash-mouth football.
"I love popping guys, that's one of the most fun things about football," Parsons said. "It's really a rush when you hear those pads pop and see the guy hit the turf. Whew, it's the best."
Asked about the safety concerns of those hits, Parsons was dismissive.
"I don't have any," he said. "I mean it's football. We hit hard. Of course, legal hits, but I like to hit hard. We all do. That's the game, so whatever happens after that just has to happen."
Parsons' mentality mirrors that of numerous high school football players across the country whose aura of invincibility won't allow them to bat an eye over the dangers of concussions or the most frightening three letters in sports: CTE. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the disease caused by head trauma that studies show leads to dementia, memory loss, suicidal thoughts and personality and mood changes.
USA TODAY asked more than 40 Under Armour and U.S. Army All-Americans their thoughts on continuing to play a sport in high school, through college and perhaps professionally that is associated with brain trauma.
A.J. Lytton, a Florida State commit from Dr. Henry Wise (Upper Marlboro, Md.), said he's "willing to die for this game."
"If it happens, it happens," he said. "They try to use the CTE thing and they think people aren't gonna want to play football anymore, but that's not gonna stop us from playing the way we play."
But not all players are as accepting of the dangers in football.
Last month, brothers Max Wray and Jake Wray, both four-star offensive linemen, left their Franklin (Tenn.) team after being suspended by their coach for criticizing his approach, which they said includes pressuring players to conceal concussions.
"We expressed to the school administration our concern that the culture was creating a perverse incentive for players to conceal injuries, including in particular concussions," the family wrote in a statement.
The Wray brothers, however, are in the minority. Many players contend concussion fears are overblown, others are willfully ignorant of the facts and an alarming number seem to think worrying about the potential dangers isn't in the spirit of the game.
"We know it's a violent sport," Parsons said. "You know the risks. I personally feel like I'll know when it's too much for me and I'll be OK walking away."
Boston University School of Medicine recently conducted a study analyzing 202 brains of football players donated to the school. Fourteen were from high school players and CTE was found in three. The study discovered CTE in 110 of the 111 former NFL players' brains and 48 of the 53 college players' brains.
In high school, players say they're less worried about dangerous hits because tackling techniques taught from youth leagues on up have changed substantially. Most coaches now emphasize leading with the shoulder rather than the head, and since 2012 the NFL has funded and promoted a program called Heads-Up Football, a series of courses for coaches to learn better safety procedures and tackling drills.
"Coaches are teaching different now, just trying to keep everyone safer," said University (Orange City, Fla.) running back Lorenzo Lingard, a Miami (Fla.) commit. "I think the best way to stay safe and not get injured is to stay positive. I just think that when you're thinking about things like that, they tend to happen."
Bishop Dunne (Dallas)'s Brian Williams, the top-ranked safety in the 2019 class, is another All-American aware of the dangers who prefers not to think about it. "It's a real issue, that's for sure," Williams said. "But you can't dwell on the possibility of things like CTE. As a player, it shouldn't have that type of effect on you."
Even when the repercussions hit close to him.
Williams' older brother, Rawleigh Williams III, a former star running back at the University of Arkansas who led the Southeastern Conference in rushing in 2016, suffered a career-ending neck injury during a spring game in April. Before that he suffered a ruptured disk in his neck in a game against Auburn in 2015. He announced his retirement in May.
"I'd be lying if I said that didn't make me think even more about all the dangers," Brian Williams said. "But I'd be disrespecting my brother if I let that change how I approach the game."
And he shouldn't, according to IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) coach Kevin Wright. He contends that, while the dangers of football are "very real," the game is "as safe as it's ever been."
"We're big proponents of teaching proper form and technique, and I think that's the case by and large everywhere," Wright said. "It's about approach and education."
Most high school players, elite or otherwise, aspire to play in the NFL. Macon County (Montezuma, Ga.) offensive guard Christian Meadows, a four-star recruit, is no different. His take on CTE boils down to a hypothetical question.
He was asked if he would take this tradeoff: play in the NFL, but display symptoms of CTE later in life. Meadows paused briefly then replied, "I would."
"I love this game," he said. "I know that CTE can be a risk, but it's a risk I'm willing to take. I mean I could take care of my family and make lots of money doing what I love. That's worth it to me."
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