Players from both teams gather in support of injured Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa

At some point this season, a game will grind to a screeching halt, a hush falling over the stadium as a motionless player is helped into an ambulance. There will be a prayer circle of concerned teammates convening at midfield, while Jim Nantz or Joe Buck filibuster with vague platitudes alluding to the seriousness of whatever medical emergency has just occurred. Replays of the incident will surface on social media, garnering millions of views. If the player injured is a big enough name, the aftermath could fuel days of media coverage. First Take panelists will inevitably weigh in, hoping for a speedy recovery while parsing the ins and outs of the league’s health and safety guidelines.

And then, after the initial shock and awe has worn off, we’ll go back to snorting football like we always have, blissfully oblivious to its long-term consequences. Perhaps, the more discerning among us will lament the senseless violence and relative unconcern of a jaded fan base, addicted to the spectacle and pageantry of America’s No. 1 sport. Others will scoff at the NFL’s measures to curb dangerous collisions like the one that concussed Tua Tagovailoa last year, arguing the Dolphins quarterback knew what he signed up for, accepting the risks that come from playing an inherently savage game, a blood sport waged by impossibly strong warriors at the peak of their athletic powers.

Seeing Tagovailoa stumble back to the huddle, in blatant disregard for the concussion protocol (shame on the spotter who cleared him), was objectively heartbreaking, an aching symbol of corruption and societal disrepair, gladly feeding a naïve 24-year-old to the wolves for our collective entertainment.

Maybe I’m not the right messenger to convey this sentiment. The concussion epidemic, for all the pain its wrought, hasn’t changed my viewing habits in the slightest, while football and its machinations (fantasy advice, media criticism, etc.) have kept me employed for the last decade, a content treasure trove I’ve milked for every dollar. Still, as an empath with what I consider to be a strong moral conscience, I feel conflicted about it, drawing on my own personal experience watching my father steadily decline, with doctors at Boston University posthumously diagnosing him with the most severe form (Stage IV) of CTE.

Though it’s most commonly associated with NFL alums, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, contrary to popular belief, is not unique to football. Sufferers in other sports are just as prevalent, with recent studies linking the disease to several former soccer players including my dad, a National Champion and two-time All-American at Babson College.

The middle child of seven growing up in working class Springfield, Massachusetts, my father, in many ways, embodied the American dream. An undersized (Babson’s media guide listed him at a generous 5’8”) walk-on who spent the better part of his freshman year couch-surfing because he didn’t have a dorm room to call his own, my dad defied the odds at seemingly every turn, a do-it-all-midfielder with unparalleled skill and toughness. He set records, earned a plaque in Babson’s Athletics Hall of Fame, got drafted to the NASL (the same league Pele had starred in years earlier with the New York Cosmos), married the love of his life and started a family in the suburbs with a comfortable accounting job at Aetna.

My father was 64, much younger than either of his parents were when they passed (93 and 95). He rarely spoke of his accomplishments in soccer, an aura of mystery surrounding his many trophies and laminated newspaper clippings stashed in cardboard boxes. He loved soccer wholly and unconditionally, coaching local travel and rec teams whenever he could. The bitter irony is that the thing he loved most is what ultimately betrayed him, becoming a prisoner in his own body.

CTE symptoms can manifest in many ways—erratic behavior, substance abuse, depression, violent outbursts, memory loss. I’m thankful that wasn’t the case with my dad, though watching him deteriorate mentally and physically was just as painful, requiring around-the-clock maintenance as his motor skills faded to the point of nonexistence, unable to even go to the bathroom on his own. Anyone who’s had a relative or family member with dementia knows it’s an especially cruel fate, living at the mercy of overworked caretakers or confined to assisted living facilities, many of them perilously understaffed and ill-equipped to handle a thankless job requiring Zen-like patience.

As if my father’s agonizing disease wasn’t heartbreaking enough, barely able to communicate while struggling with basic tasks like lifting a fork, the toll it took on my mom was even worse, living a double life as my dad’s arms, legs, ears and eyes. Between work, hospital visits and going toe to toe with Aetna, drowning in paperwork as the insurance giant tried to deny his disability claim, my mom was running on fumes, a modern-day Sisyphus trapped in an endless loop. As much as I admired her sacrifice, all I wanted was for her to have a life again, which is why the news of my father’s passing, when it happened, actually came as somewhat of a relief, bringing a sense of needed closure to a years-long saga that shook my family to its core.

My dad’s death certificate reads September 20, 2021, but the date on file is just for book-keeping purposes. Really, he was gone long before, a shell of the mighty conqueror who singlehandedly put Babson soccer on the map, an enduring portrait of composure and leadership.

A day before he left us, my mom and brother pushed a phone to his ear, letting me say goodbye one last time. I don’t know if he heard me. In fact, I barely remember the content of what I said in what I regard as the most surreal moment of my life. But I’m certain he influenced me more than he’ll ever know. My love of sports is borrowed from him, a passion born from yearly trips to Fenway and TD Garden, idolizing David Ortiz and Paul Pierce, among other athletes from my youth. I considered my varsity soccer career a disappointment—in two years, I never scored a single goal—but he never put pressure on me or wanted me to be anything other than myself, supporting me in all of my creative ambitions.

Given how long it took the NFL to finally acknowledge its concussion crisis, one shudders to think of the Wild West soccer environment my dad played in in the late 70s, putting his body on the line for 90 minutes at a time, contesting balls in the air with reckless abandon. Balls are softer now and heading is limited in most youth leagues, but will those improvements be enough to combat brain injuries like the one that sabotaged the final years of my father’s life?

Former Packers star Sam Shields went on record wishing he never played in the NFL, realizing, albeit too late, that the physical cost far outweighed the reward. Stars like Luke Kuechly, Patrick Willis, Calvin Johnson and Andrew Luck have been applauded in recent years for retiring early, wanting to live some semblance of a normal life after years of subjecting themselves to unnecessary hits. Meanwhile, the NFL has expanded the scope of its concussion protocol while experimenting with protective “Guardian” cap helmets required of training camp participants.

We all know the NFL is a cesspool of toxic masculinity, where the biggest and strongest reign supreme, but only until their bodies give out, at which point, they’ll be swapped out for younger, cheaper ones with less tread. Others self-medicate, masking their pain by numbing themselves with potent painkillers. But the show must go on, and as long as there’s a million-dollar carrot dangling in front of them, players will always be incentivized to roll the dice, risking their long-term health in pursuit of generational wealth. It’s the ultimate catch-22, a vicious cycle of pain tolerance and addiction, masterminded by corporate puppets who never met an entertainment product they couldn’t exploit to the fullest degree.

Until now, I’ve been hesitant to write about my father’s passing, not wanting to disrespect or undermine his legacy in any way. I’ve never wanted to use my dad’s pain as content or to elicit sympathy from others. Nor would I ever use it as an excuse for the worst parts of myself (I can assure you I was riddled with insecurity and self-doubt long before my father’s illness). Death also invites a sort of morbid comparison shopping that makes me uncomfortable. With so much suffering in the world, who’s to say my trauma is worse than anyone else’s?

My survivor’s guilt is probably better left for a therapist to unpack, as is my fear of being labeled a hypocrite, actively consuming a sport that inflicts lasting damage on those who play it. Who knows if a safer alternative exists or if the next crop of up-and-coming athletes, in self-preservation, will flock to other sports, leaving football to die on the vine, a barbaric relic of a time before brain health was granted a seat at the table. But my suspicion is that football will march on resilient as ever, feigning concern for the long-term health of its players without actually addressing it, doing the bare minimum while leaving another mess for future generations to clean up. After all, what’s more American than sweeping a festering problem under the rug?

Maybe we’re all complicit, gluttons for punishment who can’t experience a genuine emotion without life-or-death stakes attached to it. I don’t have all the answers and probably never will. All I can do is start a dialogue and ask that the next time a player gets carted off on a stretcher, leaving a nervous stadium in his wake, you exercise compassion, knowing that his life may never be the same.

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.