A UCLA study last month found signs of a protein linked to football-related brain damage in the brain scans of five former NFL players. About three weeks earlier, Mike Nelson, Marquette’s cross country coach, tweeted about the dangers of football and made a minor splash among some members of the track and field community.
“Track & Field needs to become mandatory off-season conditioning for football. If you can’t run, jump, or throw then you can’t play football,” Nelson tweeted. “As more research is done showing football is physically and mentally dangerous, the popularity of track will grow.”
Nelson said he remembers having a scary realization while reading in a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article that the average life expectancy of an NFL lineman is 53 years.
Back in his college days, Nelson recalled, some of the best sprinters on the track and field team were also members of the football team. Every year, NFL teams would send in letters asking questions about 100-meter times, long jump marks and character traits to his coach.
“Signing day for football was always a great day, because we learned we’re going to get this good sprinter, this good jumper and this good thrower,” Nelson said. “The signing day for football was just as important as the signing day for track and field.”
Although there is no varsity football team at Marquette, there are football athletes across the country who carry over their training and conditioning into the track and field season. Before leaving for the NFL, Chip Kelly of Oregon had a great working relationship with Oregon track coaches Vin Lananna and Robert Johnson when it came to developing speed on the track in his running backs.
Nelson said he does not expect track to be the only beneficiary of the possible popularity change in sports.
“Football is the king of everything in the sports world,” Nelson said. “I think it will be interesting to see if, in 20 years, sports like lacrosse, track, and soccer will somehow move up in popularity, because parents will somehow be afraid of putting their children in football.”
In some cases, however, the lure of money can outweigh the health risks of playing football.
Former Texas Longhorn Marquise Goodwin finished 10th in the long jump at the Olympics and could have signed a professional deal soon after. Instead, he continued with his NCAA eligibility and had a breakout year on the football field for the Longhorns. After running the fastest 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine, 0.03 seconds short of the all-time record, he passed up on any further track competition for a big NFL payday.
“There are already some people out there that have chosen track over football, but those may have not been the people who could have made it in football,” Nelson said. “If you can make it in football, and you’ve got a chance to make millions of dollars, you’ll probably choose football.”