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Rising Football Star: Prepare For The Worst, Pray For The Best

As the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots prepare to face off at the Super Bowl on Sunday, a scandal about under-inflated footballs is still dominating headlines.

High school football star Nahshon Ellerbe with his family.
/ Roshounda Ellerbe
Roshounda Ellerbe
High school football star Nahshon Ellerbe with his family.

While that subject has been a trending topic on Twitter, it is just the latest in a series of controversies this season. So many recent stories about the nation's most popular sport have focused on domestic abuse and sexual assault allegations, as well as the dangerous effects of concussions and other long-term health consequences for players.

But there are also still young players who love the game, and who devote years of practice to pursue their dream of turning pro. Are they concerned about football's long-term health effects, or worried that its culture encourages dysfunction off the field?

Nahshon Ellerbe is an 18-year-old senior at Trinity Christian Academy. He has been a star running back and is also on the honor roll for his academic achievements. Those accomplishments have earned him a place at Rice University to study and play football.

I asked him what he thinks about the sport.

This conversation has been lightly edited.

What do you love about football?

It's a sport that's so easy to be passionate about. I just love the intensity of the game and the camaraderie that it brings. There's nothing better than a football locker room. It's easily my favorite place on campus.

How did you get into the game?

I was actually born in California, and I didn't move to Texas until I was 8. Up until that point, I really had no desire to play football. The idea scared me. I only wanted to play basketball, but my dad, who played [football] himself, signed me up anyway. Once I started, the fear was gone and I never really looked back.

This past year, headlines about the NFL involved health-related issues. Are you worried about concussions?

Football players at every level of the sport are getting bigger, faster and stronger. The evolution of the football player has made concussions an inevitable reality of the sport. For young athletes like myself, there's almost a "bulk up or get out" mentality. While technology is constantly improving to prevent concussions and make the game safer, the growth of the size, strength and speed of players is overwhelming.

I say prepare for the worst and pray for the best, because you never know. I've been lucky enough that I haven't been diagnosed with a concussion until this point — knock on wood — but I have teammates whose careers were cut short in high school from having two to four [concussions] through a short period of time.

As far as on the field is concerned, I can't afford to slow down. The game has one speed: fast. Any hesitation for fear of injury just puts me at a greater risk of being injured.

What do you think about the issues of domestic abuse that have been reported?

Last year was terrible for domestic issues in the NFL. In addition to the wrongness of it, I think that there's an unspoken responsibility to be a role model as soon as you get drafted into the league. There are millions of eyes on you constantly, and whether you realize it or not, you've inherited the position of mentor for a lot of young players like myself.

So as a young player, what do you take away from those stories?

The fall of a great man is far more recognized than his rise. When NFL "giants" like Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice are making headlines for negative things, people notice and it certainly casts a bad shadow on the sport.

On Jan. 27, Nahshon Ellerbe will join me in Dallas with member station KERA for a live event on the ethics of football on and off the field. Join a live Twitter chat using the hashtag #NPRMichel.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered,where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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