ALBANY — Head coach Greg Gattuso said at Wednesday’s UAlbany football practice that he hadn’t closely followed the debate over a potential state ban on 12-and-under children playing tackle football.
He had seen, though, the recent headlines regarding a doctor who was the subject of a recent profile in The New York Times and who spoke Tuesday in New York City at a state hearing related to the potential ban. At first, though, Gattuso didn’t know that the 42-year-old — a now-retired obstetrics and gynecology doctor named T.J. Abraham, who has been diagnosed with neurodegenerative dementia — was one of his former players at Duquesne University, where Gattuso was an assistant coach in 1992 and a head coach from 1993 to 2004. Gattuso said he had been unaware of Abraham's condition.
“I didn’t know that was T.J.,” said Gattuso, whose 5-3 UAlbany team is coming off a bye week and plays Maine this weekend. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
Both in The New York Times profile on him and in his Tuesday testimony, Abraham said his doctors credit his football career for his cognitive issues, which he said he started to notice in his mid-30s. As part of his Tuesday testimony in support of the ban, according to multiple reports, Abraham said college coaches he played for encouraged him to play through pain.
“There were many days in college I remember seeing stars, the sky turning purple or orange, or vomiting due to a severe headache after a head-on collision," Abraham said Tuesday. “At the time, I thought this was normal and was told by coaches to ‘suck it up.’”
During his own playing career, Gattuso — a Penn State alumnus — said he “saw stars all the time.” Now in his sixth season leading UAlbany’s football program, Gattuso said he couldn’t recall the scenario Abraham outlined in terms of Duquesne coaches encouraging players to play through pain from collisions, and that his policy throughout his coaching career has been to rely on and trust team trainers and doctors with all health-related situations for his players. Following that policy, he said, is the expectation for all members of his coaching staff.
“One thing I never do is question trainers,” Gattuso said. “I don’t ever push for kids to get back. I don’t ever question when they’re kept out.”
In terms of the potential state ban, Gattuso — who said he didn’t play tackle football until he was in the eighth grade — said he’d “have to think about” if he does or doesn’t support it. Gattuso said he didn’t “regret playing the sport whatsoever,” but also that it would “be a lie to say I didn’t think I could have been seriously hurt.”
He voiced support, though, for changes made in recent years in an attempt to make the game safer. Most teams generally have less contact at practices than they did in previous years, while more emphasis at all levels of football has been placed on not involving a player’s head in tackling.
“I think the sport is being coached in a much better way and I think that safety is a massive issue for all of us,” Gattuso said.
In terms of his own health, the 57-year-old Gattuso said he doesn’t worry about potential long-term affects from his playing career. He said, though, that he understands why some parents wouldn’t want their children to play tackle football, and he is sympathetic toward anyone whose long-term health has suffered from playing the game.
“People that have any damage from it, I feel terrible about it,” Gattuso said. “I really do.”