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Does football need to change?

There’s a new fad in America, catching on faster than “Gangnam Style” or “Call Me Maybe.”

No, I’m not talking about the “Harlem Shake.” I’m talking about the argument against football.

On Thursday, in an opinions piece for The Stanford Daily, Adam Johnson became the next person to make that argument. And, I have to admit, he did a pretty good job.

I think one of Adam’s strongest arguments is the change in mindset over a big hit. “Whereas once I used to cheer for a monstrous hit,” Adam writes, “I now cringe, even if the player pops up and appears fine.”

He’s right. The big hits—specifically those to the head—have to go. At first, I wasn’t sure this was possible; I thought hits to the head would be too difficult to avoid. I thought this would be the downfall of football.

But then I watched Stanford junior strong safety Jordan Richards play this season. Week after week, Richards delivered punishing hits to opposing wide receivers, tight ends and running backs. However, he never hit them in the head, becoming an expert at the blow to the ribs.

These plays were violent, certainly violent enough to cause injury, but they did not involve the head. I don’t think anyone believes you could—or even should—get rid of all violence and injuries in football, but most agree that eliminating or greatly reducing head injuries is vital to the sport’s future.

I’m not a scientist, nor am I someone who is going to make my career playing football, so I’ll refrain from adding anything more to the argument over the safety, or future, of the game. Instead, let me tell you what playing football meant to me.

At the end of the day, football was the one thing that truly taught me about toughness and responsibility. I was a lineman. I played both ways through junior varsity, but stuck mostly to defensive line when I got to varsity.

My best football lessons came from my time on the JV offensive line. My sophomore year, our JV quarterback was a baby-faced five-foot-nothing, 100-pound freshman named Matt Damstrom.

Parents will tell you that every time Damstrom took one of my shotgun snaps, they winced in anticipation of what a sack could do to the kid. He was so small, so young, that everyone feared one hit could do some real damage.

I didn’t miss many blocks that season. I didn’t need any lectures on responsibility or toughness to give everything in my body to make sure the nose tackle didn’t beat me on a pass play—all I had to do was picture my friend Matt Damstrom under a pile of defensive linemen twice his size.

Sure there were times I got beat—there’s a reason that I write about Stanford football and don’t play it—but I would fight, hold, grab or do just about anything in my power to make sure my man did not get to Matt Damstrom.

All around the field, one player making a mistake can do a lot more than cost the team the game—it could cause a teammate’s injury. You see it all the time: a quarterback throws a bad pass and his receiver takes a big hit, Reed Miller has a bad snap and Daniel Zychlinsky misses the next game and a half with an injury.

This isn’t like soccer, basketball or baseball, where mistakes rarely do more to a teammate than make him look bad or hurt his stats. It’s not like wrestling or boxing either, where your mistakes cause yourself, not your friends, pain or injury.

Something has to be done about football. The sport cannot—and honestly should not—survive without major changes to player safety. Legs, ribs, shoulders and knees all heal, but as far as we know, the brain does not.

However, unless we find that there really is no alternative, we can’t give up on football so easily. The game has given me so much. The responsibility of holding a teammate’s safety in my hands and trusting my safety in his has led to some great friendships. When I go back home to visit, I find it’s those football friends who I look for more than anyone else.

It’s going to be tough to change the sport. But, as the sport that needs tough changes taught me, sometimes you have to claw, grab and fight to keep who—or what—you care about off the turf.

It’s time to strap on the helmet.

Sam Fisher thinks he should have been featured in “The Blind Side” instead of Michael Oher. Tell him why Sandra Bullock wouldn’t be a good mom at safisher@stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter at @samfisher908.

About Sam Fisher

Sam Fisher is the managing editor of sports for The Stanford Daily's Vol. 244. Sam also does play-by-play for KZSU's coverage of Stanford football, Stanford baseball and Stanford women's basketball. In 2013, Sam co-authored "Rags to Roses: The Rise of Stanford Football," with Joseph Beyda and George Chen.