It’s an absolutely stunning autumn morning outside Atlanta. There is bright sunshine and low humidity. It reminds McCrary of his time in San Diego. He is up before 7 to get ready for his kids’ youth football games. Savion, 11, plays at 9 that morning, and Tyson, 7, plays 90 minutes later a short distance away. Middle son Jackson, 10, does not have a game on this day.
The McCrary boys are good players. Really good players. In the first game, Savion, a cornerback and running back, intercepts a pass, then takes a screen 60 yards for a touchdown. He opens the second half by returning the kickoff to the 1-yard line, something his father playfully barks at him about before leaving for Tyson’s game.
McCrary is the offensive play-caller for Tyson’s team, and on the first snap from scrimmage Tyson, a speedy quarterback, carries the ball around left end for a 30-yard touchdown. He has a handful of other dazzling runs, but his squad suffers its only loss in five games after losing a fumble and failing to recover two kickoffs in the third quarter, each of which led to touchdowns.
Watching the game is like witnessing the power of sport. It brings together communities. Parents, family members and friends fill the metal stands and line the chain-link fence. It doesn’t hurt that the cute quotient is off the charts—some kids appear to weigh less than their helmets. Still, the question of why McCrary would allow his kids to play a game so inherently violent and dangerous hangs in the air, considering what he now knows now.
“I allow my sons to play because this is what they want to do,” he says. “I give them choices. I would rather for them to play golf, I would rather for them to play basketball, I would rather for them to play soccer—anything other than football. But they love it. That’s what their dad did, and I’m their hero. That’s who they look up to. They want to be like me. So if they want to play football, I try to take preventative measures to help them out. In practice I make them wear a guardian cap [extra shell over the crown of the helmet] that helps reduce the risk of them getting concussions in practice. I try to school them on what a concussion is and to let me know if they ever have those symptoms.”
As a former player, McCrary believes he can spot the symptoms quicker than others. He says his sons’ leagues require that if a child sustains a concussion, a doctor and the kid’s parents must sign a release before he can play again. His sons have yet to sustain a concussion, he says, but he’s always on the lookout. If any of them sustained three in a year, he says he would prohibit them from ever playing again.
“It’s something that they want to do, so I let them,” he says. “I’m not going to shoot their dream down. Their dream is to play college football, high school, pro—who am I to shoot them down? That’s something they love.”
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McCrary, who was a plaintiff in the recently settled class-action lawsuit against the NFL, is back in his home, relaxing in his living room. Retirement was tough on him at first, but he has finally settled into a routine. He works out four or five times a week and watches his diet to keep in shape. He dabbles in real estate locally and in Florida with a friend, and is working toward becoming an NFL referee. On Friday nights in the fall you can find him officiating high school games, and he also works in the Arena Football League. His free time is spent on the golf course, where the left-hander has a swing that’s smooth and true. The previous Sunday he shot 74 on Echelon’s demanding 7,076-yard course.
Life is good, he says. He’s blessed. But he’s also scared about the future. He had surgery on his left ankle, right knee and left shoulder during his career. He broke five bones as well as his nose, multiple times. He has toes that don’t bend, fingers that barely bend, and in the next 10 years he believes he’ll need a hip replaced.
“Father Time ain’t on my side; that’s just the truth,” he says. “But I wouldn’t change anything but the concussions. All the hurts and pain, that’s part of the game. That’s what I signed up for. But them not telling me about my brain, that says a lot. That’s hurtful. That’s painful. That’s not fair. But what are you going to do?
“I’m pretty terrified, but I’m not going to quit living. I have kids to raise. I trust God. I’m a faith guy. If it’s time for me to go, it’s time for me to go. It’s not too much you can do. But what I’m scared of are the long-term effects [from playing]—my children having to take care of me, maybe having to put a diaper on me. That scares me half to death. I’m their hero; they look up to me. I know they would take care of me, but that scares me half to death that maybe one day I don’t know their names, or somebody helping me out of bed, helping me up the stairs. It’s scary. But I’m not going to fear it. I’m going to face it head on. What else can you do?”