Financial pressures. Bad coaches. Plain lack of fun. Those are a few of the reasons the average child today quits sports by age 11, according to findings of a recent survey of sports parents conducted by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University.
But what about the reasons kids keep going?
We went straight to the source and asked NFL players to comment on how early they committed to the sport, the effort it took to keep playing and whether or not they’d let their own children play football.
AT WHAT AGE DID YOU START PLAYING SPORTS AS A KID?
Joey Mbu, DT, Dolphins: “I was 5 or 6. I’m African, so all Africans play sports very early in life. It wasn’t much of a choice [laughs].”
Willie Snead, WR, Ravens: “I started playing football when I was 4. My dad coached a little league team in Orlando. I was playing with the 6-year-olds. They gave me a helmet and shoulder pads and I went out there to play football.”
Cameron Jordan, DE, Saints: “Basketball, we were at the YMCA when I was like 3 or 4. Boys and Girls Club by the time I was middle-schoolish. Started playing Pop Warner in eighth grade.”
Joe Flacco, QB, Broncos: “I didn’t start playing football until I was in seventh grade, so I was probably 12 or 13. Before that I just played Baseball from the time I was 5, growing up. My parents didn’t let us play tackle [football] until we were in at least sixth grade, so that’s when I could have started playing football.”
Anthony Harris, S, Vikings: “I think I was in the third grade. The first sport I tried was football, and I went right into tackling right away. The following year I tried basketball, and then I’ve been doing football and basketball ever since then.”
Logan Ryan, CB, Titans: “I started playing football when I was 8 years old. I remember going to my brother’s practice and the coach was like, ‘Hey, you look like you can play.'”
WHAT OTHER SPORTS DID YOU PLAY GROWING UP?
Mbu: “Most African kids play soccer. So I started playing soccer and I did that for a while until I got too big to play. I didn’t start football until eighth grade. I was mostly a soccer player. I stopped when I was around 11 when I got too big. I got some footwork in me from the soccer days. At that age, you’re just playing it and trying to get back home to watch ‘Dragon Ball Z.’ I really wanted to play football because I was a big Redskins fan and I wanted to do what I saw on TV. At that time in Maryland, you had to pay for football, and my parents didn’t want to do that at the time, so I didn’t get to do it until eighth grade when I moved to Houston.”
Devin White, LB, Buccaneers: “I was playing basketball, T-ball, Baseball, I ran track and football. … I WISh I could have played soccer. I’ve got a little god-brother back home. He’s like 10 years old. He [does] everything — he even plays soccer and stuff. I WISh I would have gotten that, but we didn’t really have that when I was growing up [in Cotton Valley, Louisiana]. But now they take him to Shreveport and let him play. I want everybody to always play sports because sports can take you far in life and it can keep you out of a lot of trouble.”
Jordan: “We started off with soccer, ballet, tap dancing, swim lessons from diving to all of that. There probably wasn’t a sport we didn’t do minus Baseball. We ran track; I was a multiple-event guy, discus champion. So football, it’s just a high-level, high-contact sport. And my brother and sister played flag football; it just wasn’t for me. I thought I was a basketball king at that point. I had a lot of things going for me on the court — until I didn’t.”
Jeff Driskel, QB, Bengals: “I played flag football probably when I was 10, and then I started playing tackle football in seventh grade. … I practiced with my dad all the time, hitting in the cage and stuff like that, just throwing it around outside.”
Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Bengals: “I played basketball and then I transitioned to football close to high school. My mom, she was scared of the contact and stuff like that, so she really didn’t want me to play. I really, really got into it my freshman year in high school.”
DID YOU EVER WANT TO QUIT PLAYING YOUTH SPORTS? WHY DIDN’T YOU?
Snead: “No, no, no. Never. I think youth sports was an escape from everything, like parents and chores and responsibilities. Sports was a way to continue to stay out of the house and hang out with friends. That’s how I met most of my friends, was playing sports.”
Jordan: “I think sports is a way of life. It’s more along the lines of, ‘What else was I gonna do outside of sports?’ My parents instilled in me about school and ‘What did I want to do?’ I wanted to be a lawyer, then you shadow a lawyer and you’re like, ‘Ehh, that’s not my happiness. It might be somebody else’s calling, but it’s not my calling.’ And then my dad threw me in football in eighth grade — and I hated it. But then again, I’ve never been like a rotational player. So I was sitting on the bench one game like, ‘What the hell gives?’ Until it just turned up from there.”
Thomas Rawls, RB, Jaguars: “I don’t think so, because that’s the art of football, is not quitting. So the art of not giving up led me here. When I was younger, never wanted to quit. I think I had challenging days where I questioned, probably kind of question your manhood a little bit, but other than that, never.”
Flacco: “Not really. At first football definitely wasn’t as fun organized as it was just to go out in the school yard to play. I think that was a little bit of an awakening there. I grew up early in football just playing football with my buddies in the school yard, and all of a sudden practice is at a certain time, four or five days a week and all that. It wasn’t quite the same, but no, I never thought of not doing it. I loved all of it.”
Kirkpatrick: “S—, I feel like I’ve been wanting to quit all the time. It’s all about adversity, overcoming adversity. If guys say they’ve never really felt like that, they’ve never been in a hard situation. They’re probably a kicker or somebody. Because this game is a grind, man. It’s always about, to me, being mentally tough. You’ve gotta be mentally tough to come out here and do the same thing and beat your body up every day.”
Ryan: “My first tackle, I had a snot bubble coming out my nose. Man, you get in line and you’re counting. I was lined up with somebody that was tougher than me at the time. My helmet was halfway off, and I looked at my dad. He was over on the sideline like, ‘You better not quit!’ I stayed in there and haven’t quit since. I just had to get the first one out of the way and I ended up falling in love with tackling. I’ve been doing it for 20 years now.”
J.R. Sweezy, OL, Cardinals: “Only basketball, just wasn’t good and I would foul out every game within, like, a minute. I didn’t understand the whole noncontact thing. … Obviously with football, I just truly enjoyed it, had a passion for it since I can remember. And then everything else, I kind of credit my style of play to being a wrestler, knowing my body position and being able to do different things. I really think that helped me take my game to the next level in later years, just kind of looking back on that stuff. But just back in the day, you just played to stay busy, have fun with your friends and stuff, and it just gradually turned into more.”
CAN YOU RECALL ANY SACRIFICES YOUR FAMILY MADE FOR YOU TO PLAY SPORTS AS A KID?
Kamu Grugier-Hill, LB, Eagles: “I’m pretty sure my mom made a lot of sacrifices. We kind of grew up, didn’t really have money, but she made sure we were able to do all the sports and stuff. It’s really a credit to her, just being an amazing mother and working her butt off to make sure we never felt like we didn’t have money, even though we didn’t. I don’t know how she did it. It still blows my mind to this day.”
White: “Yeah, we didn’t really get to go on family trips and stuff because it was either pay for Devin to play AAU in the summer or we’d take trips and stuff. I can remember my mom, she always used to tell me that, ‘We try to come to some of your games because that’s our family vacation.’ We’ve never really been on real family vacations since I started playing sports. We used to go to Disney when I was real, real little, but when I got older we kinda stopped because all the money had to go to me in the summertime … until I got on a good enough team where our team was sponsored and they started paying for it.”
Jordan: “Look, my dad was always working. So it was really on my mom. As much as you see Steve Jordan, and me being his son, you don’t necessarily see the work that Anita Jordan put in. She was my first goalie. She was my first ice-skating teacher. She was my first tackling dummy. I mean, Anita Jordan did it all. She was the first guard I had to get by. She taught us how to shoot a basketball; she taught us how to pitch. She played softball and ran track all throughout high school and college. And that’s something you don’t take for granted. You have some moms that are phenomenal mothers, but they don’t have any real grit to ’em as far as they drop the kids off to basketball and football but can’t comment. My mom was in there. My mom was the coach.”
Rawls: “Most definitely. Not just my mom and dad, but my whole family. My whole family came out to support me. Family and friends. Sometimes even the whole city. Sometimes a lot of people in the whole city, knowing Flint, Michigan is small, but yeah, sacrifices: taking time from work, and that’s a decrease of money just for the support of their child and the love for their child. I felt that while they’re in the stands. I think sacrificing is important and definitely beneficial to the kid, the athlete.”
Eric Wilson, LB, Vikings: “I played on a team that was half an hour away. It was a better team than my city had. It was a travel team. My mom had to sacrifice the time she had and try to figure out when to take me, when to pick me up, or maybe if someone could take me and whatnot. It was a lot on her part, especially because she had more than one job; she definitely had to make sacrifices.”
Ryan: “For sure. After that first year, my dad had a full-time job but he joined the coaching staff. He was my defensive coordinator growing up. My mom was the lady that was cutting oranges up at halftime. She’d get snacks ready and spend all day at the field. For my brother and I, Saturdays and eventually Friday nights in high school were all football nonstop. My parents sacrificed a ton.”
Kyle Juszczyk, FB, 49ers: “Yeah, absolutely. I mean, my mom had to pick me up from practice every day. And you know, I remember sitting outside the school waiting for my mom to come get me. And you know, there’s days that she was able to get out of work early and there were days that [she wasn’t]. You know, we both sacrificed. And I went to, like, our school was a pretty poor school. So every sport you play, there’s a pay to participate. Like, a $400 fee for every sport. So it added up. When I played three sports, it was $1,200. And then I had two older brothers who also did the same thing, so it all added up.”
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Redskins: “Definitely. My mama worked two to three jobs so she could afford to put me in youth sports — and it paid off.”
Tavon Wilson, S, Lions: “A lot of sacrifices, man. My grandmother sacrificed a whole lot to be able to get me everything I needed as far as moneyWISe. Sacrificing time on the weekend, spending time at different sporting events in different seasons. My grandfather sacrificed his time after work. My sister sacrificing her time coming to my games. Everyone in the family sacrificing time supporting me.”
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE FOR YOU TO BECOME THE BEST PLAYER ON YOUR YOUTH FOOTBALL TEAM?
Mbu: “My sophomore year of high school. Eighth and ninth grade, it was flashes. But sophomore year things started to go right. I made things pop a lot, and I became one of the better players on the team. I knew I had to work on things that I needed to get better at. Before school, I used to work out at this gym across the way with this trainer named Scoby. I used to wake up at 6 a.m.”
White: “I was always the best, the day I walked back there. I didn’t really know it, because, like, I wasn’t really focused [on] that, I was just always playing with my friends. … My coach used to always tell me, ‘I knew you were a special one.’ But I didn’t realize it until I was 12, when all the bigger guys left and I took over the team. [White weighed 135 pounds at 12, and after he scored 36 touchdowns one year despite not playing in the second half for any games, his league implemented the Devin White Rule, where you couldn’t advance the ball if you weighed over 125 pounds.] I had to always weigh in and stuff. I couldn’t run the ball no more. I had to show my birth certificate. But it was fun. We still kept winning. … They would never let me play [after halftime].”
Jordan: “I’d probably say maybe freshman year I moved onto varsity, then I was an offensive lineman. Sophomore, I was an offensive lineman. Then I was like, ‘Why the hell am I getting hit when I could be doing the hitting?’ We went to some, like, Nike or Sparq camp — I think it was Sparq camps back in the day — and they were like, ‘Offense split one way and defense split the other,’ and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna go over to this defensive side of the ball,’ and I’ve been blazing ever since.”
Rawls: “It didn’t take too long. And I was kind of bigger than everyone, and then we had a weight limit also, so I couldn’t run the ball so I was a linebacker. I had a nickname; they called me ‘Terminator.’ I was terminating everything. It didn’t take long, though, and after that I think I just kind of set a standard for myself, and after that it’s just always been a standard and that’s kind of been second nature.”
Harris: “[In football], it was kind of weird. Growing up, I was always one of the better players, but I was more so known for my physicality. I played middle linebacker, and I was a guy who ran around and got all the tackles, which everybody thought was cool, but when you’re young, people like … the offense for scoring touchdowns, and that wasn’t really my forte. On offense, I was much more of like … play receiver, have some nice runs, but I wasn’t breaking away on 60-yard touchdowns. A lot of people thought I had the ability to run around and make plays on defense, so that’s when I realized I had a little bit of ability [around 12 years old]. That’s when I knew defense was really my passion, and as I progressed, I moved back to safety, started to get interceptions, and that’s when I really started to take off a little bit.”
WOULD YOU LET YOUR OWN CHILDREN PLAY YOUTH FOOTBALL?
Mbu: “I want them to first develop, grow up and understand sports and movement. Maybe play soccer to start. If they ask to play football, I would let them play. But I wouldn’t force it upon them. Football is a violent sport. Either you have it or you don’t, so I’m not going to force them to do it, especially not my child.”
White: “Yeah, I would, but if they don’t want to, they don’t have to. I just want them to be successful. Whenever I have kids, they can do whatever they want to do. They can be a scientist, they can be a manager at McDonald’s — as long as they do [what they love to do], I’m gonna be supportive. I’m not gonna push them do anything. I would like them to play sports.”
Snead: “When I have a son, I will leave that up to him. I won’t force him to play football. I will put a football in his hands. If he puts it down and picks up a Baseball, then I’m not going to fight it. It’s whatever he wants to do. My father let me choose to play football. I loved it. If my kid loves it, how can I say no?”
Johnathan Joseph, CB, Texans: “Me and both of my sons’ mothers have had those conversations. And me playing football over the years, it’s easy for me to make a decision. But obviously, you have to win the mother over, because it’s their baby. That’s the way they see it, and they don’t want their kid to get hurt. They’re my sons as well, but they look at me like I’m coming from a father figure. Well, you want them to play to play because you played. It’s not that easy. Most kids pick up a ball at an early age, and they fall in love with it most times. And I think me being a father and playing, it’s easy for them to get involved in it. But at the same time, my daughter wants to play football also.
Are you going to let her?
“The first year, we didn’t. But I think this year, she’ll be playing flag football because she’s aggressive, and I think it’s good for the game of football. We’re involving women more than ever in the game of football, from coaching, to playing. I think she’ll do well.”
Jordan: “Excuse me, what? Basketball? Baseball? Yeah. I’m trying to teach [4-year-old son] Tank how to throw lefty. Because even if he can’t perform well in Baseball, if I can make him a lefty shooter, it’s gonna be a good situation.”
What if they prefer football?
“Football is as safe as you make it. You know what you’re getting into. If you want to be softer, you can go into other avenues. But if he wants to play football, if he gravitates to it, I mean naturally he’s gonna have a frame that’s gonna be quite sizable. … With a name like ‘Tank Jordan,’ he’s heading in a phenomenal situation, I’m thinking. If he wants to be the best wide receiver, we’re gonna make him Calvin Johnson. … But maybe he’ll just be a computer whiz and stay in the tech life.”
Rawls: “That’s a good question. I get that a lot. So I don’t have any kids yet, but when I do, it’s things about the game that I’ve learned that we can try to prevent. In some cases it’s still kind of hard, but if football is something he wants to do, it comes with the game. So the consequences, good or bad, he would have to reap, but I look at my career and my journey and I think it’s helping me become a better man, better person, and help me challenge myself. If that’s something that he wants to do, I’d vouch for him. I’d definitely be there to support him. Also, too, I think the game is also changing a little bit more. So if I have a son and he becomes an NFL [player], the whole rules and everything may be changed, too. I wouldn’t have nothing against it, but it is a question that I do think about a lot. … Now, maybe in his youth years everything may be taught different than my youth years, too. It’s definitely something to definitely look forward to.”
Flacco: “Of course, I’m not in a rush to have them play tackle football. Obviously things like flag [football] are cool, so it would be cool to get him going on that before any tackle football. But, of course, sports have always been such a big part of my life, and always has been and has taught me so much, but beyond that I love it, and I hope they feel similar to how I feel about them.”
Driskel: “I would let my kids play football. I know there’s a lot of studies going on and I don’t know if we have all the science yet behind everything. Haven’t really read much into it, but I think it’s just such a great game and the benefits outweigh the negatives.”
If you had a son, would you start looking into that more?
“Absolutely. I think that’s something you don’t have to rush into. I started when I was in seventh grade, and I’m sure a bunch of guys here probably didn’t start until high school.”
Kirkpatrick: Yeah. I had my son when I was so young. I had him when I was 16 years old. He’s been around this game for a long time, so it’s kind of hard for me to pull him away from it because he’s so engaged to it. I definitely don’t mind him playing, but I WISh he would have chosen another sport.”
Is it because of the physicality and what your body goes through?
“Yeah, and those other sports, they take care of their players and they’re getting paid. We’ve got to work for everything that we do. Them boys, 2s and 3s in the NBA, [are] making more money than us.”
Eric Wilson: “Yeah, for sure. I don’t think I’ll force it on them too much and just see what they’re best at. After that, see if they like it, and hopefully they do of course. There’s no restrictions.”
Harris: “Yeah, I’ll let my kids get into the sports pretty early, let them figure out what they enjoy doing. As long as they’re enjoying it and they’re having fun, that would be my primary focus, not necessarily putting them in a sport because I want them to be in it.”
Jesse James, TE, Lions: “Yeah. I wouldn’t do tackle until at least middle school, probably, because that’s when I did. I didn’t start playing tackle football until I was 12 years old. I don’t see a purpose to playing youth football beforehand. The 7-on-7 leagues and all that are good enough. It’s just usually bad technique anyway for those kids. Not that they are out there getting hurt and stuff, I just don’t see a purpose for it.”
Ryan: “I have a son and I have a daughter. I’d let my daughter play if she wants. I have no issue with it. I believe that at a young age, if you’re coached correctly you can prevent the head injuries. You can learn how to tackle correctly. I worry about so many parents pulling their kids out of little league tackle football. They go to high school and learn how to tackle, but at that age, the speed, if you don’t tackle correctly, huge injuries can happen. If you want to pull your kid out of little league, they’re at risk in high school. I think you really learn how to tackle at a young age. I learned when I was 8 years old and it keeps me safe nowadays.”
Sweezy: “If they truly wanted to, I would let them start playing in middle school, high school. Eight’s too young. It’s just the head injuries and stuff and all the statistics out. It’s like if you start playing before you’re 10, you’re like twice as likely or something to have double the amount of CTE or something. This is a lot of head-to-head stuff. You’re so fragile as a child developing. It’s just you’re not, in my opinion, at the point that you should be ramming your head into things. But people still do it. I did it and I turned out all right so far. But yeah, middle school, high school, if I had a son who wanted to play it, I’d definitely let him play.”
Juszczyk: “Yeah, I will. You know, it’s tough to say now because I don’t have my son standing in front of me saying, ‘Dad, can I please play?’ But my plan right now is that he would start playing flag, probably around the same age that I started playing tackle, which is 12, 13, and probably have him play flag until his freshman year in high school. And then I’d let him start playing tackle.”
Rodgers-Cromartie: “Yes sir, definitely. But not starting out so young because when you’re 6 or 7, you don’t have the mindset to not just run into somebody’s head. He’ll play the older he gets, around 11 or 12. He’s now 10.”
Tavon Wilson: “Yeah, at some point. I think there’s a time and place for everything. Every child is different. At this point, my oldest is 6 years old, so I don’t think he’s ready to play. But I can put my time in and teach him the proper way to play, the proper way to tackle and things like that. Then I’d be more comfortable with him playing.”
Grugier-Hill: “Youth football? Probably not. Definitely flag. I guess we’ll see when I actually have kids, but right now, I don’t think so.”