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Jones: If Warren Sapp is worried about NFL safety, we all should be worried

Warren Sapp photo from 2010 Pro Bowl from WikiMedia Commons

Warren Sapp is the baddest man Tampa Bay has ever known.

Has there ever been a football player who was meaner? Tougher? More brash? More arrogant? More macho?

Sapp is the epitome of the perfect football player, exemplifying all the immense skill, courage and grit necessary to be a Hall of Famer.

But these days, the guy who was never afraid of anything is scared to death of the one thing he dominated.

Football.

The game that made him a legend, the game that made him rich and famous now makes him feel frightened and weak. Those are his words.

The game that made him feel like a man now makes him feel like a child.

If one of the best and toughest football players who ever lived feels that way, how are the rest of us supposed to feel?

How can we listen to the chilling words and haunting fears of Sapp and still love the game of football like we do?

How can we cheer the gladiator violence we watch on Sunday afternoons and not think about the damage it inflicts on those gladiators years later?

Some former players are trapped in a fuzzy world of confusion, not knowing how to get home after dropping their kids off at school.

Others live in near darkness, not even knowing the names of their children. And far too many have escaped the painful demons by taking their own lives.

And now we add the name of Warren Sapp to the list to those struggling with the unsettling and lingering effects that football has had on his brain.

In a column and video for the Players Tribune, Sapp said he will donate his brain for concussion research.

You don't have to be a doctor to guess what doctors will find.

His issues, so far, are minor compared to many. He says he forgets little things, like grocery lists. He needs his phone to remind him of appointments. While those effects appear minor, they are no less alarming. He's only 44. Like so many, he worries he might be deteriorating right before his own eyes.

He recalled training camps of simply lining up and trying to knock the snot out of each other. It wasn't about skill or talent. It was about being tough.

He called football players Neanderthals. He compared them to dinosaurs. He said that kids shouldn't play tackle football until they are in high school.

Remember who is saying these things.

Detractors who talk about the softening of America cannot dismiss this as the ranting of some overprotective mom asking for her babies to be wrapped in bubble wrap. Football apologists can't chalk this up to some worry-wart dad who never played the game.

This is Warren Sapp, the leading man in the nightmares of anyone who ever carried a football for a living.

On a day like today -- in the middle of football's offseason -- it's easy to rally behind Sapp's words. We applaud his courageous admissions and support his calls for a safer sport. We look inside ourselves and feel guilty for choosing to ignore football's life-threatening side effects so we could enjoy the games and maybe win a few bucks playing fantasy football.

Unfortunately, those feelings will fade when we get closer to football season. And come September, we will sit in front of our televisions every Saturday and Sunday, high-fiving friends when the other team's quarterback gets laid out with a vicious hit.

As we watch collision after collision, we won't be wondering if the players we are watching will someday stand on the edge of a bridge, convinced that the only way to end their pain is by taking one step forward. We won't be thinking about if the players we're watching are able to sit up when they are 50 without excruciating pain. We won't be wondering if they'll end up like Dolphins Hall of Famer Nick Buoniconti, who needs help going to the bathroom.

Go read Sapp's column. Watch his video. But don't just watch it now. Watch it when football season is here.

Look, football can be a wonderful sport. Sapp loves the game. He just wants it to be safer. We all should want that.

No one is asking for the game to be abolished. But we must make changes. Major ones.

The NFL needs be honest about the impact of concussions. It needs to do more to help those who made the game what it is today. It needs to install and enforce even more rules to make the game as safe as it can. We should demand that kids be protected from tackle football until their brains are more developed.

Until that happens, we will continue to see more and more heart-breaking stories of players literally breaking down and falling apart from the inside out.

Even tough guys like Warren Sapp.

Column by sports columnist Tom Jones, Tampa Bay Times

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