Dean Zilbeman, a 12-year-old from Murray Hill who grew up worshiping the Seattle Seahawks and Russell Wilson, has always dreamed of playing football. “I really want to play tackle,” says the seventh-grader, who attends Avenues: The World School and is a six-year veteran of flag football who’s “addicted to the NFL.”
But his mom is playing hardball — putting the brakes on his lifelong cornerback ambitions by refusing to let him play in the tackle league next season.
“He begs and pleads — he hates me like death,” says Dean’s mom, Dyan Hes, who’s been warring with her son for the past year. It doesn’t help his case that Mom is also a pediatrician who sees firsthand the sports-related head injuries that can lead to severe problems down the road.
“I see too many patients with concussions. I think I’m extreme. I’m much more cautious than other parents because I’m a doctor and I see what happens,” says the 43-year-old founder of Gramercy Pediatrics.
Concussion rates have more than doubled among students participating in sports such as football, soccer and basketball between 1997 and 2007, according to the Southwest Athletic Trainers’ Association, an organization that promotes knowledge in the sports world.
“My biggest fear is that he will get a concussion, and it will interfere with his brain development, his studies and his enjoyment of other sports,” says Hes.
‘I see too many patients with concussions. I think I’m extreme. I’m much more cautious than other parents because I’m a doctor and I see what happens.’
– Dyan Hes on why she doesn’t want her son, Dean Zilbeman, to play football
With the stream of grim stories related to brain injury, concussions and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) — a condition that results from head injuries and concussions — linked to the NFL and other contact sports including ice hockey and wrestling, vigilant NYC parents are forbidding their kids from participating in such sports.
According to a 2015 study from the National Federation of State High School Associations, there’s been a 2.4 percent dip in male high school football participation over the past five years. And football participation for 5- to 15-year-olds in tackle football dropped 10 percent from 2010 through 2012, according to Pop Warner, the country’s biggest youth football program. A spokesman says the numbers have since remained flat.
About half of Dean’s 50 or so fellow flag players won’t be moving on to tackle league due to parents’ fear of concussions and, worse, CTE, a disease brought to the forefront in the recent Will Smith movie “Concussion” and associated with the high-profile deaths of Giants wide receiver Frank Gifford, longtime Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler and NHL defenseman Steve Montador, among others.
“A lot of my friends’ parents are making them quit,” says Dean, who suffered a knee injury this past season that briefly put him out of commission. “If you [can] get hurt in flag, I can’t imagine tackle.”
According to studies, long-term effects of CTE can include dementia, psychosis and schizophrenia. “The brain degeneration is associated with memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression and, eventually, progressive dementia,” says the Boston University CTE Center.
Right now CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously, though researchers hope to develop scans that can reveal early signs — and test whether someone like O.J. Simpson is afflicted with it.
“O.J. Simpson is more likely than not to suffer from CTE,” says Bennet Omalu, the doctor who inspired the Smith film and first linked CTE and the NFL in 2005. “I would bet my medical license on it.”
Hes recalls a mom from the youth football league being concerned about her own son and telling her: “As it’s getting rougher and rougher, my son is trying to play positions where he won’t get tackled.”
“It’s not just me [being] a nervous Jewish mama,” she adds.
But some say rising concussion rates are a reflection of increased paranoia.
“It’s not higher incidence of concussion — it’s parents more likely to bring their kid to the ER,” says Barry Kosofsky, chief of pediatric neurology at Weill Cornell, and head of the concussion clinic whose volume, he says, has been on the rise.
He attributes the recent concern to misinformation about the nature of head trauma, concussions and CTE, noting that most first-time concussion victims are expected to fully recover within a couple of weeks. Still, he has advised parents to pull their kids from football in the past, including one “17- or 18-year-old” who had sustained significant brain injury with lingering symptoms.
Despite being benched, Dean is trying to look on the bright side: “I still want to be a football agent — the guy who gets them contracts with Rolex. Still doing what I love, but not actually in the NFL.”
Ken Stabler: Nicknamed “The Snake,” the former Oakland Raiders quarterback died in July 2015 at age 69 and was diagnosed with Stage 3 CTE.
Steve Montador: The NHL defenseman arranged to have his brain studied in autopsy. He was found dead in his home in 2015 at 35.
Frank Gifford: In November, Gifford’s family donated the 84-year-old commentator’s brain to be studied for medical research.