Reusse: We can’t help but love football, but being honest we also know we must fear it

·4 min read

The week leading to Labor Day has become the opening of football season in these parts, even if the NFL does avoid games out of fear that last-gasp summer vacationers would cost it a few percentage points in TV ratings.

The first football focus for me was a midweek visit to St. Agnes High School, proudly proclaiming itself to be the lone remaining high school in St. Paul's blue-collar Frogtown area.

When I was a prep writer at the St. Paul newspapers from 1968 to 1970, it was a tradition to cover the Aggies vs. St. Bernard's, their rivals from 2 miles away.

Research has indicated the last Aggies-Bernies game I might have covered was a 0-0 tie in mid-October 1970, after a heavy rain turned the field at the original Midway Stadium (1957-1981) into a mudhole.

Back in 2006, it was being reported St. Agnes would close and St. Bernard's would stay open. Angels in the form of businesspeople saved St. Agnes with large donations, and St. Bernard's was closed in 2010.

It has amazed me to see that little old St. Agnes, playing in Class 2A, has kept showing up as Minneapolis North's overmatched opponent in section finals.

Michael Streitz, the athletic director who took the job in the midst of the closing threat, said, "We've had a stretch where we've been 25-5 and four of the losses were to North."

Tom Flood, the St. Agnes coach for a decade with a 73-29 record, retired after last season. He's now serving as an assistant.

On this visit, we took a drive to Front Park, a city playground with a skate ramp, a dusty ballfield and an area St. Agnes rents to hold its football practices.

You immediately admire the Aggies who come out for football and have won way more than lost with this most-urban practice facility.

"We saved our program by starting TackleBar football through the eighth grade," Streitz said, referring to a style of football that includes only limited contact. "We were one of the original six schools here to play TackleBar. I said to Tom, 'We first have to teach kids to love football, and they will stay with it when the tackling starts.' "

The Aggies lost their opener 44-30, vs. Spectrum, a public charter school in Elk River. On Friday, they played a home opener on Hamline's field vs. Academy Force, a combination of small private schools.

Final: St. Agnes 60, Academy Force 0.

Opening week also took me to Collegeville on Saturday to watch St. John's play Wisconsin-Whitewater, the first regular-season matchup for these Division III powers.

The Johnnies' defense was astounding in shutting down the Warhawks 24-10. And the crowd was over 12,000, eighth-largest in Johnnies history.

Football and I are often at odds. It amazes me that so many parents in this century have told their sons, "Forget football; play soccer,'' yet they will turn rabid on weekends watching college players and pros trying to get away with doing as much damage to the other guys as possible.

I'm truly haunted by what this game can bring. One such moment came the day it was announced Wally Hilgenberg, the Vikings' relentless, long-term linebacker, had been diagnosed with ALS.

I called the Hilgenbergs, wife Mary said it was OK to come out to Lakeville, and at one point in the conversation Wally said: "I still think it could be related to Lyme disease."

Sternly, Mary said: "No, Wally, it's ALS."

As the saying goes, I'm not a doctor, but the amount of ALS found in football players convinces me there's a connection. When Wally died in 2008, the Hilgenberg family donated his brain for study. Later, the verdict of the study was that he had died from repetitive brain trauma from football collisions.

There was also a call to Matt Blair's house in early November 2015, after the death of his linebacking partner Fred McNeill at age 63. Freddie was debilitated early in life with both ALS and dementia.

Blair and McNeill were like brothers, and I was looking for a radio interview. I was told Blair wanted to do this, to talk of his love for McNeill, but that we should be patient waiting for Matt's answers, because of increasing cognitive difficulties.

Then, I knew what had been talked about quietly was true: football had also gotten the great Mr. Blair, a Hall of Fame oversight who died two years ago at age 70.

And now football's haunting again, seeing in news photos the smile of that young man Ethan Glynn, a sports-loving ninth-grader at Bloomington Jefferson who was making a simple tackle in a freshman game and suffered a "severe neck and spinal cord injury."

There have been surgeries, and you can only hope.

Football's the only sport where the Monday print newspaper has to find room to reveal Sunday's NFL injuries (only the important ones).

Football can be grand. And way too often, it can be vile.