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Parents, why let your kid play football?

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be Cowboys.

Or Steelers, Rams, Raiders, Browns or even Bills.

More to the point, why let your “babies” play football at all – unless you’re willing to roll the dice with their brains?

Thanksgiving came locally with a side dish of sadness. A front-page story in Thursday’s Buffalo News revealed the deteriorating mental and physical state of ex-Buffalo Bill Darryl Talley. Sports reporter Tim Graham chronicled in distressing detail Talley’s suicidal depression, memory loss and physical pain – consequences of his decades on the gridiron, including 12 years as a Bill.

Talley’s condition, along with the brain-damage death last year of Damon Janes, the 16-year-old Brocton Central School football player, has brought home the potential toll of a violent sport.

Janes and Talley are part of an ever-inflating list of football-related casualties. Researchers in recent years have exposed the short-term consequences and long-term effects of repeated concussive blows to the head. The relatively recent enlightenment raises an obvious question for parents of young boys: Do you really want them playing football?

The tragic fate of many a former NFL star – from Talley to Junior Seau to, across generations, John Mackey – drives home the point on a national level. Football is a fascinating spectator sport, with compelling match-ups and intriguing story lines. But it exacts an unthinkable price from many of those who play the game. Some of the brain-damaged kill themselves. Other once-proud men live their final years as stumbling zombies. Many are physical wrecks.

These were NFL players, yet football at any level – from sandlot to stadium – is a violent sport involving brain-jarring hits. The reward for adolescents and teenagers is not worth the risk – particularly when there are numerous less-physical sports. If I had sons, I’d encourage them to play something else.

Sports are good for kids. They are fun, promote fitness, involve healthy competition and – at the team level – ideally build friendships and character. Football is no different. But plenty of other sports bring those benefits, without nearly football’s risk.

The overwhelming majority of kids who play sports don’t earn a college athletic scholarship, much less play professionally.

For them, the physical, social and character-building aspects is where it ends. So why play a punishing sport?

Beyond that, athletic talent usually isn’t one-sport specific. Attributes that make for a good football player – size, speed, strength, quickness – translate to varying degrees to baseball, basketball, lacrosse, wrestling, tennis, swimming and a host of other sports. Even hockey, another contact sport, doesn’t exact the physical pounding of football. All things being equal, why not play something else?

I have friends, now in their 40s and 50s, who played high school and even college football. They wouldn’t trade the memories for anything.

I’m glad they made it through without anything worse than damaged knees and aching joints. But we didn’t know then what we know now. Knowing it, I wonder how many of them, if they have grandsons, will shepherd them to a different sport.

Granted, different boys are drawn to different sports, depending on their skills, personalities and local culture. But parents can hugely affect a kid’s choices with words of encouragement or disdain.

I doubt that many parents urge their boys to put on boxing gloves, knowing they’ll get punched in the head. So why would parents encourage sons to strap on a football helmet, knowing that violent collisions – often head-to-head, however illegal – are part of the game?

Perspectives change with time and information. Story after story of the tragic fates of ex-NFL stars make it clear that these aren’t video games we’re watching on TV. These are real people – large, fast, competitive – colliding with astounding force. Knowing the price that some players will ultimately pay, I don’t watch football these days with quite the same glee.

It’s uncomfortable to contemplate the long-term damage that, to varying degrees, comes with an NFL career – no matter how much the players are paid, or how well they think they understand the danger.

Yes, virtually any sport comes with risk. You can wrench your back while tying your shoe. But some sports are inherently punishing. Every Damon Janes, every Darryl Talley, drives home the price that football potentially exacts.

Sports are supposed to feed young minds, not damage them. As football’s casualty list grows, so should the athletic alternatives.