Steve Hendrickson and son Kyle, who will play football for Fresno State, attended the signing day event at the Hall of Champions. — HOWARD LIPIN • U-T
"I haven’t … ,” begins Kyle Hendrickson, seated among his parents and San Pasqual High football coach on letter-of-intent signing day.
Adjacent to his son, Steve Hendrickson, fist clenched, interrupts.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
Before proceeding, Kyle echoes the gesture.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
“With exception to a broken finger or two, a sprained ankle, some bumps and bruises and sore muscles, I haven’t had any serious injuries,” said Kyle, a 6-foot-4, 227-pound senior who signed with Fresno State.
Again, Steve interrupts.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The trio follows suit.
“Let’s hope it remains that way,” Steve said during the signing event Wednesday at the San Diego Hall of Champions.
An NFL veteran battered into submission after six seasons, Steve is a walking cautionary tale of the punishment football doles out to its participants.
The linebacker, fullback and special teams ace sustained 15 Grade 3 concussions during his career with the 49ers, Cowboys, Chargers, Oilers and Eagles. Steve’s short-term memory has withered away. He is legally disabled.
Hence, the superstitious knock.
More than anyone, Steve is cognizant of the dangers potentially awaiting his son when he suits up as a redshirt defensive end at Fresno State this fall.
“Of course (Carla, Kyle’s mother) and I questioned whether football was the sport we wanted our son to participate in, knowing firsthand how violent and gruesome the sport can be,” Steve said.
However, given the improvement in equipment and advances in diagnosis and treatment, Steve and Carla remain optimistic and support the path their son chose.
“I’ve had reservations about him playing. As a mother, watching your son play any sport where there is the chance for him to get hurt terrifies you, but he’s assured me that he’s the kid that others worry about because of his size,” Carla said.
“(Years ago), when football players left the field for head-related injuries, the players often made the choice whether to return. There was no mandate. The protocol for head injuries is different now, which eases my fear.”
Because of the volume of concussions at the pro and amateur levels, medical staffs are required to conduct concussion assessments to determine the severity of any head-related injury.
Should a player fail the test, he is sidelined until showing no symptoms — whether days, weeks or months.
“When I played, you got your bell rung, you come out for a play, grab your helmet and then go right back in,” Steve said. “There was not much understanding of concussions. You may get hit again but won’t remember the earlier play. You’d feel like it was just déjà vu.”
Accounts of Steve’s deteriorating health are easy to find on the Internet.
One story tells how Steve experimented with a recorder, voicing his daily interactions and conversations so that he could review the details the following morning, but he retired the idea a day later after losing the recorder.
Another account reports that he was laid off as a soil tester years ago because he infrequently reported to work, often mixing up days and failing to remember procedures the company taught him.
It’s a story Kyle knows well. However, one that won’t deter him from participating in the violent sport that crippled his father.
“Every sport has a danger factor. That’s reality,” Kyle said. “It’s a matter of taking the appropriate measures and playing the sport the right way to ensure safety. For me, though, I’ve always had the passion. And that’s what outweighs the potential dangers.”
That passion grew at San Pasqual under coach Tony Corley.
Once desiring to skateboard instead of play football, Kyle joined the freshman football team, where a brotherhood began to form. Before graduating to varsity, where the camaraderie blossomed further, he developed into a talented college prospect.
“Many sports offer risks. I think football sometimes gets the raw deal because me getting on the freeway to drive back home is more of a risk than playing football,” Corley said.
“You can’t stop living your life. You can walk out your front door and there is a risk. You personally have to weigh that. Some people are willing to take a risk and some aren’t. It’s a personal decision.”
A decision Kyle made Wednesday when he signed his letter of intent.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” Kyle said. “I can’t wait to be a Bulldog.”