Football is unquestionably America’s favorite game, but also one of the most dangerous. From Friday night lights to Sunday afternoons, every player puts his body on the line with each snap.   

During Early Pioneer Days, a group of former professional football players huddled in a vendor row booth to raise awareness about spinal cord injuries in football. The Gridiron Heroes Spinal Cord Injury Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides immediate and long-term resources and support to individuals who sustain catastrophic spinal cord injuries playing high school football, and the group had some big names in its Pioneer Days booth.   

Randy Fuller played six seasons at cornerback with the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers, famously breaking up Jim Harbaugh’s Hail Mary pass to seal a Steelers victory in the 1995 AFC Championship game. Ricardo McDonald played linebacker for the Bengals, Bears and Broncos, and Surcie Thompson played college ball at Monterrey Tech and went to training camp with the Seattle Seahawks.   

Thompson said he’s a big believer in the Gridiron Heroes mission. “These young men sustained spinal cord injuries because they didn’t know how to tackle,” Thompson said. “It can be very traumatic to your family and your entire life.”   

Gridiron Heroes was founded in 2003 by Eddie Canales and Mike Kipp, the father and coach of Chris Canales. Chris sustained a spinal cord injury while playing for San Marcos Baptist Academy in November 2001.   

According to Gridiron Heroes literature, “the average cost of surgery, hospitalization, medication, equipment and care for a spinal cord injury patient during the first 100 days … is $150,000 to $500,000. Lifetime expenses of rehabilitation and care often exceed $1 million.”   

About one in every 100,000 high school football players will sustain serious spinal cord injury each year, it says.   

Gridiron Heroes has worked since its founding to provide wheelchair-accessible vans and other crucial resources to players who suffer spinal cord injuries. It also works to teach safer tackling techniques and has served in an advisory role for movies like “Friday Night Lights” and “Concussion.”   

“Football has become not a contact sport, like they used to say, but a collision sport,” Thompson said. “Every time they go to make a tackle, you ask any player if they’re scared and they’re scared. We give them the security where they don’t have to be as scared.”   

Thompson said his organization meets some resistance when trying to teach new techniques, but said Brown County has been very welcoming since his arrival. The former pros were invited to Brown County by local Sunny FM and KISS FM radio manager Ronald Oswalt, who assists Gridiron Heroes with its marketing.   

More information about Gridiron Heroes is available at www.GridironHeroes.org.