It has been 51 years since Dr. Gerardo Grieco attended his first football game as a freshman at St. Rita High School in Chicago, Illinois. From 1968 through 1972, Dr. Grieco attended every game as a student who loved the sport but was admittedly not big enough to play.
“It was a great time,” Grieco said. “There was great camaraderie. The team was excellent. My junior and senior years, the football team won the state. It was a fantastic time. There’s such friendship and camaraderie.”
Since graduating in 1972, Dr. Grieco has not missed a single game. That’s 52 years and more than 500 straight games. Through college at Loyola University in Chicago, Dr. Grieco attended every St. Rita game as a passionate alumnus. During his residency at the University of Illinois and now as a surgeon in central Illinois, Dr. Grieco attends as a volunteer physician for the team as well as a passionate alumnus.
“After going to college that is where we would meet, at the game,” Grieco said. “That is where we kept our association and it wasn’t until quite a few years later that I realized I hadn’t missed a game and then it became a thing, not to miss a game. I had been going because of the camaraderie and it’s always been a family atmosphere there. Once you get there, you’d understand what it means. The stands are full of alumni for activities because they come back.”
Dr. Grieco credits his attendance streak to both his colleagues and his wife.
“Over all of those years, I had a lot of colleagues who helped me get there. I’ve had a lot of responsibilities over those years and I’ve had a lot of colleagues who have been willing to help me get there. I owe them a lot of gratitude and respect, including my wife of almost 40 years who has been very tolerant of all of that.”
During those 50 years Dr. Grieco has watched the game change right before his eyes. He said the three most significant evolutions in the game are the size and athleticism of the student-athletes, increasing specialization and helmet technology.
“They are really big,” Grieco said. “That’s a transformation that has happened over the 50 years I’ve watched the sport. Even though we were state champions those two years (1971, 1972), the teams now are amazing in their abilities and their size. The biggest guy on our championship team was 267 pounds. Now, it’s not unusual to have fellas on the line 305 to 310 pounds. They are massive individuals and remember they are only 15, 16 years old. And they’re healthy and they are really athletic. So, that’s quite a change.”
The increased size and athleticism of these athletes is directly related to the amount of sport-specific training they do.
“It has become a year-round sport,” Grieco said. “The athletes practice year-round. There’s no such thing as just football season anymore. It’s the same for baseball, soccer.”
Dr. Grieco understands the desire for athletes, coaches and parents to engage in or encourage specialization, but does have concerns about the mental toll it is taking on student-athletes.
“I’ve seen really good athletes get college scholarships and quit because they’ve had enough, so to speak, and that’s really sad,” Grieco said. “And it’s because they’ve done it for all of those years all year long and it’s all their folks talked about or coaches talked about and they’re done.”
Dr. Grieco uses his dedication to St. Rita football as an example of how he has maintained balance in his own life.
“I think there needs to be some diversity and other interests in life,” Grieco said. “You know I’m a surgeon and that’s my number one thing in life, but I have a lot of other things. St. Rita is one of them. It distracts you and takes you away and it actually improves your ability to focus when you go back to do your trade or your focus. Otherwise you get stale.”
While Dr. Grieco witnessed athletes getting bigger, faster and stronger, he also noticed the manufacturing of football helmets was getting more and more sophisticated. As a physician, he saw the benefits and the negative consequences of these developments.
“Our players used to have cuts and bruises on the bridge of their nose, their foreheads and now the external part of the scalp and face is untouched, because the head is so protected,” Grieco said. “But it cannot protect the brain. And that’s wherein lies the problem. The helmets became really protective, so it would give an individual the thought process, ‘hey, this thing protects me so I can use it,’ and that becomes dangerous.”
To counteract this false sense of protection, Dr. Grieco has seen a change in the way both coaches teach the game and officials officiate the game. In addition, he has witnessed a cultural shift in how concussions are reported, diagnosed and managed over his 50 years around the game.
“The coaches, I hear them, instruct them never to lead with your head. Not to use your head, only use your shoulders,” Grieco said. “I think there’s more coaching to prevention of concussions.”
“I think the referees have been identifying it, too. They call it targeting. If they see it, the kid’s off the field, so I think as that kind of penalty gets enforced, I think you’ll see less.”
Thanks to the evolution of concussion protocol, Dr. Grieco believes the game is safer today than ever before.
“The thing is, in the past a lot of concussions went unnoticed or undiagnosed or ignored,” Grieco said. “I remember seeing players, before I was even a physician, they would be buzzed, we would call it, and they’d go back in the game. I’d wonder, is he okay and I wasn’t even a physician then. Since I’ve become a physician and associated with the team, that’s not allowed and the coaches are very diligent. There’s a lot of monitoring that goes on to identify if someone is acting strange. That is much improved, much improved.”
Dr. Grieco has watched the game change right before his eyes every Friday night and his commitment to St. Rita has only grown stronger.
“It’s my second home,” Grieco said. “The youngsters are a great joy to be with. I’m just happy to help them. It’s a great feeling.”
When asked about the future of his attendance streak, Dr. Grieco is quick to respond that he has no plans to skip a Friday night any time soon. “As long as God lets me be healthy enough to get there, absolutely,” Grieco said. “As long as I can, it’s been not only a passion, but I love going there.”
High school is where it all started for Dr. Grieco – his commitment to high academic achievement, his love of sports and his passion for St. Rita.
Lindsey Atkinson is director of sports/communications associate at the National Federation of State High School Associations.