There's a rich football history in Needham, Mass., which sent a team (in blue) to the state Division I Super Bowl in 2011. (Jessie Jacobson/Flickr)

There’s a rich football history in Needham, Mass., which sent a team (in blue) to the state Division I Super Bowl in 2011. (Jessie Jacobson/Flickr)

The oldest public high school football rivalry in the nation is the Thanksgiving Day game between two suburbs just outside of Boston: Needham and Wellesley.

In the summer of 1996, Only A Game asked reporter Michelle Seaton to find a high school football prospect to profile for a series of stories about college recruiting. The idea was that the stories would explore what it’s like to be the focus of so much attention. The player she found was Jim Bode, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound lineman at Needham High. Her series was thought-provoking in that it showed the difficulties of managing schoolwork when football is a player’s priority.

As part of our ongoing celebration of Only A Game’s 20th anniversary, we’ve been revisting some of our favorite stories and interviews, we asked Seaton see how things had turned out for the former players.

Jim Bode Then

When I first met Jim Bode he showed me the three boxes of letters he’d received from different colleges around the country. In particular, he liked the one from Wake Forest, which was not really a letter but a flyer with Jim’s name added in big block letters with a crude photo of the stadium in the middle.

“This is probably my favorite letter,” he said. “I mean, every kid that got it from Wake Forest got it, but like, the way it is, just the way it sounds, I like it. ‘Just think: How would you like to have 35,000 people over to your house for a Saturday afternoon, all of them coming to see Jim Bode?’ And then the picture of the stadium.”

For three months, I went to Jim’s classes with him, rode on the team bus, stood on the sidelines during games, visited his parents and interviewed the coaches who were interested in him. I sat in on meetings he had with college coaches who were encouraging and yet coy about their actual interest, coaches like Jack Bicknell Jr., then offensive line coach at UNH, who was adamant that Jim needed higher grades and SATs but loved his size.

“How much do you weigh?” the coach asked.

“245,” Bode replied.

“Obviously he doesn’t look very heavy. You’re going to be 280, 285 before you know it, for sure. You know you had a good sophomore year, which is good. The key thing is to bring those grades up, OK?”

“Yep.”

“I’m gonna take this transcript back with me, and we’ll have our admissions guys look at it, and that’s the No. 1 thing: to find out whether or not we can get you into school,” the coach said.

The Transition To College Football

Bode didn’t get those grades up, and his prospects looked bleak until Northeastern University offered him a three-fourths scholarship for his freshman year and a full scholarship for his remaining years, a scholarship that would save his family more than $100,000 in tuition, room and board.

Today, a similar scholarship would save a family more than twice that amount, which is why the stakes are now so high for prospects. Jim Bode remembers being a redshirt freshman at Northeastern, struggling to gain 60 pounds, a weight that would help earn him a starting spot. Now, he looks back on that time with some humor.

“They just wanted me bigger, as fast as possible. But for me putting on weight was fun,” he said with a laugh. “You can eat whatever you want, you go to the weight room, you eat. It was fun.”

By his sophomore year, Bode weighed in at 305 pounds. He studied and worked hard to become a starter for Northeastern during his final three years. As a senior he was a team captain. He still loves the game, loves to watch it and talk about it. Although he had surgery on both shoulders after college, he says he doesn’t have many regrets. If it wasn’t for football he says he wouldn’t have gone to college right away. And unlike most former players, he has lost all the weight and made fitness a personal priority.

A Lingering Concern

But I can’t resist asking him about concussions and all that we now know about head injuries in football. When he was in high school, I watched him stagger around the field after a bad concussion, but he played the following week. Like so many former players, he remembers all his concussions. Especially one.

His oldest son is now 7. Bode and his wife are still discussing whether they’ll let him play football.
“My senior year of college, it was against Delaware, and [I] literally just got knocked out cold on the field,” Bode recalled. “That was the one. And now you look back with all of the concussions reporting and playing with headaches, that was football. I’m sure I had twice as many more concussions than what you think, or than what’s reported, at least compared to nowadays.”

“You played with headaches,” I asked.

“You didn’t think twice about it,” he said. “It wasn’t something you worried about, which is a scary thought.”

After college, Jim Bode got married and worked at Paine Webber and then Merrill Lynch for several years. He recently opened his own company with another Northeastern grad. It’s called Beck Bode Wealth Management. He is the father of three. His oldest son is now 7. Bode and his wife are still discussing whether they’ll let their son play football.

“We met my sophomore year, so every football game after that, she saw everything from what we thought were broken ankles to separating shoulders. She experienced that, so to think about her now seven-year-old playing college football or high school football breaks her heart already, and we haven’t even started.”

Sean Connor Then And Now

During the 1996 season, I did 10 stories on Needham football, and they weren’t all about Jim Bode. Running back and linebacker Sean Connor was the true star of that team, and he struggled even more than Jim did with bad grades and low SAT scores. On the field, Sean Connor was fast and strong, and yet he wasn’t immune to injury. During the game against Norwood, Sean leapt to make a tackle but landed hard on his back and didn’t get up. On the sidelines Dr. Mark Haffenreffer told Sean’s mother to take Sean to the emergency room.

“He needs some x-rays of his neck,” the doctor said. “Wherever you want to go, I’ll call the emergency room. I’ll be happy to do that.”

A few minutes later, Sean pressured his mother and the doctor to let him back into the game.

“So, I think it’s a traction palsy. I think it is transient, and technically the NCAA says he could go back in, but I gotta tell you, this is the second time now. It’s two weeks in a row to, and it is an issue.” Dr. Haffenreffer said.

Sean’s mother wavered for a moment, but Sean was already walking back toward the field.

“I don’t think it’s an option,” she said. “I think Sean’s already made the decision.”

“All right. Go,” the doctor said. “Where is he? Sean. Listen to me: no spearing, and you don’t use your head.”

Afterward, listeners, including several doctors, contacted Only A Game to complain about that decision to play, and the neutral way in which it was reported. But weeks later, Sean described the pain and the seriousness of the injury.

“Everything went numb,” he said. “It was actually pretty scary. After I made the hit on the goal line and stuck him, I got up and started walking, and I couldn’t feel my arm, and the whole right side of my body was numb, and it just killed, so I just lay down. And eventually it went away. It was like a stinging pain.”

Connor Looks Back

All these years later, much more is known about the dangers of head injuries and nerve injuries. Whenever I’ve told the story of Connor losing the feeling in one side of his body and then going back in to play the last quarter of a game the team was sure to lose, nobody quite believes it. These days, Connor, who is now 35, says he remembers that injury like it was yesterday.

“It was a scary moment, but just a stinger,” he said. “I found out that I had plenty of those through my college career, too, so.”

“Oh really?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“On the same side?”

“No. Just both shoulders. I’m lucky—I’m not too beaten up. I’m lucky. My knees are very healthy. I had a couple sprained ankles through my college careers. Didn’t have many concussions, which is good now that everything that’s going on with concussions. But my two shoulders, I have two sprained AC joints which I’m probably going to get fixed at some point, but luckily my legs are good, which is important.”

Connor also played at Northeastern University, and is now a district sales manager at EMC, a data storage firm. He lives in Pennsylvania, but still comes to Needham regularly to visit his parents. Connor says that football did so much for him. It gave him a college education. It taught him discipline and gave him the confidence to be a manager. He’s married now, and has one son and another on the way. He’s still not sure if he wants his boys to play football, but he won’t rule it out.

Connor and Bode seem to feel that earning a football scholarship played a significant role in their success. And yet they belong to a generation of players who ended their careers before players and parents became educated about the long-term dangers of multiple concussions, or CTE, on player health. I asked Bode about this, and he feels the way many players do: that if you can’t fix it, he’d rather not know.

“I’m hoping that by the time that I pass away that research is going to find some things out, but I’d be afraid to see what’s in there,” he said. “To be able to look in there and see what’s happened is a scary thought.”