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July 22, 2013

NFL injury risk has Hall-of-Fame dad concerned for rookie son

Kyle Long is going into the family business. "Some people are third-generation carpenters, and that's what they do," his father says. "Well, we hit people." So it's a good thing Kyle is shaped like a bullet, a streamlined 6 feet 6, 313 pounds, broad at the base, narrowing to a cleanly shaved head. His skull is so shiny and hard that it reassures his parents, Pro Football Hall of Famer Howie Long and his wife, Diane. "It's like a double helmet," his mother says.

On a late June afternoon, Kyle sat in an Aurora, Ohio, auditorium alongside other National Football League draftees, young men of differing heights, masses and shapes filling up seats like rows of giant newly sprung wildflowers. They were gathered for the league's annual rookie symposium, a mandatory orientation consisting mainly of lectures on how not to become the NFL's latest casualties. It's a topic Kyle already has been tutored on by his father, an iconic defensive end for the Raiders organization from 1981 to '93, who at the age of 53 has had 13 surgeries.

"Keep your head on a swivel," he warns his son.

Kyle, 24, a promising offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears, was one of 254 rookies who listened attentively as symposium speakers advised them on everything from baby mamas to saying "no" to friends seeking loans. But much of the talk was devoted to the legal and ethical crisis that haunts the modern NFL: player health and safety. With training camps opening this week, the league Kyle enters is in mid-transformation as it attempts to reform a variety of practices, from medical treatment to a play-through-pain culture to equipment. It's a game in some ways dramatically changed from his father's primitive era. "They had salad bowls for helmets," Kyle says.

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