Champagne, who now puts the bulk he acquired as a football player to good use as a security guard, knows that although football can be dangerous, it can also be a lifesaver.
His own father got into playing football when he was sent away to a reform school for troubled kids. He learned not only a trade, but also football, which was intended to help him focus and to teach him discipline and teamwork. The way Champagne sees it, in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where his son Najee was a star running back at Boys and Girls High until he graduated this year, football is still an important means for kids to find their way to a positive and successful adulthood.
"Inner city, the 'hood, it's unforgiving," Champagne said. "[Najee] sees some of his cousins who are knuckle-heads, who had the opportunity to play sports and be skilled, but chose to go the street way. And, you know, it hurt them."
With three hours of practice after school every day during the season, football players at Boys and Girls High have little time for trouble-making. The coaches act like mentors, making sure players keep their grades up and calling in tutors if they start to slip, and players reap the health benefits of regular exercise as well as the important discipline and social skills acquired by playing a team sport. Hardly surprising, the majority of the players are headed for college, and not just so that they can keep playing football.
Champagne doesn't give head injury a lot of thought. He is satisfied that a combination of today’s high-tech equipment and the ban on helmet-to-helmet contact will protect his son. He knows there's still a risk but, for him, "everything has its price," and he prefers to leave the decision down to Najee.
"This is what these men have chosen to do. It's like being a gladiator," Champagne said. "And if you take on that responsibility, that decision, you know what comes with it."
Washington, too, knows that just one unlucky tackle could end his career—that's why he chose Columbia over a school with a bigger football program, even though it limits his chance of being picked up for the NFL draft.
"It's always going to be that type of game and that's the beauty of it, that's what makes it so much different than basketball or baseball, because it's a violent game where you can hit somebody as hard as you can," he said.
"You have all these people that say they should change the big hits, they should change the rules. But they've never asked the players," he said. "I feel like if they did a player consensus—not retired players, players that play in the league right now—they wouldn't want to change anything."
Washington and Champagne are far from alone in feeling this way. For many people across the United States, whether they play the game or not, football is at the center of an everyday existence that includes Friday night at the local high school, Saturday morning washing the football kit, and Sunday afternoon grilling outside after church while the kids throw around a football in the yard.