A buddy of mine, one of the world's big football fans (that's football, not futball), thinks his favorite game is in danger of going the way of the dinosaurs.

That may be hard to believe, particularly as we head into the craziness that is Super Bowl week, but if you listen to his arguments and combine them with some recent news items, he may be right when he says the sport as we know it may be in dire consequences within five to 10 years (his time frame, not mine).

He believes that the rash of head injury lawsuits by former NFL players and their families against the league will take their toll, if not on the league itself financially, on the next generations of potential players.

"It's going to get to the point where no mother is going to want her kids to play football," he says. "Then take in the fact that kids today have so many more entertainment options than people our age did when we were kids. With all their gadgets, they don't need or want to play sports that much. Sooner or later, the game will just be flag football and all these big stadiums on campuses everywhere are going to be like the Roman Colisseum."

If it happens, the NFL and bigtime college football have themselves to blame. Whether or not you agree with the rash of head injury lawsuits, they're not going away. In an Associated Press story about the late Junior Seau's family suing the NFL, the AP found that more than 3,800 players have sued the league over head injuries in at least 175 cases in recent years. The total number of plaintiffs is 6,000 when spouses, relatives and other representatives are included.

No matter how rich the NFL is, that's a lot of lawyers who are going to have be paid, one way or another, sooner or later.

No kickoff returns?

Now the NFL is seriously talking about doing away with kickoff returns, because, according to a Time magazine article,

"Violent collisions between players running full speed downfield on kickoffs have concerned the league for a number of years. (NFL Commissioner Roger) Goodell said the new kickoff idea came from Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, who was Eric LeGrand's college coach at Rutgers when he was paralyzed by a collision during a kickoff return."

That's just great, take away the single most exciting play in the sport. The proposed change would have teams that score get the ball back at their own 30-yard line, with the play fourth and 15. They could either go for it or punt. Which makes little sense, because punt returns are at least as dangerous as kickoff retutns. Why do you think there's a fair catch option?

How popular is the proposed change? An online poll on the Time website accompanying the article found that 71 percent of more than 3,000 respondents were against it.

Players too big

The big problem is just that - the players are too big.

The game used to be played by normal-size people who were exceptional athletes. Think Bobby Layne, Doak Walker, Johnny Unitas, Larry Wilson. Then the age of specialization came in, and players had to fit a particular size and speed pattern in order to play at the highest levels. Now, NFL offensive and defensive linemen routinely weigh between 300 and 350 pounds. Linebackers go in the 250-275-pound range, with exceptional quickness. Cornerbacks and strong safeties are the size of the last generation's linebackers, and faster. Quarterbacks are expected to weigh between 220 and 250 or more, and more and more are expected to be able to run as well as throw. Wide receivers are now preferred to be 6-2 or taller.

When you get players that size running into each other at full speed, you're going to have serious collisions. It's part of the appeal, just as accidents are part of the appeal of auto racing. And it filters down to the lower levels. Who among us doesn't know former college or high school players who have had knee replacements, hip replacements, bad backs and gnarled hands from playing years before?

The game has faced such issues before. About a hundred years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt, a big fan, threatened to ban college football unless rules were changed to make the game safer, and the powers that be responded and saved their sport.

The NFL is unquestionably America's favorite spectator sport, but if the pool of potential players gets smaller and smaller, it will have to adapt. Maybe it will get back to more normal people playing. Maybe it will get split into weight divisions. But sooner or later, as the lawsuits keep coming, the endless money pool is going to start shrinking.

NCAA problems

Meanwhile, at the college level, this week's allegations that the NCAA has been, how shall we say, crooked, in several of its high profile investigations against top football schools, while seemingly looking the other way in cases against other institutions, points to the theory that that august institution may be operating on borrowed time.

How would college football look without the NCAA? Who knows? At the Division I level, big money factions would no doubt sweep in and try to take over, but who would govern the lower levels?

Mantei's Desert Island Discs

Okay, I realize he's only 21, and may or may not have been duped, and he's not a pro yet, but if you're a Heisman Trophy runnerup who plays for Notre Dame, you're fair game and besides, everyone else in America is having fun at your expense, so why shouldn't we jump on the Mantei Teo bandwagon?

Sports Editor Charlie Roth, an earnest Irish fan, started this with a list of a few songs which would aptly describe the Notre Dame linebacker and his dead girlfriend that wasn't. I started to expand on the list and the fact is, we've only started to scratch the surface. We've hardly touched country music yet. Readers can feel free to make their own admissions, through e-mail or Sound Off (it's got be good for something).

So here, without further ado, are some songs Mantei might be listening to these days:

Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe"; Rick Nelson's "Dream Lover"; The Zombies' "She's Not There"; "Imaginary Lover" by the Atlanta Rhythm Section; Supertramp's "Breakfast In America" (you know, "not much of a girlfriend, she's the only one I got"); Harry Nilsson's "Can't Live (Knowing I'm Without You)"; The White Stripes' "Little Ghost"; The Temptations' "Just My Imagination"; Michael Jackson's "She's Out of My Life"; Hall and Oates' "She's Gone"; Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "There's Something Wrong With You"; Muddy Waters' "Can't Lose What You Never Had"; The Platters' "The Great Pretender"; John Lennon's "Mind Games"; The Beatles' "I Should Have Known Better".

We're waiting for more entries, folks.