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Forty-Niners quarterback Brian Hoyer told reporters he didn’t see the collision. But he heard it.

It was the sickening crack of a full-tilt, helmet-to-helmet shot. When that happens, everyone on the practice field turns to look.

There’s been a lot of hitting at 49ers camp this year. Head coach Kyle Shanahan condones it, trying to set a tone. And when running backs and wide receivers are knocked off their feet, he encourages them to spring up and run down the field, as if the cleat-clearing hit was nothing more than an annoyance.

But on Tuesday, linebacker Donavin Newsom didn’t spring up. As the seconds ticked away it became clear he was not moving. Someone killed the music. Practice stopped. Some players took a knee. Some prayed. Newsom was strapped onto a backboard, loaded into an ambulance and taken away.

It is getting harder and harder to for me to enjoy watching football. And this is from a football geek. The NFL was my first beat as a sports reporter and I loved it. The players are larger-than-life characters and the Sunday games are electric.

The best part is the strategy. Every snap of the ball is a one-act play. Offensive and defensive coordinators are some of the most intelligent, interesting and quirky people in sports. It is fascinating to watch them play chess with man-sized pieces.

But increasingly, it is hard to shake the thought that these men are hurling their bodies into medical danger for our amusement.

They may bounce up and run back to the huddle, but sometimes they won’t. This year there will be blown knees, busted shoulders and dozens and dozens of concussions.

Are you not entertained?

Newsom turned out to “only” have a concussion. Or, to put it another way, a brain injury. It will be the first of many.

“Everyone knows the deal; what these guys risk in the game,” Shanahan told the media afterward. “That’s why I can’t have any more respect than I do for NFL and college players. People who played the game. Because it is risky like that.”

That’s not callous. It’s true. And there are small hints of a shift in how the game is being seen around the country.

TV ratings for NFL games were down 8 percent — a loss of 1.4 million viewers — between 2016 and 2017. You may have heard that Novato High School almost had to cancel its football season this year because not enough players turned out for the team.

But the story that had people talking was when Vince Lombardi Middle School in Green Bay, Wisconsin, announced it would not play football.

Lombardi principal Jim Van Abel said the school had been advertising for football coaches “since last April and have not had anyone apply to the position.” Imagine. No one was interested in coaching at the school named after the legendary Packers coach.

Don’t think the players aren’t concerned.

Asked if he thinks about the degenerative brain condition CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), tight end Vance McDonald was blunt.

“I think about it. And the day I don’t think about it I get reminded from my wife,” he said. “I think honestly that (when) something is released that can connect football to (CTE) it is probably going to change the game dramatically.”

A nice thought. But what more do we need to know? And how would you change the game? There’s always talk of safer helmets, but telling players not to worry because the helmet protects them only increases the likelihood of leading with the head.

And by the way, NFL TV ratings may be decreasing, but they are still head and shoulders above almost everything else. More people watched the Hall of Fame Game — a silly, first-exhibition-of-the-year where teams rarely play their starters for more than a play or two — than the NBA’s Western Conference final or the first game of the National League Championship Series.

So, yes, I’m going to watch. And I will enjoy it — right up until that crack of helmets and someone lies limp on the ground.

Recently at 49ers camp we reporters were told to clear a path for someone. It turned out to be former 49ers receiver Dwight Clark.

Clark may have been the most handsome athlete I ever met. After a game at Candlestick Park, Clark was standing in front of his locker tousling his hair with a towel. When he turned to answer reporters’ questions, I remember thinking I could spend the day with a professional stylist and I’d never look as good as he does, in shorts and shower sandals.

This time he walked slowly and carefully past us. He’s terribly thin. He looks frail and uncertain on his feet. The most garrulous of players, always happy to chat with reporters, he didn’t say a word.

That’s because Clark has been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). One of the symptoms is experiencing difficulty speaking.

“I’ve been asked if playing football caused this,” Clark wrote when he announced the illness. “I don’t know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did.”

Clark didn’t make eye contact, but offered up a sad smile. Then he went through a door and was gone.

And it was impossible not to wonder: Is that the face of the future of football?

Contact C.W. Nevius at cw.nevius@pressdemocrat.com. Twitter: @cwnevius.

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