Friday, January 2, 2009

The Heart in High School Football

My son on the right, his senior year on his home field.

(This was written four years ago.)

Firmly entrenched in middle age and set in a routine hammered out from long years of working and handling my responsibilities, I sometimes forget that life is nothing if not a constant lesson of heart. Every Friday evening when my son's high school football team takes the field, I am powerfully reminded.

My son is a senior, 18 years old. He has played football in public school for six years and it has been quite an education for me. I was bewildered when he brought home all that equipment for the first time in seventh grade. I had never seen all the secret pockets and foam pads or knew there was actually a belt for those pants. Who knew those pants were supposed to fit so tightly that they jeopardized his future ability to father a family? I want to know what purpose that belt possibly served!

His first helmet was dutifully worn around home per Coach's instruction to "get used to it" over the weekend. When my son complained of a terrific headache, I discovered that the helmet was many sizes too small. He was wearing a child-sized helmet instead of a normal size. I had to help pry it off his head. His ears were red for hours and my confidence in a great first season was not so high right then.

The mini-helmet incident was just the beginning. Waiting each evening to drive my son home, I enjoyed watching the junior high team practice. I did not know that mothers are not supposed to be within a mile of football practice. It is strictly a man's world out there. The mere glance from his mom can drain a guy's fierceness, cause him to lose face, possibly interfere with his football mojo. Practice is where every mother's son is torn down and reassembled into a lean, mean football machine and the process is not pretty!

It was his freshman year when I learned of the unspoken taboo against mothers watching practice. Arriving early with nothing better to do, I walked out to watch. I soon became aware that every guy on the field was looking my way: players, managers, coaches - a sea of Y chromosomes staring at me. Later, my son told me that when I was noticed on the hill, someone growled "Who the hell is that?!" I have strictly observed the taboo against watching practice since. No problem.

I have always enjoyed football but I am no student of the game. I know only the most obvious and fundamental things, so my son did not learn the game of football at home. He had to learn it the hard way - at the mercy of the coaches and by much error. Despite this, he did all right. It was fun watching his junior high team play the great American game of football, just like the big guys.

Those first few seasons, I did not worry (too much) about the dangers of football. The guys were young, well coached, and not particularly strong yet. Each successive year, the boys grew bigger and stronger, the tackles harder, the stakes higher. I have watched my only son play varsity football with my heart in my mouth most of the time. Every crushing tackle heard all the way in the stands, every face mask violation, each time a player is slow to get up, I feel like crying. After every punishing tackle, I ask myself why I have allowed my son to play such a dangerous game.

The first play of the first game of his senior year, my son flew down the field at kick off, turned the corner, launched himself at the ball carrier, and fell motionless to the ground. In a sea of uniforms, a mother tunes in on her son. She knows which legs are his, which helmet, which arms. When he did not get up, when his legs remained absolutely still on the ground, my mind played a trick. I was searching for his number in the group of jerseys standing back from the one on the ground. I kept thinking I saw his number in those standing jerseys, though I knew he was on the ground.

I stood frozen in the stands until his girlfriend's father walked me out to where my son lay face down on the field. The EMTs were rolling out the stretcher. I was steeling myself for the worst. As we drew near, I saw the coach was holding my son's head immobile. I went into a state of emotional shock. Walking into the huddle of people gathered around, I could at last hear my son. He was cussing, insisting he was fine and they should let him up and get on with the game. I almost fainted with relief. He had been knocked unconscious for a period of time, and sat the rest of that game out, much to my relief.

Whether I like it or not, injury is a normal part of football. My son played most of his sophomore year with a painful back after a bruising tackle in one of the first games. He has played with sprained ankles, swollen the size of grapefruits. He has played with a fever and congested lungs. He has practiced in searing heat, and played in the bone chilling rain and wind. Yet, football is what he chooses to do.

An indelible memory of my son is one of his first varsity games against the league champions. As the quarterback was shouting the count, my son went in motion. As he confidently ran along the offensive line, an unexpected moment of clarity hit me. Long accustomed to my son's athleticism, for a fleeting moment I saw my son's physical grace and confidence with new eyes. Was that truly my boy out there? I caught a glimpse of the man he is destined to be, there in the lights of an ordinary high school football game. Lessons of discipline and courage learned on the high school football field will take him a long way on his road as a man, wherever that road leads.

Playing football he has learned things he could not learn anywhere else, at least not as efficiently nor as effectively. I have cheered his efforts to master the self-discipline the sport requires. He has learned respect, restraint, teamwork, and how to stay with something until the end, bitter as it may be. He knows what it feels like to win, when all that personal effort pays off. He knows what it means to rely on teammates and trust a coach.

A boy needs to have a certain amount of athleticism to play football, but most importantly, he must have heart. It is the main ingredient for playing good football. My son's school is the smallest in their league. This year, when the seniors at last know how to play with expertise, when they are strongest and most confident, their team has the smallest number of players in the league. At game time it is evident that most other teams have twice as many players. The odds are always against my son's team. The city newspaper publishes computer generated power ratings always showing my son's team as the underdog, often by an embarrassing margin.

Most of the varsity guys have to play offense, defense and special teams, with few exceptions. Despite excellent effort and smart football, in the third quarter, due to unavoidable fatigue, the other teams grind them down. Yet every Friday night every player takes the field with great heart, still believing they can win, against all the odds. The only two wins of the entire season were in overtime. Somehow they were able to dig down deep. They do not give up. If hard work and heart were all that is needed to win games, our boys would be champions. Those two overtime wins were as thrilling to us as any NFL victory. We know the efforts our boys have made to win against the odds and we are fiercely proud of them.

It is probably no accident that "odds" rhymes with "gods". As a parent, you come to believe in the football gods. It is common knowledge that Satan coaches a certain team in our league, and they were crushing our guys. The score was forty-two to six at the half when a main circuit breaker caught fire, shorting out the field lights and ending the game. It was a true football miracle. We knew the opposing coach would allow the score to reach humiliating numbers rather than give our boys a fallen warrior's honor. Our boys did not deserve a whipping like that.

Each successive season, I have admired my son's maturing athleticism. He lifts weights and has grown strong. He is magnificently physically fit. He is not a big man, but he runs with a speed and grace that take my breath away. At the end of the game he still finds the same willpower and speed he had in the beginning. It is his heart that drives him long yards down the field at top speed in the fourth quarter, though he has to be exhausted.

Perhaps even more admirable in my mind is the grueling practices he endures, the endless number of repetitions in the weight room week after week. He starts practice in August, well before school starts. The idea of hell was inspired by the August weather in Kansas. Football practice can not be fun by any one's estimation. A football player has to be motivated by something other than fun. Camaraderie, forged by enduring the same grueling conditions of practice and drills, may be some motivation to play. Taking the field dressed in your school's colors might be motivation, but that is a mere fleeting moment of glory before the brutality begins.

My son does not readily share either the details of his life, or his feelings. The details of his football experience I am most interested in, he deems too unimportant to discuss. I have never heard an answer from my son that adequately explains to my feminine mind why he wants to play football. I assume there is something uniquely masculine about the entire football experience and I am resigned to the fact that I will never entirely understand. But I can venture a few guesses why he, or any boy, plays football. I believe a boy plays football because it takes a certain amount of courage. It takes courage to just try out for the team. It takes courage to play knowing there are guys who will crush you like a worm. It requires a lot of courage to take the field against a team that outclasses you in every area except heart.

I think a boy plays football because he thrives on the physicality of the game. He can feel himself getting faster and stronger. He wants to be the best athlete he can possibly be. There are moments of personal triumph in the game - a flying tackle, a juke to the inside that results in long yardage, a perfectly placed pass, a fingertip reception. The game itself offers up those pristine and rare moments of perfection. Every athlete strives for that moment of perfection, regardless of age or expertise. Indeed, every human being strives for those transcendent moments when it all comes together and something perfect happens.

Of all the thousands of high school athletes who play football for their schools, few get the chance to continue their football careers. It is disappointing, maybe bittersweet, when an athlete truly loves the game, the competition of football and all that goes with it, when the last game of his senior year is truly the end of competitive football. And even then, football offers one last lesson, that is to say farewell gracefully.

It has been exciting and fun to watch the games for six years, though heart breaking at times. There have been moments of thrilling triumph. There have been amazing interceptions, lucky calls, crucial tackles, kick offs returned for touchdowns, and efforts made on sheer heart. There have been many instances of damned good football. I have enjoyed my son's football career and I think he has too. I have admired his commitment to play to the best of his ability, even when his best was not good enough. I will miss those heart-stopping moments when his best efforts were spectacular and triumphant. I will miss the first arrival of the uniforms at home, and going for new football shoes with him. I will miss the anticipation of watching him play. I will miss the excitement of the games, and participating in the emotional fortunes of his team. I will miss seeing him go in motion, carrying the ball, crossing the goal line. I will miss my son.

Thank you for six great seasons, Son. You played with grace and heart, and I am glad to have been along for the ride.

Post Script: My son ended his football career carrying the last touchdown of the season. In a league with a team that placed second in 3A State football, he was named All League Defensive Back. Much to my relief, he turned down all offers to play in college.


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