Boys and football

When I was a young’n, I played football.

It began when I was 7. I recall vividly signing up at school in the elementary cafeteria. Coaches of all the teams in the town league were there, sitting at small folding tables with signs stating the squads they represented.

Practice went from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. each night of the week – a period of time that probably resembled military training to newbie parents.

Our team would line up in a grid, each member facing three to five players at the front, who were turned to face them. These guys led the warm-ups. We did jumping jacks in formation. We held stretches while the leaders counted off “1-2-3” and we replied with “one” or whatever number we were on, all the way through 10. If any member of the team fell out of rhythym, the coach’s whistle would blow – and we would start from the beginning of a particular exercise, except this time doing 20.

We’d occasionally do more than 100 jumping jacks during warm-ups. After all, some of us were 7 and hadn’t learned to “stay focused.” After stretches, we’d run. And run. And run.

It was exhausing to me at that age … and I actually thought I was going to die at times. But if I slowed down, it was almost certain the coach would holler something derogatory from across the field to get me moving again.

The shame of that was the worst pain of all.

After 30 minutes of “loosening up,” we were finally ready to practice. I was a lineman my first year. Nothing was worse than being a lineman, but since I thought all you did in football was tackle people like Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett, it made the most sense. Playing lineman was easy.

I hated being an offensive lineman. All we did was go down in a three-point stance and fire off the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped. If we went on one “hut” instead of two when we should have waited for two, we ran laps – about 1/4 mile each time.

I can remember conditioning at the end of each practice. Conditioning was always wonderful because it was the most intense part of training and it happened after we’d been through the other Hell-like parts of practice, which meant we were already exhausted when we began sprinting from one secret point on the field to another secret point on the field that probably made us look like idiots to the bystanders who couldn’t see the secret points on the field.

I hated football practice. Hated, hated, HATED.

But after conditioning, as our parents waited in minivans and cars in the parking lot across the athletic fields, our coaches always reminded us of something in the end-of-practice huddle that kept me coming back: all of this was going to be worth it someday.

This lasted throughout my childhood. I did not stop having football practice in the fall until I graduated from high school. It taught me more about responsibility, dedication, teamwork, commitment and life in general than anything in the classroom.

Truth was, my football coaches – from youth leagues to high school – did not seem interested in honoring “politically correct” rules of public schools. Once we were on the field, we were men – and treated as such. We had to stand up for ourselves, stand up for each other and pretend discomfort was not uncomfortable.

(And if something unfortunate happened to you on the practice field, the LAST thing you did was tell your mom about it.)

ALL AMERICAN BOYS at the age of 7 want to play football. I sincerely believe that. In some cases, their parents won’t let them. In others, their parents encourage other things, such as band or soccer. But all boys in America want to play football, as it is simply everywhere in America..

The problem with football and 7-year-old boys is, though, the two don’t mesh. It is tough to attend two-hour practices five nights per week. Parents don’t want to cook dinner that early. Parents don’t feel like venturing back out after a long work day to pick their sons up at 7 p.m. The sons are going to whine about being in too much pain from the night before to attend practice – and mommies are going to want very badly to keep them home for the night to recover (and stop acting like such a man).

I remember all of the children my age who played soccer. They grew up to be delicate.

Soccer was the easy way out for children who began playing football but decided it asked far more than they were willing to give. Soccer was fun! Soccer was exciting! Soccer was about love!

There was no glory in soccer, though. The entire town didn’t show up to watch a soccer game.

But soccer is about fitness! It’s about teammwork! It’s about sportsmanship!

Still not enough to draw a crowd. Still not enough to get you talked about by the locals. Still not enough to gain you the admiration of 7-year-olds when you’re a senior in high school.

LET’S CUT TO the chase here. Without even knowing it at the time, football taught me some of the greatest rules for life I’ve ever learned:

  • your chances of being successful increase greatly if you work hard
  • be on time
  • You will not die from running hard.  You may end up in excruciating pain, but you’re not going to die. You will be amazed to see how much your body can take.
  • Life is not some cake Mom bakes for you. There will be unpleasant sensations. There will be tears. There will be bile coming up from your stomach. You won’t always be rewarded in proportion to your effort. Life is not always fair.
  • don’t ever quit

I can still see the shame our quarterback wore on his 8-year-old face the night he handed his equipment into coach 1/3 of the way into his second season. He could have been good someday. He knew he was not quitting because he did not want to play football, but because playing football called for more effort than he was willing to put forth.

He ended up playing soccer.

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