What sports can do for a child

I began playing youth football when I was 8. I didn’t know what I was doing – few of us did. My main goal was to not get yelled at.

I began playing baseball at a much younger age. Football was nothing like it. Every night, rain or shine, we had practice from 5 to 7 p.m. I believe I hated every second of it.

But my parents never let me skip practice.

The ordeal was painful, mentally and physically, and perhaps cruel. For the first time in my life, I was expected to keep running even after I was in pain. It couldn’t have been more than a quarter of a mile – this route around three baseball fields at the Little League park – but I may as well have been running to the next county.

When how these death jogs went was still unfamiliar to me, I had to stop before the halfway point. As soon as I did, I heard my coach from across the complex yelling for me to keep going. I’d walk just so he’d shut up. Then I’d see other players on my team getting farther ahead. I’d look behind me to measure the distance of the heavier players no one expected to take less than all night. Once I could hear them panting, I knew it was time for me to start jogging again. I’ll never forget the first time I threw up on one of these runs.

It went on like this for years. The running got easier, but the aggravation that was taking me away from my family, comfort zone and childhood never ceased. I can’t remember ever actually liking football practice … even the friendly competitions that were reward for our team doing something well. It felt like my freedom was being violated

I CAN SAY THIS now without fear of retaliation from coaches or old-timers who seemed to like me playing more than I did. At this point in my life, my manhood – which is always what gets called into question by these people when a young boy or teenager states he doesn’t enjoy every second of playing football – speaks for itself. I graduated from college, have a good job, own a home and take care of my family. I’m doing everything the coaches said we were supposed to do when we grew up.

You know those stereotypes people put on small-town football guys? The ones that peg grown men as trying to live their dreams through their kids or someone else’s kids? Degrading, unfair statements about big fish in small ponds … things like that? They may or may not be true; I believe they are in some cases. But they all play into a world that made me who I am – and who I want my kids to be.

I hope my children sign up for something someday that requires practices they want to skip. I hope they have to run, feel pain, then get yelled at for not fighting through the pain. I hope when it rains, the coach checks for lightning when no one is looking and tells the team to keep practicing. I hope the weight of their shoulder pads feels like the weight of the world on their back … and all they can do is keep going.

I hope they have to run until they puke.

ALL OF THIS occurred to me this weekend when I realized that despite being completely exhausted, physically and mentally, following our family’s move into a new house, it appears I will not get a chance to recover. Ever. I’m still weeks away from hanging every photo, shelf and dog leash hanger. Who knows how many more boxes need unpacked but have not yet been because they aren’t essentials. Hollie still has to work whenever I don’t, so none of this can be done in the daylight hours because someone has to watch Kalob and Kalista has to do her homework, so she can’t, and Jakob is still too small. I’ll never get to bed before midnight. This is never going to end. It’s never going to be easy.

Some men might give up and start walking. Some might quit altogether because it’s too hard. Some may not be used to fighting through pain or discomfort because, let’s face it, no one’s ever told them they had to.

When I played football in high school, I was not that good. I was a defensive starter and made plays here and there, but I sincerely doubt opposing teams made game plans to avoid me. Beyond my parents, the only people who truly cared about my performance on game days were coaches and the guys trying to live their dreams through kids on the field. I never wanted to let these people down because they were supporting me.

My adult life is very much like playing football in high school. These exhausting, trying times remind me of practice. Walks with the kids across the fields surrounding our house are like game day – the reward for the grueling practice. But if I did not today possess the fortitude and resilience I learned as a child and young man playing football … if I did not learn young that one isn’t dying just because he or she is in pain … I might have never learned what it takes to achieve my goals. I never want to let Hollie and the children down because they are supporting me.

I can’t teach my children to run until they puke, just like my parents didn’t have the callousness to do it to me. Only the hardcore fundamentalist Baptists do crap like that to their kids. But I can tell them they have to go to practice every night because they are part of a team counting on their presence like they count on me today. I can tell them when they get to practice, it’s more than likely going to be uncomfortable – but they have to keep going.

I can tell them that is what life is like. I can tell them I love them and hope they do great things, but nothing in life that is worth doing is accomplished without fortitude and resilience.



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