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Fall Weekends Free of Football

My son Randy texted me about the exciting finish to a Saturday college football game. It made me smile. Not the result, not even the topic, but the excitement. A parent is only as happy as his least happy kid, and at that moment one of my kids was very happy. Randy’s football playing days are long behind him, but the game still brings him joy.

Me? Not so much.

Oh sure, there was a time when football never seemed to be any lower on my list of wonderful things than number 2 or 3. I was a medium-sized fish in a puddle as a high school football player, but still I didn’t have the game out of my system when I graduated. Accepted at one Ivy League school and waitlisted at another, I turned down both because I was too small to have any chance of playing football at that level. Instead I went to a very old, very small school and played a some all 4 years. Now done as a player once graduation came, I was nonetheless still enthralled by all other things football.

Many of my closest friends were met on the freshly cut football fields of my youth. Wins and losses followed on those fields, most of which I’ve long forgotten. Indeed, I’ve written before that it is only the losses I remember, especially those that resulted from some personal failure in a game. A fumble, perhaps, or a blown coverage. And yet there is no escaping the fact that those countless hours at practice, in the locker room, and on the field are in large part responsible for who I am, the adult I’ve become.

It’s a powerful thing, football. The game itself is exhilarating to both play and watch. At least, it was. I find myself finding all kinds of reasons not to watch football games now. Not consciously finding “big picture” reasons so much as tiny reasons, like Beth wants me to tag along to the barn, or Abbie the world’s smartest (and most easily bored) dog would like an adventure kind of reasons. Football of all sorts played at any and all levels has sunken to a kind of triviality, easily trumped by a trip to the grocery store. Indeed, my fall weekends have been liberated.

No one thing is responsible for this falling out of love, as it were. This fall is different from the last, and the one before only in that it is now glaringly obvious that football holds for me no essential attraction by itself. Looking back my only surprise is that it took me so long. Why didn’t I begin to turn away as my friend the ER doc buzzed through my other son Dan’s shoulder pads with a saw in order to get him into the MRI? Or when I walked onto the field after Randy knocked himself out cold with a helmet-to helmet tackle to force a fourth down, his first concussion? I was still young, still sure that the game would bring my sons what I thought it had brought me.

I see them now, both of my boys, face down and immobile, and I shudder. I started to see them each time I saw a player go down in high school, or college, or the pros. I began to see that I valued those young men nearly as much as my own boys, and I started to notice that the game of football had become The Game. Those entrusted with The Game did not–do not–appear to share my feelings about the players. Any of them, at any level.

The junior high coach carries the star running back to the bench, there to wrap the sprained ankle in the hope of returning him to the game. In a high school freshman game, a rout, the first string defense is still on the field in the fourth quarter, the opportunity to play in a game slipping away for kids on the bench who may never get another chance, when the starting safety goes down with a severed spine on a play he should have been watching from the sideline. They were up by six touchdowns. SIX! They’re freshmen. What was the first string learning at that point in that game?

Alumni and athletic directors and coaches at colleges noted for academic excellence openly opine that they cannot win without lowering the admission standards for football players, and just as openly run those kids off the team and out of their scholarships when they are no longer needed to win. The game in the NFL becomes ever more violent, with ever more gratuitous violence magnifying the carnage wreaked upon the bodies of the players. Ex-pros roam the earth as a kind of walking dead.

When did football become The Game? When did the keepers of the game become keepers of The Game? When did football players as young as high school become little more than a modern stand-in for gladiators thrown into the arena for no more than the amusement of the many and the benefit of a tiny protected few? I’d like to think that there was such a time, an inflection point, when it did change, but I fear it has been ever thus. If that is so then I, too, bear some responsibility for what The Game has become. I did not turn away, or turn my own sons away, at the time of my own dawning awareness that The Game and its keepers cared naught for our sons at all, but only for themselves and their respective place and privilege.

There was a time when my playing days were long over when I still found myself on edge as the weather chilled and the smell of cut grass filled the autumn air. It was time to get ready to play football. Those days are long past, and I find that I no longer even think about watching, indeed can no longer see myself watching, except as a vehicle with which I might channel the joy of a child. And this is perhaps why: I can no longer watch a game whose keepers have lost sight of the fact that someone’s child plays in The Game. I am a man who consciously strives to live a life free of regret, but I regret that I lacked the courage to say “enough” when my own children played.

One wonders about the parents of gladiators past.

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