When my 10-year-old declared he wanted to sign up for football in the fall I simultaneously jumped for joy and slumped down in dread. “Really??” My regrettable verbal reaction, propelled by a breeze of sarcasm, came out of my mouth too fast. I quickly followed up with a consolation statement: “Are you sure?” That gusted with maternal saccharine and fell flat. Third time’s the charm, right? I puffed an unconvincingly optimistic “Wow, that’s great, honey!”
Let’s just say it’s been a journey getting to the bottom of those mixed emotions, and I don’t think I’ve arrived yet. Fifty days into the football experiment and the verdict is still out for Ryan as well. In fact, no one in our family has completely decided whether the gridiron is our home turf yet.
Why wouldn’t my husband and I enthusiastically enlist our son in America’s iconic sport? How could Ryan’s participation in the pinnacle of sports entertainment not bring us pride? Football is supposed to build character, physical aptitude, and launch peer credibility on and off the field. However, we stand at the threshold of the season hesitant to become fully immersed. We’re like turtles watching our hatchlings shuffle out to sea for their first time. Instinctively we know they have to take those steps, but that parental voice hollers at them, “beware of sharp teeth, polluted waters and unnecessary roughness!”
One of my hesitations was my ignorance of the mechanics of the game. Yes, I”ve got a grasp on the vocabulary of touchdowns, quarterbacks, end zones, line of scrimmage, etc. I also know enough that when a player grabs the facemask of another during a play, it often results in a black-and-white-clad fellow tossing a hanky in the air, blowing a whistle, and rendering some kind of penalty. However, the Curtis household has never sat down for an entire three-hour game in front of the TV and tried to decipher the commentary and calls. We haven’t adopted any football jargon into our lexicon nor is any particular thick-necked player a household icon. You won’t find any posters of Terrell Owens in the boys’ bedrooms. We are not disciples of the doctrine of football. I know, we’re a deficient family.
When Ryan gave us the green light to sign him up for football I drew in my breath and whispered to myself, “here we go”. Culturally, football was going to be new terrain for us. Even though our older son had participated in basketball for a couple years, it just seemed as though football was a whole different ballgame…so to speak. Plus, my husband and I are soloists when it comes to sports. We derive plenty of satisfaction from contests that don’t involve a team.
We’re not complete pasty-faced, athletically anemic geeks in this house. I ran Pac-10 track and cross country, and experienced years of intense training and competition. My husband mountain bikes fearlessly for hours at a time and competes in grueling 24-hour sailboat races.
Sports also appear on the Cinema Curtis TV screen from time to time. Olympics, Tour de France and Formula One races are routinely watched. Super Bowl also makes an appearance, even though it’s a flimsy, symbolic effort on our part, constantly interrupted by food, beverage and conversation. When comparing the sports we watch with football though, friends often make the case that a televised football game is far more action-packed and riveting than watching a pack (the peloton) of sweaty guys spinning over the French countryside for 21 days. Friends, I beg to differ there. Tell that to the dark circles under my eyes earned by staying up late with my friends Phil Liggett and Bob Roll (Mr. Toor Day Frants-rhymes-with-pants) for three weeks straight. Suffice it to say, the Curtis household can be entertained by certain physical contests, but narrowed down to just ones that involve individual efforts.
The smoke-signals and cautionary tales that preceded Ryan’s enrollment in football contributed to my initial hesitation as well. My mom-friends shared stories that ranged from “my son cried at every practice the first two months” to “he was constantly bruised and exhausted”. I could only ask myself, what sport is worth such pain and tears? Should I be calling CPS about this barbarism? Or commit my friends to psychiatric treatment?
Maybe barbaric is a distantly apt description though since it invokes a connection to primordial instinct. While trying to get to the bottom of the tolerance for this game I continually ask my fellow pigskin parents the question, “Why do these kids like this game so much?” I hear “The pads, helmet and uniform make him feel like a bad-ass Transformer” or, “He feels like he’s part of a band of brothers – he likes belonging to a group.” Most often the dads answer me with (duh, Tami) “There’s that thing called testosterone. They’re out on the field for two hours at a time shoving, racing, dodging, pushing. They yell. They get yelled at. Afterwards they feel relief. It’s a good thing.”
I am also still trying to wrap my head around all the yelling that many football coaches are so comfortable doing. It’s not just the volume, it’s also the content that has torqued us. Truckdriver Tongue, Potty Mouth, Profanity Pete…you name it. It was explained to me (again, duh, Tami) that some coaches use their turgid rants to motivate the players — ellicit a hyped-up emotional response from otherwise mild-mannered kids. Successful football requires explosive power, delivered with precision timing and finesse. Successful coaches can often be found dialing in these ingredients through a verbal maelstrom. Also, a kid who is pumped full of adrenaline doesn’t feel as quickly defeated by the bruise-rendering impact from other players as he would if he had a quiet moment to ponder the imminent pain.
So, getting beaten into a pulpy banana is a good thing? Perhaps. I have to admit, my 10-year-old pulpy banana sleeps longer at night. He enjoys the attention he receives on Fridays when he wears his jersey to school. He cavalierly dismisses the leopard spot bruises on his arms as being part of the football territory. He’s also learning a few things about maturity too.
One of the symptoms of being a new millennium parent is that I’m always searching for big picture meaningfulness. A learning moment. A How-Can-This-Benefit-my-Child’s-Development opportunity. Football is rife with learning moments. Every practice offers the chance to learn how to mentally turn down the volume on negative or content-free commentary. A coach who’s perpetually hot under the collar. Teammates who fly off the handle with hair-trigger tempers. Perhaps turning the mirror on a certain ten-year-old rookie with similar characteristics…
Every practice offers an opportunity to turn up the volume on certain input as well. Teaching a 10-year-old to open his ears to the attaboys and approvals instead of dismissing them is tricky work. Having him learn how to receive and stow away a teammate or coach’s encouragement is paramount to giving him constitutional armor. Constructive criticism may sound blunt and rough-edged out on the field, but it’s intended to help. Listen to it.
All that’s easily spoken on paper, but when a snarling, padded behemoth pummels toward you on the field, it’s hard to thumb through all your note cards on navigating positive and negative reinforcements. Just get into a three-point stance, steel yourself and shove explosively upward. Take that, twenty-first century psychiatry.
Fifty days into football we know a few more things than we did before. We’re inching our way toward feeling tolerant toward this game. We know the basics: football is brutal, but football is good.