Saturday Night Lights

The backfield tackle was the kind in which the quarterback is hit, hit again, and finally collapses under the weight of blockers, tacklers, and the inevitability of yet another sack. Less than two minutes remained in the game when the QB went down. His team was losing 14-0, and face was the only thing he had left to save.

One by one, the referee pulled the bodies from the pile. Limber, bendy seven-year-old bodies unfolded from the mess and reformed themselves like a modern version of Stretch Armstrong. One by one they took their place in the respective huddles. Finally, only one boy was left on the ground, the defensive end that had shot the gap and plowed into the quarterback’s thighs at top speed. The boy half-stood from his spot on the dewy midfield grass and then dropped to his knees. He hung his head as the referees put a hand on his shoulder.

I didn’t have to look closer to know who it was. It was #13, the Eastside Dolphins right-side defensive end, a seven-year-old bullet who doubles as my son. After three months of practice, games, and tackles, he was down for the first time.

In the waning moments of his final game, he wasn’t getting up.

* * *

When my boy asked me if he could play football this year, I didn’t think twice before saying yes. Of the many things we share, the NFL halftimes we spend in the back yard throwing the ball are some of the happiest of the year. Though I like a great many sports, football is the only game for which I’ll make appointments to watch. It’s an important part of our family’s entertainment dynamic. In fact, as I type this, my entire crew is sitting in front of a 50” television watching the Steelers dismantle the Cardinals.

And so, we bought the best helmet, shoulder pads, and cleats we could find. We found a team that would have us and settled into three-times-a-week practices under the direction of a locally-famous former high school and college football star. Before the end of the first practice, the boy had gotten the coaches’ attention as a quick, tough, passionate kid.

The boy has been playing sports since he could first walk. He’s played soccer, swam, and played tee-ball as competitively as a kid can. Through all of it, my travel schedule has kept me from being a regular part of practices and games. This year, I was able to stay home for most of the past couple of months. It meant I could go to every practice and game the kid played. Three times a week, I put my computer, phone, and outside life on hold and went to a football field to watch my kid play. They were the most relaxing moments I’d spend in any given week.

I won’t deny the excitement I felt when watching my son explode off the defensive line and into a quarterback’s chest, or the pride that swelled when my kid encouraged his teammates or helped up a hurt opponent. He looked good in a set of shoulder pads. He looked right with sweat running down his face. My little boy looked like a big boy, and I loved it.

* * *

No fewer than three people for whom I have a great deal of respect as friends, parents, and intelligent men sent me private e-mails when they heard of my son’s new pastime. Each note was respectful, measured, and polite, but carried the same message: what in the hell are you thinking?

All three messages spoke of recent science that shows just how dangerous a game football can be. They spoke of concussions, their long-term effects, and what they could mean for the boy who is the personification of joy. Had I considered it all?

I had. My wife and I talked about it. Our decision wasn’t made lightly, but it wasn’t difficult. Nearly all sports carry with them a certain amount of injury risk, and at 55 pounds, the boys on the termite team aren’t going to threaten injury any more than a hard game of soccer. Is it dangerous? Sure. Is it any more dangerous than most sports kids play? Probably not at this level.

As I responded to each of my friends, I checked myself for obvious signs of self-delusion. I played football for six years as a kid and teenager, though never very well. I loved the culture and the game but never had the required athleticism or talent to do much on the field. Somehow I ended up with a kid who shows natural ability in every athletic endeavor he undertakes. I wondered if I wasn’t trying to recapture something I could never grasp.

I needed no more than to see my kid whip off his helmet on a hot day. Sweat rolled down his dirty face. He smiled. He was as happy as he’d been in any sport I’d seen him play. I was forcing him into nothing. Left to his own devices, he would be playing with or without my permission.

So, as I told my friends, for now, I think my boy is safe, and if he should show a desire or aptitude to play at a higher level, we’ll have to have a serious discussion about the inherent dangers in the game.

Now, several dozen practices, eight games, and a hundred hits later, my kid was finally not springing back to his feet. He was the kid with the referee standing over him, under the lights, 25 yards and a world away from me.

* * *

I searched the sideline where my wife stood with our other son. She was looking at me with the same half-lost look. Barely any time had passed, but in that parental eternity was a moment in which a father wonders if he’d made the wrong decision to let his son play. There was enough time to shudder at the thought that something bad had actually happened. There was enough time to experience the worst thing about being a parent: fear.

His back was to me as he stood. Finally, he turned and let himself be led to the sideline. His face was covered in grass and sweat. His lip quivered, but didn’t give in to the tears. As best as he could tell me, a helmet hit him in the side of the neck as he went down. He hurt, but he was fine. Within moments he was begging his coach to get back into the game. Just as quickly, I let slip from my mind the fear that had barged in.

The Dolphins won their last game. It happened under the lights on a high school field. When it was over, my son thanked each of his coaches for their efforts and sought out teammates to say, “Good game.” Finally, we corralled him and walked in the dark behind the stadium on the way to the car. I heard a sniffle and a hitch in my son’s chest. I looked down to see tears welling up in his eyes.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m just…” he said. “I’m just so proud of myself, and I’m sad the season is over.”

I will never force my son to play any sport. I will never put him in serious danger. I will never make him live a life just so I can live it. I will always tell him the truth and try to help him make the right decisions that will keep him as safe as possible. The only thing I insist he do—even if he doesn’t want to–is be proud of himself.

And he did that on his own.