My high school sophomore son, Cole, sat rigid on the couch before his varsity football game. His team was playing Monrovia, known for their great football team, and for a player named Kurt Scoby.
"He's got a bunch of YouTube videos," Cole said. "He's like a legend," and then he got up to show me a video of a young man with a neck the size of my thigh, flying down the field. He'd been watching Scoby videos all week.
His coach had decided to let the first stringers rest during the game ("so they won't get hurt," Cole explained) and he would put in the second and third stringers as sacrificial lambs. Cole had so wanted to play, and now his coach was finally letting him -- but against Scoby!
We live in South Pasadena, California, not a big football town, and with information about concussions and the dangers inherent to football, many parents are forbidding their sons from participating.
We're not a football type family. I'm a writer, and my husband, Chris, a painter. I went to five minutes of one football game at my own high school, and then left for some real excitement -- smoking pot in a van -- never to see another game there.
But each Friday night now, I'm in the stands, rooting for Cole's team.
"Make sure you go to all the games," a fellow-mom friend advised me, when I told her Cole had decided to join the football team his freshman year. Her son had played football all four years of high school.
"Really?" I said. "To support him?"
"No," she said, "so in case he gets hurt, you'll be on the field."
I laughed, thinking she was joking.
"I'm totally serious," she said. "You'll see." Then she advised me to wash his pads by spraying them with Febreze and hanging them outside to dry. "It's the only thing that helps with that awful stink."
Her son, I learned, had gotten a concussion. Not from playing, but from hitting his own head with his helmet in frustration after a play gone bad.
In his first year, I learned there was much more to football than the games. Cole had to show up at every practice, including a week of five-hour practices during the summer. Soon, he was setting his own alarm and getting up to go to practice without us nagging him. With the team, he did community service and learned to conduct himself out in public, and how to treat his coaches (and other authorities) with respect and directness. The same socializing and etiquette he would have resisted from me, he cheerfully accepted from his coaches. So many qualities and values that I wanted to instill, he gained on his own, by being with his team. He's stronger, tougher, and more resilient, disciplined and respectful.
"Character building," said my friend Jim, who'd played both high school basketball and football. "It's like mandatory army service. I don't support it, but you can't deny there's something very useful about being humbled at that age."
At sunset with the lights buzzing in the crisp air, our team runs out onto the field and tears through the banner that the cheerleaders made for them. I watch these young men, some of whom I've known since their diaper-days, tackling, catching passes and blocking, and I'm caught up in the drama and beauty. After the game, the players applaud and sing the alma mater to the parents and fans in the stands, in a show of mutual acknowledgment and respect.
But there's no denying that young men get hurt, and that it no longer shocks me. There is a savagery, and a willingness to throw our young men into the mix. Each week without fail, the players "take a knee" when someone's injured, and then the hurt player is escorted -- hobbling or carried -- off the field.
A few games past, I heard the crunch of helmets as Cole's childhood friend went down in a tackle. A concussion. "Lucky!" his friends said, since his doctor told him no homework while he rested.
"Don't worry," his mom told me the following week. "He's OK, and he'll play in the next game."
I wanted to say, "And you're going to let him?"
Just like parents have said to me: "Why would you ever let Cole play football?"
He loves it, I tell them. He's now coaching his younger brother's YMCA flag football team. He volunteers at Bingo Night and does community service. He's too busy to even contemplate trouble. He has good friends. They look out for each other.
That doesn't mean I can ignore the celebration of aggression; and you don't have to convince me that extreme football worship contributes to hazing and bullying and rape culture, as evidenced lately in the news.
But despite my ambivalence, when it comes to Cole, the positives outweigh the negatives.
"I'll be in the stands," I told Cole, before he left to meet his team for the bus ride to Monrovia. He nodded, and then closed the front door behind him.
Jim said that some of his favorite moments from playing high school sports happened later, when he saw his opponents -- the same ones who'd beat him -- still playing professionally on the TV.
Scoby seemed like a machine during the game, bounding down the field, touchdown after touchdown, untouchable, the announcer saying, "Scooooby-dooby-doo!"
Relieved and somewhat elated after the game (we lost 0 to 48 -- but no one got hurt), Cole shook Scoby's hand and said, "Good luck with college football, wherever you decide to play."
"Thanks, dude," Scoby said, and he tapped the back of Cole's helmet with his hand.
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