Recently, I was at my mom and dad’s house with my five-year-old son Jeremiah. He and I were leaving, walking across the carport when my son noticed a box full of dusty trophies. My dad had to clear out the attic as a result of having insulation replaced, and so items that had been stored and long forgotten were now laid out on the carport. As my son rummaged through the box of trophies, it brought back fun memories of my youth, times full of activity and adventure that I will cherish all my life. Some of the most fun times were those experienced each year during baseball and football season. I grew up in Eight Mile in the community of Highpoint, and played youth league ball at Highpoint Park. Our football teams, which went from age 6 to around 13, were a juggernaut in the county football league that we were a part of—Indian Springs Elephants brought it on the football field!
If the kids back then were enthusiastic and energetic about the sports program there, our parents were no less so! On game days, if our parents were off, they were at the games. My dad and his troop of proud fathers were vocal, passionate supporters of their sons. Sometimes maybe a little too much so. I have hilarious memories of them sometimes having to view some games from afar, like outside the park far, because a referee had put them out the park due to their, uh.., let’s say, enthusiasm. Hey, what can I say, they could be opinionated.
To me, this was the golden age of football, names like Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, Lawrence Taylor, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, Mike Singletary, Reggie White, and many other greats, dominated the game. Monster hits were a welcome and looked for aspect of the game. Physical and mental toughness and grit were traits drilled into us as young aspiring greats of the game.
I distinctly remember my dad suiting me up sometimes at home in all my pads and helmet, and having me practice tackling one of the trees in the yard! Just kidding, but you get the picture, we were told and saw often what it meant to be a “true” football player: put aside fear, disregard pain, and punish your opponent! Practice and games were full of hard hitting helmet to helmet contact and we as kids loved it! Once a teammate and I knocked each other out in practice we collided so hard when we hit each other. After we eventually got back on our feet, coaches and players alike congratulated us on our physicality and the awesome spectacle we presented when we struck each other.
Little did we know. But, we now understand that the ignorance we so long operated off of when it comes to football was extremely dangerous, and had physical ramifications that could impair someone for a lifetime.
So here I am, in my parents carport with my young son, watching him excitedly look at the various trophies (even asks if he can keep one of them) as I’m mentally recalling varied enjoyable memories, but one thing is fairly firm in my mind: I don’t want my little man to play football right now. I made this statement one day at the gym and it was immediately apparent I had committed some type of heresy. Nothing wrong with letting your four, five, or six-year-old getting out on the old gridiron I was told. “We did it, why shouldn’t they,” one friend exclaimed. I felt as though I was about to be brought before the Inquisition at any moment!
But, I’m concerned. Like many I was completely stunned when a study commissioned by the National Football League revealed that retired NFL players were 19 times more likely than other men of similar ages to develop severe memory problems. Likewise, studies are starting to show a correlation between accumulated years played on the football field by young adult football players and slower reaction times on cognitive tests. I love the sport, but its long term effects on players concerns me.
Yes, there is an excellent initiative under way called Heads Up Football designed to promote safer tackling techniques. Many youth league and high school level coaches are becoming Heads Up certified and teaching kids how to tackle with their heads and eyes up utilizing correct body posture, proper balance, and other correct methods to minimize head injuries. But, for me, questions still remains: will my soon to be six-year-old miss anything by not playing football for a few more years? Am I pandering to over-hyped assessments and concerns about child safety when it comes to youth league football? No.
So, going on his second year now, I’m content with watching him take the soccer field on Saturday mornings this fall. I never played in my life, but now consider myself fairly competent in the fundamentals of the sport due to the numerous amount of “how to” YouTube videos I’ve watched! He definitely seems happy and content. During practice and on game day he gets to do what little boys his age generally get a thrill out of doing: running freely with abandon while continuously kicking something in the process! It’s always a humorous sight to see.
We love watching football games together on television, going to local high school games, and he gets a great thrill out of beating me playing Madden NFL on the Xbox (the latter being a real assault on my manhood) for now these will do. That’s my lil “pooh bear” and I’m okay with enduring a little ribbing from some friends and acquaintances in this case about being an over protective “papa bear.”