My 4-year-old son currently has toothpick legs, but he’s not wimpy. He mixed it up in a physical soccer game against older kids this weekend and was forcibly introduced to the ground on numerous occasions. He didn’t cry once.
Afterward I said that was a tough game.
“Yeah, too tough,” he said.
I told him I was proud that he kept on getting up and hustling.
That night at a restaurant I told him that he could grow up to be President.
“No dad,” he said. “When I grow up I want to be a football player.”
Hmmm … somehow I don’t see him shedding 280-pound tacklers to break into the secondary. It does. however, make me wonder what games my wife and I would want him to play and what he will want.
Football is in our DNA. My dad played in front of 90,000 people at Soldier Field for Fenwick High School in the Prep Bowl. He went on to play at Wichita State but lasted only a year before a shoulder injury stopped him. My son’s grandfather on his mother’s side was All-State in Connecticut in high school and played at Harvard before a knee injury ended his career.
I played sandlot football from the time I could walk. I loved football. I lived football. On Saturdays, I piled blankets and pillows in the living room and plowed into the ‘”line” as I watched game after game. Though I was undersized, I played one year at Fenwick and then blew out my knee playing in a vacant lot with my friends. That was the end of my football dreams.
So I’m not surprised that my son also has a visceral feeling about football. Not only is it in his genes, there’s something basic about it that appeals to everyone. One side has the ball. The other side is trying to take it from them before they can cross a line. Players use brute strength like boxing. They employ strategy and trickery like military operations. It may be the perfect sport at blending the talents of the body and mind.
And it can also prove deadly. In my job as a sports editor, I have now read hundreds of stories about head injuries and the long-term effects that can ultimately lead to death. My father-in-law says he feels like he has been mentally affected by years of hits to the head and wants us to have his brain examined after he dies.
Used to be that we talked about knee injuries. Now, suicide as a result of repeated head injuries is part of the national discourse on football. So I do have serious misgivings about my son playing the game.
But my son sees his cousin playing defensive line as a freshman for Johns Hopkins and thinks that is so cool. He knows his other cousin is playing Pop Warner and is impressed. I get a kick out of it too, but I worry.
Still, I gave my boy a football before he could walk, and we also dug out the old football helmet I wore as a kid — the one my dad gave me — for him to wear. (As you can see it’s a Cardinals helmet because that was my dad’s favorite team when they were in Chicago — though I and my son are Bears fans).
Anyway, am I sending mixed messages? Absolutely.
Deep down I just hope he gravitates toward baseball. He seems pretty good at it — hitting live pitching in the backyard, though with Whiffle balls. He’s a smart kid, a sensitive kid, and for now, a small kid. Baseball seems made for him.
Baseball is more of a thinking man’s game. It still requires physical skill to excel, but someone with good hand-eye coordination and a willingness to understand how the game should be played can make it a long way even if they aren’t 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds.
As attendance figures and TV ratings show, however, America’s pastime isn’t really America’s pastime anymore. Football speaks to something more basic in humanity. I see that when my son and his friends chase each other around the yard with a pigskin. They run into each other, the ball comes loose. They jump on each other, laugh. Someone gets the ball and takes off again.Some kid invariably walks off crying. But it doesn’t stop them.
Will I stop my son from playing football? I honestly don’t know. I hope as his mind and body develop he’ll decide on his own which sport suits him best and that baseball wins the day. Heck, maybe it will be soccer or lacrosse. I’ll deal with it.
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