My son was still small, and gentle, the first time I saw young kids playing tackle football. We were at a playground. Nearby, a dozen helmeted little boys growled and lunged at one another, looking more menacing than anyone in SpongeBob underpants has a right to. “Hit him! Harder!” ordered the yell-y man entrusted with their care.
I was aghast. What kind of people, I huffed, allow grade-schoolers to whomp and wail on each other like so many cleated hooligans?
And now I’m one of them.
No longer amused by see-saws and swing sets, my son has charged head-first into the grunt-and-pummel ritual of tackle football. I didn’t want him to play; I forbade it. But his insistence — and my ill-conceived theory that he would hate it, and we could get this passing fancy over with before his gridiron opponents became bone-crushingly huge — prevailed.
For the last three months, he’s been suiting up four times a week to be knocked down and hollered at with 25 other brutes. The endeavor goes against pretty much everything I stand for as a parent.
First of all, it smells. It involves diving into the dirt while wearing white pants. And it encourages boys to do things — like dogpiling — that would elicit a stern, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” if they happened in our back yard.
Plus, it has sacked our family time. Practice is three nights a week (in the dark, when it’s cold, and flu season is upon us, I’m just saying), so we rarely have dinner together anymore.
“We’re a family!” the coaches tell the team, and it always makes me “humph.” In our family, we value compassion over aggression, empathy rather than intimidation.
But football’s playbook is different than parenting’s. We advise our kids to be thoughtful and thorough; coaches tell them to “rush” and “scramble.” We insist that boys and girls are equals; coaches call them “ladies” when they fail.
If they weren’t trying to make mothers nervous, why would they use terms like roughing the kicker, chain gang, shotgun, spike, bomb, and suicide squad? I don’t even like it when they run the drill “Meet Me in the Alley”; what kind of behavior is that to be encouraging in minors?!
Our boy plays defensive tackle, which involves hurling himself in front of a highly motivated runner and doing something called “getting pressure up the middle,” which sounds painful, or unhygienic at best. There were days during conditioning when he came home so battered and bleary-eyed — hobbling like an old man and clinging to ice packs — that I shed tears. “He’s broken!” I sobbed. “He’s fine,” said my husband, who it’s worth pointing out did not gestate the little linebacker.
I’ll admit this, though: The kid is fit. He sleeps well. He showers more. And he’ll eat any veggie I put on his plate after practice (“Yum, is there any more bok choy?”).
I had a scare while watching him play this week. He collided with a wall of players and was slammed to the ground, hitting the dirt harder than made sense for someone barely five feet tall. Then five beefy bodies tripped over and landed on him: Smack. Crack. Thud. Grunt. Oof.
I felt so unfathomably far away from him, unable to help. Frightened and disconnected. One by one, his teammates rolled off him, but he remained still for a split second too long. I felt sick.
“You OK, Roshell?” I heard a boy ask as another reached down a hand and pulled him up. A third patted him on the back. I can’t be sure, but from the sidelines it looked a lot like compassion. It looked like empathy.
Guess it’s a clean handoff to the Hooligans after all.