Monday, November 2, 2015

Things I never thought I'd say about football

I was not raised on football like most Americans. My father was a German immigrant and my mom is a musician who spends her Saturdays at the Opera. My parents only watched sports when their kids were playing in the game. I never watched football and didn't understand the people who did until I became a Throckmorton. Even then, I was still resistant, but when football is all around you, it starts to rub off.  
Once a babe, always a babe:  Tim as a UMaine Black Bear.
Ellis, my 6-foot 3-inch, 235-pound stepson is a linebacker for Husson University, and watching Ellis play football has (truly) become one of my favorite things in the world. Ellis is one of the most gentle and loyal and sweet people I know, but on the football field? He is big and strong, and you best get out of his way. Watching Ellis play has taught me to love football, and even more miraculously, to understand it. I swear to God you guys: I lived my whole life until I was in my 40s without actually knowing what a down was.

I now even like to watch an occasional football game on TV, and not just because of the hot wings. Living in New England, I caught the Patriots fever. I love Tom Brady.

I look forward to Ellis' games every week. On about half of the plays, I follow the ball because it helps me learn the game, but what I really love to do is follow Ellis and watch him knock people over. One time Ellis popped one of his opponents so hard that the poor guy's helmet went flying right off his head. I stood up and cheered, wanting everyone to see the 47 on my back so they'd know that the giant linebacker is with me, and I thought: Who have I become?

He looks mean, right?  He is not.

When Reed turned 8, he started talking about playing football. How could I be surprised?  Tim, who played college football and generally loves the sport, has been playing catch with Reed out front since they first met. And Ellis? Well, as far as Reed is concerned, the sun rises and sets on Ellis. Anything Ellis does, Reed wants to do too.

Ellis, age 4, with Tim looking on.

I spent a long time being undecided about whether we'd let him. I read all the concussion articles and worried about my sweet boy and his sweet head. But in truth I was more worried about the culture of football. I had heard that youth football coaches can be harsh with kids, that they push them hard and yell at them in practice. 

I asked Ellis: Did your youth football coaches yell at you?  
He said: Yes.  

I drilled him about his thoughts on the subject, and Ellis promised me that Reed could handle it, and that his tough coaches had been really good for him. Football, he explained, was the turning point that helped him figure out how to stay focused and disciplined in the rest of his life, specifically in school. Hmm. That was pretty convincing.

Reed told me we would “crush his dreams” (he actually said that) if we didn’t let him play football.

We signed Reed up for football.

I was more nervous than Reed at his first practice. I warned him this would be different than rec soccer and baseball, where Reed picked dandelions and sometimes stood on his head in the middle of the field, and that was perfectly okay. The other parents stood on the sidelines, shouting to their kids as they ran laps around the field in the hot sun. The kids were big and their dads were bigger. The parents chatted about drills and plays and positions, and I felt really out of place. I only participate in sports where no one touches anyone else. I listen to NPR and shop at the farmer's market. These were not my people.

Five coaches shouted commands at the team as they circled up for warmup drills. I resisted the urge to yell, “I love you, baby!” as he trotted out to join them. They started with "up-downs," where the kids drop to the ground on their stomachs, and then pop up and run in place, drop to their stomachs, pop up, repeat. The coaches allowed no slacking. If one kid didn’t do it right, the whole team had to start over. I kept my eyes on Reed as he struggled through the drill. I swallowed a lump in my throat. I was rooting so hard for him to keep up.

I admit it. I wanted to cry several times watching him out there getting barked at by the coaches. People told me football would “build character” for Reed, but maybe we could  just build character by baking cookies together and cuddling on the couch? I considered grabbing Reed, running right through the end zone and to my car. Out on that field, though, Reed amazingly followed every specific direction the coaches gave. He did not want to be the one who made the team have to redo a drill. Reed isn’t exactly an expert at following directions at home, but these coaches and their whistles had his attention.

At the end of that first practice, when he pulled off his helmet, I first noticed that his hair was soaked with sweat and his cheeks were blazing red, and then I saw his smile. The kid was seriously happy.

For the next few months, three nights a week, in all kinds of weather, Reed worked harder at football than I’ve ever seen him work at anything. He ran. He did push ups. He did up-downs. He got knocked down and got back up. He ran some more. 

I stayed for most of the practices, watched and learned alongside of the team, and talked with the other parents who, it turns out, are totally my people. All of the moms I talked to were also worried about the concussions and the intensity and the yelling, and we all watched our kids figuring this football thing out together. I made great friends on the sidelines while Reed made great friends on the field. I learned to check my own judgments about football and football moms, which is a good thing, because it turns out I was now a football mom.

Reed always looked forward to practice, and always walked off the field smiling. The coaches did yell commands to the kids in loud voices, but no coach was ever unkind to a player. One night I heard a coach yell at Reed: “Why are you hesitating on your tackles?  You need to drive through!” And I thought to myself: OK, that wasn’t very nice, but he’s right. Reed isn’t driving through. In the next drill, Reed tackled correctly and earned a coveted high five from the coach.

If he was told to run a lap because he had forgotten to put his mouth guard in during a drill, he’d do it and say later: “It’s OK, Mom. I deserved it.” How is it that my son was responding so positively to such a rigid, disciplined program? Ellis was right. This was a rite of passage for Reed, and it was truly surprising to see how he seemed to understand that what was hard was also good for him.

At the end of every practice and game, the coaches gathered the team into a circle. In these meetings, the kids took off their helmets and chugged water while coaches acknowledged what had been hard and specifically discussed what they did well. There was no gratuitous praising going on here; the kids were commended only when they had worked hard and executed what they had been taught. During these team meetings, it became obvious to the kids and the parents that these coaches truly loved our kids.

Football has its own subculture and takes some getting used to. I was lucky to have Tim by my side to explain what was happening and why, and Ellis to serve as living proof that football can provide direction and structure for a kid like Reed.

No one is more proud of Reed than Ellis.

Reed has grown up a lot this season, and no matter what happens with his future of football, he will always have this year. He learned that he can survive a challenge, and that hard work and perseverance pay off (the kid has some new muscles). He wasn't one of the best players, and he stuck with it anyway. He started off the year tentative and afraid to tackle (and his pacifist mama doesn't blame him). He got more confident and more brave with every passing week.  

photo courtesy of Tony Llerena

photo courtesy of Tony Llerena

This past Sunday, he played his last game, and it was by far his best game. The coaches all made a big deal about him and how much better he got. "You are on fire out there!" they said to him. It was perfect. Football isn't too tough for Reed. My boy can handle stern and direct instruction. He does not need to be babied or coddled. He can hold his own in tough situations.

Coach Tony was Reed's defensive coach.  He pushed Reed pretty hard and got huge results.
 Reed LOVES Coach Tony.

Reed's season is over and Ellis only has a few more weeks, so soon our weekends won't be consumed by bundling up and watching football games anymore, and I'll have to wait until next fall. Good thing I have the Pats and my Fantasy Football team to tide me over.