“Friday Night Lights,” “The Gridiron,” and “The Boys of Fall” – these are terms used to describe the ever-popular sport of football. This beloved sport continues to draw young and old to sidelines and bleachers when the leaves start to turn and the air gets crisp. It’s a Big Deal.
Full disclosure: I was a high school cheerleader and I can honestly say I didn’t watch One. Single. Play. I was all about the pom-poms and cute uniform. And that was pretty much my exposure to football until my youngest son entered seventh grade and announced he was going to join the middle school football team. “Why would a kid want to join football?” I lamented. “You just don’t understand the game,” another mom told me. “What’s to understand?” I thought. Two teams line up and try to move the ball into the end zone for points. Big deal.
Football is spending $300 on a helmet because your player claims it’s the only way to get a ‘good one’ and then have the school provide an exact replica to your kid for free.
However, after watching my son grind through six years of football, I can guarantee to you that football is indeed a “Big Deal,” but not for the reasons commonly touted by announcers, coaches, and rabid fans. As the mom of a player, I’ve found out what the big deal is, and most of it has nothing to do with the actual game.
Football is about getting your child to summer “strength and conditioning” every morning before work and haggling with other parents to trade pick-ups for drop-offs.
It’s driving to whichever store is open late for ANOTHER mouth guard AND getting it boiled and formed over the new braces before tomorrow’s game.
It’s dropping a van load of kids off at Carson Park and watching them jump the fence to play on the “real field” until they get caught by city workers and forced to leave.
It’s keeping three or more ice packs in the freezer at all times. One will be lost under the bed when two are needed: ankle AND shoulder.
Football is unloading a uniform from a duffel bag and wondering if the team got caught in a downpour because the uniform is so wet – then catching a whiff of said uniform and realizing the dampness is partnered with a smell that can only be the result of a teenage boy whose pores having been draining sweat for three hours straight.
It’s waking your player at 5:15am in the off-season and so he can stumble out into the cold darkness to a mostly empty school to squat, push, and hoist metal bars and weights to get to “personal bests.”
It’s shopping for snacks that are nutritious, uncrushable, and won’t melt or go bad while stuffed into a backpack for seven hours before getting on a bus for an away game.
It’s filling out form after form with insurance information, concussion baseline testing, writing checks for the Booster club and team pictures, and completing permission slips for pre-season workouts, football camps, and tournaments.
Football is spending $300 on a helmet because your player claims it’s the only way to get a “good one” and then have the school provide an exact replica to your kid for free.
It’s having $80 worth of purple game socks in the drawer only to learn that the team decided to wear white socks this season.
It’s banging on the locker room door with a player’s forgotten cleats, practice jersey, or shoulder pads. Seriously, you forgot the shoulder pads?
It’s seeing a kid glance at the bleachers for a nod of approval from Dad after a big play or a sympathy shrug from Mom after a fumbled play.
The game of football includes the heartache of seeing a team take the field while your player is standing on crutches, wearing a sling, or waiting out a minor concussion on the sidelines.
It’s catching genuine grins of excitement from boys who have waited on the bench for years before getting their chance to start a varsity game. Better yet is the delight from their teammates who are equally thrilled that their friend has gotten his chance to take the field.
It’s keeping photos and newspaper clippings; it’s Powerade and pizza in the refrigerator, it’s Advil and Icy Hot, it’s bench warming, sweating, freezing, laughter, frustration, tears, and pride.
Football is observing skinny and husky boys turn into strong young men who take responsibility for their actions on and off the field.
It’s watching these young men lean on each other for support and strength when they’re injured, defeated, or have lost hope.
And football is witnessing teenage boys sob into each other’s arms distraught because the season is done and the game they love playing together is over.
So it’s not about strutting down the halls in your jersey with a cheerleader hanging on your arm. It’s not about making the winning touchdown, slow-motion “Hail Mary” passes, or shiny trophies.
Football is watching the hopes and dreams of middle-schoolers turn into reality or perhaps reality catching up with those hopes and dreams. There are very few “Disney moments” – hopes fade, dreams are dashed, and reality is a cruel mistress. But I’ve seen the hours of hard work create friends who share a bond and understanding that only comes from living this shared reality.
Inevitably sports fans are surprised when I say I don’t care about a winning score. If “my team” doesn’t win, I’ve forgotten about it before I‘ve climbed out of the bleachers. I’m the mom in the stands wincing as kids get pummeled black and blue on the field; cringing when the plastic pads crack and a player takes a few extra seconds to get back up and biting my tongue when coaches get “overexcited.” But I’ve come to appreciate this sport, and I want the “Boys of Fall” to win because they’ve worked hard and put more hours and hope into this sport than many will ever realize. So if it’s a Big Deal to them, then it’s a Big Deal to me. And that’s a game I can understand.