I Never Knew Football Could Make Me Happy

For those of you who know me, you realize what an insane statement that is coming from me. But hear me out.

The only time I ever played a team sport was when I was in 5th grade and was coerced by friends to play on the school basketball team. I loathed it. I had no idea what I was doing, and basically spent most of my time running from end to end of the court trying to avoid having to touch the ball. One time I got fouled at a game and had to shoot free throws. I pleaded with the ref, “Really. It’s totally fine! It was an accident, and she didn’t mean to foul me…just a misunderstanding, if you will.” 

The ref stood firm on his call and there I stood, trying not to wet my shorts or vomit on my sneakers in front of everyone. (It felt like a million people, but I’m guessing it was more like thirty.) I dribbled the ball, amazingly managing not to hit my foot, and took the first shot. Yeah…You guessed it. “AAAIIIRRR BAAALLLLL!!!” mocked the other team. Jenny, a particularly nasty teammate, stood there and gave me a slow golf clap with an annoyed look on her face. I took the next shot, and it bounced off the rim. My teammates gave me a collective eye roll and ran down to the other end of the court. I felt like I had failed my team. 

“Wait. But I thought this post was about football,” you’re saying. I’m getting there. Skip ahead 40 years later…

Over the summer, Young Son’s friend and his dad encouraged him to join their league tackle football team. When Young Son came to The Warden and me, excitedly asking if he could join, we were stunned. He had tried a few different sports through our park district but never showed any excitement about them. As far as football went, his interest was more along the lines, “Can we have wings when Dad watches the game on Sunday?”

We had our doubts. Would this be another sport that he’d try half-heartedly and then want to quit halfway through? So we sat down with him, looked at the league website together, and talked about it. 

I said, “Football is really fun, but it’s a lot of work. Being on a league team is way more intense than the sports you’ve tried at the park district. You’ll be practicing at least three days per week and have games on the weekends.”

The Warden added, “Yep. And your coaches are going to make you work hard and will be tougher on you than you’re used to. You’ll have to do training drills, push-ups…and run. A lot. You’ll have protective gear, but you’re going to learn to tackle people and push them around. Do you think you can do that?”

Young Son looked at us seriously and confidently said, “Yes. I really want to do this, Mom and Dad.”

The Warden told him, “Okay then. Mom and I will 100% support you in this, and you have to put in the same commitment. This is going to be hard and a lot of work, but I really think you’re going to have fun being a part of a team. You’re going to be so proud of yourself when you see yourself getting stronger with your hard work.” 

So we signed him up, and he and the Warden jumped in the car and went on a Dick’s Sporting Goods shopping spree. They came back triumphantly with a bag full of gear, which he proudly showed me. “Here’s my practice jersey, my cool cleats, my football pants — check out the pads in these things! Oh, and I even had to get a cup, Mom.”

“Well, gotta protect the junk. You’re gonna have to talk to your dad about how to wear it, ‘cuz I’ve got nothin’ for you pal.” He chortled and trotted upstairs to put his cup and gear in a safe place. This was going to be interesting. I wondered, would he have the same enthusiasm once conditioning started?

Early on in the training season, it was the end of practice and they had to run laps. Ugh. A lot of the other players on the team are crazy fast or have the stamina of a marathoner. Young Son? Mmmm… Not so much. As most of the team finished their laps, Young Son was still lagging far behind and bringing up the rear…but he was still trying. One of the moms came up to the other players on the sideline and yelled, “Hey! If you’re not completely sucking wind, you get out there and you run your teammate in! GO!” Without skipping a beat, they tore off across the field and ran with him the rest of the way, cheering him on the entire time. (I’m not crying, you’re crying!) It was then that I knew it was all going to be okay. 

You see, yes I was worried about my easy-going, big hearted boy playing tackle football and getting injured. But what I was more worried about was his self confidence. I knew this was going to be the biggest challenge he’s ever faced. As I’ve written about before, Young Son gives up on himself too easily, and it’s heartbreaking. Often when given something difficult, he internalizes that it’s hard because of a shortcoming on his part, rather than it’s a challenge that he can work toward achieving. And let’s face it. Most of all, I was projecting my own fear of failure and humiliation at sports on him. 

But boy, did he put my worries to rest! He has been having the time of his life and loves football! I am seeing a new side to my Young Son. His confidence has skyrocketed — and not just on the field. When he proudly wears his jersey to school on Fridays, he stands a little taller and has a bit more swagger in his step. I see it in his confidence in everyday things that are normally more challenging to him both at school and at home. He still gets frustrated when something’s not easy, but he doesn’t give up on himself as much as he used to. Best of all, he smiles and jokes so much more. His grumpy old man side doesn’t come out as often now.

And speaking of grumpy old men, The Warden is having an awesome time cheering him on and seeing all the wonderful changes happening in our kid too. It’s become something they’ve really bonded over. Surprisingly, being a football player has earned him some respect from First Born too — my inmate who fears nothing. Warrior Princess is proud of her brother too, happily helping him carry his gear to the car after practice. (Heck. At this point if she had to choose between joining cheerleading or football, she’d choose the latter and take names while she was at it.)

So yes, football makes me happy. Seeing Young Son’s coaches pushing him to work harder and celebrating his successes… Hearing him gush about his team and coaches and how awesome he thinks they all are…Watching the team throw themselves into football because they love it so much. It gives me hope for the future when I see the leaders on his team come shining through — not just for making touchdowns and tackles — but for helping and cheering on players like Young Son. And to their parents who are showing them by example how to be supportive leaders at every game and every practice, I bow down to you and thank you.

Oh. And to that mean girl, Jenny and the rest of my 5th grade basketball team…here’s my disgusted slow golf clap for your lousy sportsmanship. You really could have learned a few things from my kid’s football team.