Once upon a time in a land I like to call delusional thinking, I believed my son would never want to play football. Should the crazy thought enter his mind, I would explain there was no way in hell that he would play before high school and he would accept the wisdom of his mama. Sure, he might be a bit disappointed but he would understand and I would be secure in the knowledge that I was protecting my child’s brain.
I’ll pause while you wipe away the tears of laughter because I’m sure you know where this is going.
Jackson is playing tackle football this year. He’s ten. Yup. So much for the best laid plans. Here’s how it went down.
Jackson’s best friend Dude is the ultimate athlete. The kid plays every sport known to man and does well in all of them. Even though he’s shorter than most boys his age, he is competitive and skilled. And fast. Did I mention he’s really, really fast? So I’ve watched over the years as his parents take him to baseball and basketball and wrestling and football while I think how exhausting that must be and how glad I am that Jackson really only does wrestling.
This spring though Dude started talking about tackle football. This Fall would be the first year he was going to get to play with the pads and helmet and the whole 9 yards. I thought to myself how glad I was that Jackson wasn’t interested. I worried about Dude’s head and brain. I wondered why his parents were letting him play? Were they crazy? (Again, the hubris. Also, they weren’t the only friends I had with football playing sons. So yeah, I was totally a judgmental jerk. In my mind at least.).
About two weeks before football, Jackson started making noises about how it might be kinda cool to play football someday. He was feeling me out. Testing the waters. Of course, I ignored him completely. A week before football started he brought it up again. This time I explained the dangers and how he could play when he was older.
Two days before equipment checkout he said, “I’m not even going to ask if I can play football because I know what you’ll say.” I told him I hated to be the bad guy but that it was just too dangerous at ten and he could absolutely play when he was older but not just yet. ”Okay. I understand.” Then he walked away. With slumped shoulders and resignation flowing through every step. I watched his spirit die just a little. That wonderful, outgoing, reckless boy spirit. “Shit,” I thought. “I have to let him play.”
The next 48 hours were a whirlwind of reassurances from my husband and Dude’s parents that my precious baby would be just fine. We were able to work it out so Jackson was on Dude’s team which meant Dude’s father, assistant coach, would be looking out for my boy. At equipment check, another friend who has coached high school football for years, helped make sure Jackson’s equipment fit property while reassuring me that yes, he would be fine and starting early had the advantage of teaching them good habits and safe tackling. I was shaken and unsure but facing my fears head on.
Which means that when we got home with his equipment, I mentioned that maybe the pads and helmet should stay in the garage because they were so big (and really, I didn’t want to look at them). Two hours later I found the helmet and pads laid out on the couch where everyone could see. I sighed resignation and chuckled over his excitement. Clearly I was losing this battle.
The first week of practices went smoothly enough. His team won their first game handily and Jackson was on the field for every play but one. His dad and I remarked about how amazing it was considering it was his first football game ever. Even my dad drove down to watch the game. I was feeling more confident about this decision. I told Jackson I was proud of him. It wasn’t a lie.
Next practice Jackson had a cold and he didn’t want to go. He started whining until I firmly reminded him skipping practice was simply not an option because he was now a member of a team. (Remember, wrestling is an individual sport. The consequences of skipping practice are much different.) He pulled himself together when he realized mom had no sympathy and he returned from practice in good spirits. Things were going well and I mentally patted myself on the back for also being a team player.
Honestly though, I must confess that I was secretly pleased he didn’t want to go and when Wednesday wound up being a tough practice as well, I found myself hoping he would decide football was not his game and he would get it out of his system early. Despite these reservations, I enjoyed watching Jackson play football.
The games were fun. Seeing him decked out was kinda cool. The boys weren’t hitting each other that hard and even if they eventually did, my son is a pretty big kid. He would be hard to take down.
Then we had the second game of the season and all my confidence went up in a puff of smoke when Jackson’s teammate went down hard. After ten minutes of laying on the field, the EMT was called. I worried about the boy’s neck. His brain. I worried about Jackson because this was his friend on the field. Fortunately a mother behind me was an EMT as well. She was called down to the field to check the boy before they called 911, and when she came back to the stands, she said she was pretty sure it was his collarbone. Not his back. Not his brain. I never imagined being relieved a boy had broken his collarbone. I guess that’s how football goes.
Jackson was shaken. He cried on the way home. All I could say was football is a rough game. There was so much more I wanted to say. So much more I wanted to do (like call the coach and let him know my son was done). But I held my tongue. He needed to know I believed he would be okay even if I wasn’t so sure.
Within a day we heard the boy was okay. Hairline fracture. Maybe some torn ligaments. Out for the rest of the season but he would be fine. I was told repeatedly that this boy ALWAYS gets hurt. Even his own dad said this to me, saying I couldn’t judge football safety based on his son.
We also got exciting news that day. Next game would be Friday night instead of Saturday. It would be played at the high school under the lights with an announcer! Once Jackson knew his friend was okay, all doubts left his mind, and he focused on the excitement of the next game. He talked about it all week. He went to practice without complaint and came home with bruises.
Friday was the big night. It was cold and clear. We managed to persuade Willow to watch even though “I don’t know anything about football mom. I’ll just sit and be bored but whatevs.” The other team was bigger than our boys but our boys are fast. There was even a girl on the other team, a friend of Jackson’s. Her parents were sitting behind us so it was fun to comment on how well she was doing. When she took down one of our running backs 6 yards from a touchdown, I couldn’t help but cheer for her.
I had to leave the game early to pick up product for our business, so I missed Jackson tackling the opposing quarterback, a big kid with at least 15-20 pounds on my son. That evening Jackson asked if I saw the play. I confessed I hadn’t but I was proud of him. He told me he felt weird about it but couldn’t really clarify. I asked my husband about it later and he assured me that when the game was over,Jackson had been bragging to anyone who would listen about the tackle. He was clearly proud of himself.
I don’t know why he felt weird about it later. Is it because he knows I’m conflicted about football and doesn’t want to brag to me? It is because he himself is conflicted about whether or not he wants to play? Is it because he just doesn’t really like being the center of attention and hopes no one brings it up next practice? I don’t really know the answer.
All I know is football is here to stay for three more weeks. This marks a milestone in my parenting. I’ve always said the kids should have more freedom than I want to give them but not as much freedom as they want. I never imagined it might involve compromising on my safety standards. I’ve been uncomfortable before with their freedom. However, this might be the first time Jackson isn’t so sure about it either. I’ve been saying all week this parenting thing isn’t for sissies. Guess I’m braver than I knew.