Around this time last year I signed up my 6-year-old son, Tony, for his first year of tackle football. I gripped the pen and hesitated before submitting the papers and forking over a painful amount of money. It felt as if I was sending my boy away to boot camp or prison, not peewee football. All summer I had second guessed my decision to let him play; I feared for his safety, I worried that my baby would be scared out of the field with those big tough 7- and 8-year-olds running after him, but most of all I was worried that I’d cry and charge the field the first time he got knocked over. Which was exactly why I needed to let him do it.
The burly coach addressed the parents at orientation and described the practice schedule; four nights a week, two hours per night, plus games. Are you kidding me? After a couple seasons of Little League, practicing an hour a week, this seemed absurd. But this isn’t Little League. He explained the types of pads, mouth guards and protective gear they would need: thigh pads, hip pads, butt pads, knee pads. What exactly were they going to do to my boy? The whole way home in the car Tony was smiling ear to ear and I was on the verge of tears.
The first day of practice the new football mommies hovered around our baby boys nervously until we were banished to the sidelines and instructed to stay off the field and away from the boys. Oh God, this was worse than his first day of school! We parked our folding chairs alongside the veteran parents and watched helplessly as our boys were turned into little men before our very eyes. They worked those boys hard. Up and down the hill in the summer sun, pushups, sit ups, drills, drills, and more drills. If they messed up, they ran laps; if they were late, they ran laps; if they talked with their buddies while the coach was talking, they got a stern reprimand and then ran laps. The coaches didn’t sound like the Mr. Rogers-type coaches of soccer season—they yelled, they growled, they pushed, they barked—they got results.
And then… equipment came in. The first time I suited my son up in his bulging shoulder pads and helmet, a lump formed in my throat. It was precious, hilarious, and terrifying all at the same time. Only identifiable by his chicken-like legs poking out of his knee-length jersey, my little boy instantly transformed into a fun-size NFL linebacker. Our newly padded up guys took to the practice field and within moments the first crack of a tackle resonated around the sidelines, sending chills up my spin in an oddly thrilling way. One by one the players took their first turn trying out a tackle, with my 45-pound son making his way closer and closer to the front. When Tony’s turn came I watched through squinted eyes as my precious first born child and only son got splattered across the grass in one swift elegant pummel. I held my breath for what help like ages until he hopped to his feet and flashed me a smile visible from across the field. He gave me a quick thumbs up, undoubtedly knowing how upset I would be, and ran to the back of the line to anxiously await his next turn. He survived, I survived. Game on.
Practice continued nightly, through scorching heat waves and torrential downpours. The only way Mother Nature could stop these boys from playing was with lightning, which rarely happened. Each evening our boys were returned to us sweaty, covered in mud and on an adrenaline high that kept them riled up long past bedtime. With each week of practice I grew more familiar with the unique ways of the youth football world. It was unlike any other youth sport that we had participated in; it was more work, more money and way, way more excitement. By day we were telling our boys to settle down and be good, by night we were screaming at them to hustle hard and bust some heads. As our players became more agile and adept athletes, we began to feel that we were watching a legitimate adult team—at least until a player broke from the pack to come have his mommy help untie his pants so he could go potty. Their chants started to come from deeper voices, they stood a little taller and their eyes stared a little more intently through their helmets, contemplating the complexities of the play rather than watching cartoons like many of their friends.
Our first Game Day arrived and was played at a real high school football stadium. Parents filled the stands wearing their sons’ jersey number, hot dogs were roasting at the concession stand and play-by-plays were announced over the loud speaker amid music to rile up an already excited crowd. Our formerly hyperactive puppy-boys solemnly took the field with focused, menacing chants and puffed up chests. There was anxiety but no fear, energy but no silliness. The formerly timid boys now embodied the Spartans that were emblazoned on the jerseys that they wore with pride.
I don’t really remember who won or lost that first game, and it hardly matters; once each game ended the boys were far more interested in their free slice of pizza than the scoreboard. In their minds, they came and they conquered every time. Over the course of the season our peewee boys did well, making it all the way to the last round of playoffs before the insanely adorable “Superbowl.” But more importantly than the scores, our boys grew in ways that we hadn’t anticipated. They learned to give their all physically and mentally, to respect authority, and to problem solve on the fly. They bonded with their teammates a manner that is only achievable by going through the rigors of conditioning together, and they adored their coaches—the ones who had pushed, guided and supported them through the toughest times—with a reverence that many of the most unruly boys didn’t have for their own parents.
When football season began again two weeks ago, the thrill was already in the air. The parents reunited with shrieks and hugs, connected by a bond that cemented friendships in even the most unlikely pairings. I sat back on the sidelines watching the new first year moms circle their sons nervously on the field, and I understood exactly what they were feeling. But I also knew that the next few months would mold and grow their children in ways that nothing else could. The boys huddled together and greeted each other with macho fists bumps and high fives. Many were meeting back up with their closest friends, despite the fact that they only know each other by last name. They wrestled around and playfully insulted each other before donning their helmets and taking a knee before the coach. They are our little boys; they are budding athletes; they are the Boys of Fall.
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