In mid-April — just as I was thinking about what to write in this column — National Football League player Damar Hamlin decided to return to play professional football. He suffered a very serious injury to his heart during a game in January, four months ago. He made me think about how the danger of football — at all levels — makes it a guilty pleasure.
Football with its explicit violence has been proven to cause concussions and other very serious injuries. Also, the talk often is graphic. Plays come with sound effects — bam! — and descriptions along the line of “flattened like a pancake.” Yet millions of Americans celebrate watching a football game.
Danger is not what brings people to football. Excellence does. And community.
My son brought me to football. As a high school football mom, when I think football, I mean community. For players and their parents.
Community is related to the word communion from Christianity. Communion is bread and wine consumed by the faithful together. It is meant to bring people close together to be nourished by something bigger than they are. In the football community, some people — not me — go as far as giving the deity a nickname: Touchdown Jesus.
I enjoyed being a football mom. E.N.J.O.Y.E.D. IT. So much so that I wrote a book about it. My book (as yet unpublished) is titled “Balls: Memoir of a High School Football Mom.” In 275 pages, I recall the last four years of my son’s childhood. It’s a coming-of-age story seen through the eyes of a mom. I did a lot of screaming in those days. At my son, yes. But also during games.
For women, football has changed. I enjoyed football more in the 21st century than I did in the 20th century. Last century, women were not especially welcome. My oldest son played middle school football in a small town in Illinois. The peewee football coach refused to shake my hand.
We moved to East Lansing. Home of Michigan State University, Big Ten football, Muddy Waters, George Perles, Nick Saban. Legends. Our youngest son played football at East Lansing High School. He loved the contact, including blocking, tackling and running the ball. Football’s uniform, with helmets and pads, was his idea of armor. I joined a group of football parents. Most were moms holding up our end with fundraising and team dinners.
For a football mom, the worst part is knowing your son has been hurt. That is when community is essential. In football, people who will feel your pain are right there with you. There is no need to send for anyone. The stadium goes silent with respect and concern for any player, ours or theirs, who goes down. We applaud that player when he leaves the field.
Our common mission is to win the game. At first, football moms might be leery in the stadium, but we learn the game from those around us, relax and enjoy our sons’ growing confidence. Nobody goes to the stadium to see injury, but we do go to see others who wish our sons a good game. Being inside the game of football has led to stronger relationships. With other moms. Especially with our sons.
Some people say that kids, especially high school boys, should spend the time studying. Then they can go to college and contribute to society. Cap and gown at commencement is a given. But graduation is an annual event, and it is tough to build meaningful community around a once-a-year event.
Football is a week-after-week commitment. For the players, there is practice and games, and no matter the season, football is there. It’s called wrestling in winter, and track and field in spring.
Parents and friends reserve Friday nights from late August to Thanksgiving for games. Hype feeds anticipation for the game. There is no such thing as an “away game” because “away” can be a short drive across town. Smalltown fans caravan to the next town for the kick-off. At the stadium, friends from church, from work and from the neighborhood congregate. It’s like being on aisle 3 at the Meier grocery store.
Every interested person can find a place to fit in because of the no-cut-no-quit policy. The team itself puts 11 players on the field, offense and defense. Then, there are special teams. And the nerd kid who films the game. Coaches and trainers on the sidelines. Announcers and statisticians in the booth. Competition for positions and the starting line-up can be tough, but the coach makes those decisions. In the process, kids learn that order, and authority and respect rule in a community.
Athletes dreaming of a pro career have plenty of company, though the stats show that level of play evades most people. Have a Plan B, coaches like Jim Bibbs urge their youth athletes. Bibbs, a legendary Michigan State University track and field coach, taught football players how to run. He summed up the challenge to make a living in sports this way: “It’s easier to get into heaven than into the NBA.”
Football is a dangerous game. But life is dangerous as well. What makes both worthwhile is a community where people, whatever their pronouns, or age or color, can find belonging. Because it takes a big community to field a good team, football is a sport that can’t afford to lose anybody. That’s a lesson it can teach the rest of our country.
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