Ahhhh, falling leaves, cooling temperatures and football. I still love throwing and catching.
Perhaps my earliest football memory is Tommy, the boy next door, walking through our yard. He was wearing his uniform one fall evening after practice. Grass stains on his pants, blood on his elbow and sweat on his face . . . I was in awe.
At the age of seven, I was very aware that he played what my dad watched on tv. That was a time I saw him cheering and excited compared to being quiet and inside himself. And here was a neighbor kid four years older doing exactly what my dad loved so much. The kid next door played football! Could I do that? Could I be what dad got excited about?
Fast forward through a thousand practices and over a hundred games, at the age of twenty one I’d earned a scholarship to the University of Virginia and co-captained the team. In pursuit of my father’s approval, and social approval as well, I had beaten the odds. I’d broken only a few bones. Both my knees and shoulders were intact. The romance of the dad’s approval lured me on. After graduation, I had a shot at playing professional football. Dad would be so proud of me.
In the pros, everyone is strong, fast, aggressive. If you want to play at that level, you’ve got to prove to the coaches you have what it takes. Driven to prove I was tough and strong and skilled enough to hold my own, I knocked a teammate out during a scrimmage. It was a cheap hit, but in the moment of fear of ‘not making the team’, hit him anyway.
As I stood off to the side and the trainers revived him, several teammates slapped me on the helmet and shoulders saying “Good hit”.
I was filled with shame. This same scene had once before during a practice at UVa. In a moment of desire to be known as dominant, I knocked a teammate out. His name was Hunter, a guy I really liked. As they helped him to the locker room I felt ashamed and wanted to run after him and tell him I was sorry. But a coach told us to huddle up and I returned to preparing for the next round of violence.
Hunter never came back to the team. As far as I knew he just quit, obviously because of what I’d done to him.
Now it was my turn. What I’d just done, exactly the same violence I’d used on Hunter, sickened me. My heart hurt. In that moment I saw what a coward I had become, participating in violence to prove I was better. I understood deeply violence is not better. I can’t do this anymore. It wasn’t just the cheap shot on another player, a fellow human. It was the charade of the whole game. It was senseless. I slipped off my helmet and walked off the field. I quit.
Inside me was a feeling that had been there all along, moving me to connect rather than dominate.
After the Game
Without football, I faced the prospect of redefining myself. I had started playing this game for my father’s approval. Fearing his disappointment I didn’t tell him I’d quit. I told him I’d been cut. When he died suddenly soon after I didn’t know who I was. I became increasingly depressed, desperate and dangerously close to suicide.
Finding a Self to Believe In
Being honest emotionally seemed impossible. I lied and pretended to be jovial, healthy, strong. In reality, I was so fear driven that nothing in the world could stop the pain.
Help From Within
I found my way to counseling and the tool of honest self-observation, and from there began the work of unearthing the love within me. This love refuses to hurt people as a way to gain approval. This love has been there all along, waiting to be accepted.
Along the way I married, divorced, married again and fathered three children. With amazing help from my wife I am learning to be a father and husband who accepts and understands his own feelings, and from that growth, I am accepting and understanding the feelings of my loved ones.
I’ve spent forty-five years unlearning dominance and competition since I quit football. These traits aren’t exclusive to football nor are they are not inherently destructive. On the football field, they are dangerous. Off the field I re-found the power of compassion leading to three realizations:
1. Football is a gladiator game– built on a fantasy conflict– that demands real-life violence and injuries.
Players get hurt and killed playing football. It’s a game played trying to achieve a sense of mastery by “beating” other guys.
The competitive need to be superior grows from a mistaken belief that “I am inferior until I get approval from outside me.” Tackle football is a response to denying our natural worth. The game is a means of choosing to restore worth which never left, but was not nurtured enough. Football faces the impossible task of restoring self-valuing—-which never left— through real violence and approval from others.
2. If a father’s love is not obvious and available, no amount of football (or other) accomplishment will earn it.
It’s up to fathers to love their children so well that they feel accepted and understood. This includes helping them value themselves for their own unique interests in life. As fathers, we are designed by nature to bring emotional understanding and communication into our families. These qualities of healthy relationships must be learned, and this is where confusion can arise.
Most boys, men, and many fathers have been discouraged from sharing their feelings of affection and vulnerability. Yet in families, our understanding of each others’ inner worlds is what binds us. Discouraging exposure of our inner has reduced affection and connection between boys, men, and families. Boys have become driven to accomplish physical dominance when intimate understanding of emotions is necessary.
We have been steered towards various forms of success, including academic, economic and athletic prowess. These are often seen as more important than loving, understanding relationship. Too many of us have accepted “real men are tough and fearless”. Fathers often don’t accept fear in themselves or their loved ones. This act ignores part of their intelligence and encourages fearful isolation in their children and themselves.
Self-acceptance passes from parent to child. The way we feel about ourselves as fathers influence our families. Let’s understand emotions are not weakness, but rather input to guide us in our interactions. When we accept, understand and adapt to fear, we become resilient and grow beyond our fears. This is passed along to our children. Those of us who are too afraid of our fear to admit it, don’t learn how to grow in response to fear. Too often male responses to fear are anger and isolation rather than compassion and connection.
Our culture, by discouraging male emotional honesty about vulnerable feelings, has corralled men and boys into ignoring their own development in favor of celebrating other men. This focus on cheering “real men” happens when men talk about the game, the team, and sit in front of the tv like my dad did.
I don’t fault my father or other fathers for this plight. It’s a very common problem that requires our attention if we are to replace emotional isolation This is not about blame, it’s about how to resolve a problem we are all facing. Male emotional development has been shamed into atrophy. Anger is not an answer but a message that we are missing the answer, love. Let’s recognize and prioritize emotional connection and communication as much as we do our connection to power.
Football is a way of delaying male emotional growth. The self-acceptance and courage it takes to face vulnerability is not part of the football/violence experience. What boys are seeking on the football field is acceptance and approval as males. If they didn’t get if from their dads, they can get it there.
3. Violence in football demands emotional shut-down which is part of the don’t be a sissy male syndrome. In tackle football, you don’t run full speed into other boys and men without awareness of imminent danger. To play this violent game boys and men suppress/ignore emotions intended to keep them safe. In the place of fear, which is a warning of danger, they choose to feel a stronger emotion: all-out aggression or rage.
They do this by raging during plays, then turning it way down between plays. Then rage again, then stop raging. Turning rage on and off is necessary to be “good” at football. Good means hitting and being hit. Tough means don’t show or listen to your fear. Instead, force your will on someone else with all-out aggression.
A potential long-term problem arises as football players use the rage-numbness pattern. The problem which grows is the appearance of the angry-man syndrome in football players.
Why doesn’t rage stay on the football field?
Inside the body’s cell structure, including the brain and DNA, an imprint is made with each repeated experience. Repeated rage deepens existing imprints. Rage becomes a habit if you play the game. I never heard anybody call it rage on the field. We called it tough or hard-nosed. In my experience, this encouragement of rage, meant for life and death situations, became a habit during hitting. Later, off the field, rage became irresistible in moments of emotional vulnerability, say when a wife or child hits a tender nerve. Instant anger stayed ready in my body and mind off the field long after I had hung up my helmet. It appeared suddenly, just like what happened when the ball was snapped.
Fifty years later, still working at reducing learned automatic rage, I have arrived at an understanding about how rage can be changed.
Raging at our Loved Ones’ Vulnerability
Everyone who cares for another uses empathy to identify with them. The more we love someone, the more we identify with them. Resistance disappears and we experience the unifying energy of love. Because we identify so deeply with those we love, their problems are easily treated like our problems.
When we feel intimately connected, perhaps to a wife or child’s vulnerability in the form of pain or suffering, will naturally use our best healing knowledge. What we use for ourselves we use for them. This works really well when we are not ourselves burdened with wounds in need of healing. Without wounds of our own, filled completely with love, we can be fully present for others.
As a competitor, with so much practice at dominance, I found myself repeatedly using instant anger in response to my own vulnerability. It didn’t happen all the time, but it happened often enough that it was obviously a persistent problem. Added to that was a strong, angry response might pop out of me whenever one of my loved ones was feeling pain or conflict. Their upset called up my practiced response to my own vulnerability response: rage.
Marriage and fatherhood gradually taught me that the thousands of tackles I went through in football came at a cost. This repeated rage/go- numb response could years later, easily poison my relationships with those I loved. The need to protect myself seemed to always be connected to vulnerability, whether or not it was my own. I began to pay closer attention to what vulnerability meant and when it happened.
We cannot be intimate and not experience vulnerability.
In marriage and parenting vulnerability happens. When we are intimate, our old hurts and new hurts appear looking for love. It’s probable that if you played tackle football your ability to be compassionate has been short-circuited by learning to rage when you—–or someone you love—feels vulnerable.
Dad, will you teach me to tackle?
When the boys got old enough to play football I didn’t yet understand the emotional cost of rage-go-numb. The very obvious reason for me to keep my boys, both amazing athletes, off the gridiron was the physical danger to knees, ankles, necks, life. I don’t know anyone who played “full go” tackle football for any length of time who didn’t get hurt.
Thankfully my wife and I were willing to put up with our boys’ disappointment to keep them off the field. Twenty years ago that was enough.
Brain Damage from Head Hits
What we didn’t know then that we know now is the physical and mental dangers to the brain from repeated head hits in football. This information is enough to make any sensible father say no. Knowing that his son could die and will very likely be brain damaged by head hits, why would a father let his son play? The answer that is most obvious is for the father to experience second-hand power and assurance of acceptance.
Studying male emotional development for forty years I’ve come to understand how emotionally twisted football is in terms of requiring rage/go numb responses. The damage done to my family by the anger I learned to use playing football is now clear. I’m still in repair mode. This is another reason we say no to football.
With the help of my wife’s wisdom and courage, we kept our boys out of football. Our choice was to boycott the national sport which requires and uses rage. The demands of an artificial conflict with real physical and emotional violence bring confusion to our boys. Life is hard enough without being forced into to physical danger to prove you are worthwhile when you already are.
Photo credit: Getty Images