I still remember the first big hit my son took.
He was in the fourth grade, his first year playing tackle football. He was playing quarterback, and no one picked up the blitzing outside linebacker. Because no one knew they were supposed to. They were fourth graders after all.
I saw his head snap back as he took a blindside hit. When he hit the ground, everyone thought he was hurt. Fourth graders cry a lot during football games. They aren’t yet used to the violence.
Instead, I heard his tiny voice hollering over the den of football parents, “I’m fine. Let me up. I’m fine.”
He was learning one of the first rules of football — you always get back up.
This was before concussions were widely talked about in the media. Before we knew about CTE’s correlation with professional and college football. Before we understood that subconcussive hit after hit withered away the brain like an apple left overnight on the counter.
Over the next two years, those stories began to hit the headlines. We learned traces of CTE were repeatedly found in the brains of athletes who killed themselves.
In 2016, my cousin Brandon Bourbon, a former NCAA Division I football player, shot himself with a shotgun in the Missouri wilderness, and everyone whispered to each other, “Did he have CTE?”
For my cousin, there was no telling. If the doom that came upon him was festering in his brain, he destroyed it with a shotgun shell.
And yet, the next fall, when the Arkansas weather was still too hot to be enjoyed, my son strapped on his pads and helmet, found his inner beast and began laying the wood.
His mother sends me articles about football’s concussive problem before each season. She wants me to pull him from the sport.
She doesn’t have to remind me. I keep up. I’m a sports journalist. Football isn’t just a fun game for me — it’s food on the table. It’s at least 10 of my Fridays in the fall, where entire communities come together to cheer for kids who may or may not be killing themselves on the turf.
My son already loves football. There’s no stopping him. I don’t ask him if he wants to play. He tells me he is going to play.
Amid all this, I still believe football is valuable as an experience. I know my share of former high school players with bum knees, bad backs, and other lingering injuries. Without hesitation, they will tell you, “I would go back and do it again in a heartbeat.”
One of my friends, a former college quarterback and semi-professional, told me his brain might leak out his ears one day, but he would still lace up his cleats one more time if he could.
These men with lives, careers, families — they’d zap out their shoes to return to a 100-yard stretch of grass meant for violence, even knowing everything we know now.
And why am I among them? And why do I keep defending it?
I wrestle those questions every season, as I write sentence after sentence about the sport from my booth above the stands.
I have come to few conclusions — just a generalized anxiety that I’m making the wrong choice. If my son loved playing with fire, I’d stop him.
My younger son idolizes his football-playing older brother. He will grow to love the game, too. I have already determined not to let him play peewee tackle football until at least fifth-grade, but what if the science becomes irrefutable? Will I have to break his heart?
What’s to love anyway?
Playing football take enormous dedication. In the south, the kids don’t just practice during football season. They practice during the spring and all summer. It is countless hours in the weight room, in the heat, in the breaking dawn, while all your friends are still sleeping.
It is an endurance test as much as it is a test of physical strength, and these brothers who endure beside you matter in a way that is difficult to reproduce elsewhere in life.
It’s working hard for something and knowing that the journey is more important than the destination. A lot of state runners-up will tell you it was worth every drop of blood; a state championship just makes it hurt a little less.
And therein is another beauty. It hurts. As life hurts. But you keep moving. You stay low, and you drive your feet — just as you, later in life, sit in front of a blank page and type, never knowing if someone is going to read. Just as you apologize to your wife when you aren’t wrong because you treasure the relationship and the journey more than a win, and just as you endlessly do whatever it is you do to put a roof over the head of your loved ones and food in their bellies.
Football starts with love.
Love your teammates. Love your drive. Love your struggle. Overcome.
Not if those boys become depressive old men who stick shotguns in their mouths.
There’s an idea that men are bred for violence. We are brilliant murderers. It is in our evolution — our bodies are hewn from sterner stuff so that we can endure the wilderness, get the kill and feed the tribe. So we can protect the precious cargo therein — the children.
Football is the primal need to devastate your opponent. Tribalism. It’s sending our boys to war against another tribe, and a win isn’t just numbers on a scoreboard. If this were a war, you’d be dead as hell.
Why be a part of that — one of the last bastions of untouched (and possibly perverse) masculinity in the nation?
Because we love it.
Because we hate it.
Because we love to hate it.
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