WHAT IT WAS WAS FOOTBALL
Earlier in the week with equal parts understanding and trepidation, I viewed the story of a Missouri school district disbanding its football program. Danger and fear of head and neck injuries and, with the addition of less expensive and less dangerous sports, reduced participation in football is inevitable. When I say less dangerous, I believe that in any sport there is a potential for injury but with collisions on every play, football is high risk. My apprehension is that this is the drip that will turn into a flood if we don’t work to make football safer and more fun to play. Fun may be more of the issue than safety. In a national poll, the highest percentage of former players listed no longer enjoying playing as their reason for giving up football.
As both a player and a coach, football was a part of my life for over thirty years. It’s still a part of my life as I have become a spectator; however I have found that it is not nearly as enjoyable because I do not know the kids who are participating. I am a little jealous of my friends who are still coaching…but not enough to brave the August sun, the long hours and what has turned into a yearlong season.
I never thought I would be talking about fun and football in the same sentence. Making football more enjoyable has come a long way with the new pass-happy offenses…that is unless you are a defensive coordinator. I think if I were still a defensive coordinator I would wear a paper bag over my head if I had to try to stop these “fun and gun” offenses.
There are just some parts of football that are not fun. Bumps and bruises aside, August heat and humidity are hard to endure. Offensive linemen don’t have fun…unless there is a “pancake” block I guess. I was an offensive lineman in high school and I can assure you I never walked out on the playground and suggested that we work on our blocking. “Hey! Stand there and let me run into you and then you can run into me.” During our Thursday before practice tag football games I witnessed that even “Big Eaters” like to play with a football.
Rule changes and new technology have actually made football safer but not totally. New diets and new year-round strength and conditioning programs have made it both safer and more dangerous. Force equals mass times acceleration. With the increase in size and speed, players are able to hit each other a lot harder. Want to lessen head injuries? Take the face mask off the helmet. Dental bills and nose jobs will increase but I bet you traumatic head injuries will decrease.
Football is harder to play than other team sports. Before you attack me, I did not say better or more important. To the person playing “tiddlywinks,” it is more important. Tiddlywink players, I support and applaud you. Hitting a baseball may be the hardest athletic technique to master as even a good hitter has a seventy percent failure rate. I salute pitchers for their skill. But that is not what I mean by harder. What I mean is, physical pain aside, a football team has more “moving parts” that have to be in sync. A baseball or softball game can be controlled by one person, the pitcher, if that pitcher has someone who can catch the pitch. In basketball, a game can be controlled by a point guard, a post player and three people willing to get out of the way. In soccer, within the team concept, there is a great deal of individualism and individual creativity. None of these sports require the precision that is necessary in football…These are sports that I have coached or coached and played so I have some experience to go with my opinion. Just so you other folks are not mad at me, I also believe that there is an artistic beauty to those other sports that you just don’t have in football. Football is just brutal, even when occasionally played with a little finesse.
I have never believed that any athletic event is a war, no matter what pro-athletes or, cough, cough, coaches say. I believe we use this description too often and it devalues what our military and law enforcement personnel go through. Football has a foxhole kind of mentality that you don’t get in other sports or, at least, the sports that I have coached.
Life lessons are learned when playing all sports; however, there is a uniqueness to lessons grasped in football. Just because of the sheer numbers in football, a very distinctive form of teamwork must be executed. Everyone has to learn a role, even second and third stringers. Outstanding football teams have good backups who understand their roles. Each player has to rely upon the guy next to him to do his job. The players absolutely must work together.
Football players must persist to achieve and to continue to work hard even when they are banged up or after a big loss or series of losses. It’s easy to come to practice after a win because you have an adrenaline high after the victory. I had one coach tell me that it was better than sex. Why? Because the high lasts all week. If you win a state championship, I guess the high lasts for a year. If this were a Viagra commercial we would need to seek medical help! What is grueling about the sport is having to get back up after a heartbreaking defeat or a whole series of them. I know it seems trite, but football is not about getting knocked down; it’s about getting back up.
I heard a young head coach speak this week. I felt for him. They are five games into the season and his team has scored just thirteen points…and given up over two hundred. That’s right. They have been outscored over forty to a little less than three. Talk about an exercise in futility! What impressed me first about him was his humor, even if it was a type of gallows humor. Secondly, he was optimistic that they were getting better… even if it was just picking up one first down.
I hope high school football doesn’t go the way of the dinosaurs or that we turn it into a flag football league. Had I had a son, I would have wanted him to play but would have supported him if he didn’t want to play. My daughter played futbol and was a tough knot. Had she wanted to play football, I would have supported her after I had tried to talk her out of it. I just believe it is worth the risk because of the life lessons that you learn and the friendships you cultivate. I hold this opinion because of the warm feelings that I have as I remember coaching and playing this awesome sport.