“The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football.”
― Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals
It is the time of year that I feel like I should be doing something else. High School football practice begins today. I haven’t set foot on a practice field in twenty-two years, but I still feel the tug.
I was involved with football for over half my life, first as a player and then as a coach. Now I’m just a spectator…and not a particularly good one at that. I can’t remember the last time I physically went to a game at any level. I choose to watch the game from the comfort of my recliner. I like the game still, but I don’t know the kids and I’ve found that while the game is important, it is more important because of the kids and coaches that I knew.
So many memories flood me. There are too many memories to try to enumerate and pick even on that stands out more than others.
Thousands of want to be football players will brave the late July heat and humidity, the bruised and aching muscles to experience the highs of victory and the lows of defeat. Some will win it all, some less than all, a few won’t win at all, but I believe most will be better because they made the effort.
Kids in helmets, shorts, and tee shirts lined up today on fields wet with dew. Next week they will add pads, amplifying their discomfort and the sounds coming from the field. Waves of heat will shimmer above the grass, the sun turning the field into a sauna as the practice goes on. Despite the dew and humidity, the insides of mouths become desert-like no matter how much water is consumed.
The greenest grass you were likely to see, the painted lines blinding with glare in the morning sun. Sleds, dummies, ropes, and chutes sitting about waiting to be utilized. There is never anticipation like the first day of practice…unless it is the first game. There is anxiety and fear, but they are overcome by the joy of competing…and the first collision.
During my days as a player and a coach, we tended to use the word war metaphorically when describing football. I’m sure coaches and fans still do but we’ve romanticized both too much. Football is not life or death, war is. Quoting Bill Shankly, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.” I know he was talking about what we call soccer, but it fits with my line of thinking.
Football during my early days as a player and a young coach wasn’t war…but it was close. It wasn’t a game of finesse, more like World War One than the present-day battlefield. Football was a “line it up” and “ram it down their throats”, anything goes kind of game with the forward pass thought of as a trick play. The game was about imposing your will, not trickery. To quote George Orwell, “[Football] has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words, it is war minus the shooting.”
Orwell might have been a bit harsh, but I can’t deny coaching football right up to the line of committing a felony while preaching fair play. I coached the way I was coached, and all my peers coached the same way. Some of our players might say we stepped across the line on occasion. I can’t count the number of times I yelled, “Put a facemask on him” (now illegal) or felt an adrenaline rush when someone put a hit on the opposition that clapped like thunder and echoed through the stadium.
The game has become more dignified since I hung up my whistle. In some ways it doesn’t resemble the game I played but then the game I coached didn’t resemble the game I played, either. All things change and I am not saying the rules changes are bad. They are not. They are simply different, and, in many cases, they were necessary because of coaches like me.
There are things that haven’t changed. Moving that odd, shaped ball is not as much about the plays being called or stopping the opposition with the perfect defensive call. It is about execution. It is about digging deep inside when you are tired, bruised, and bloodied, and still finding a way to get it done.
Football relies on teamwork and always has. Eleven people operating as one. It relies on you trusting the guy next to you and him, trusting you. The game is about being a part of something bigger than yourself. It is about being willing to metaphorically sacrifice yourself for the good of the team.
The game teaches lessons and can be a cruel instructor when it does. One lesson, the most important and cruelest is the one we should all learn: Sometimes, you can do everything right, but you still lose…and the opposite is true too. Sometimes you muck it all up and it turns out fine. It doesn’t seem to be fair…kind of like life sometimes.
I miss the interaction, the comradery, the coaches, and the players. The good-natured banter that we, as a society, seem to have lost the ability to tolerate. It seems we are all offended about something.
If you want to know how to have a good relationship with people, how to get along, visit a good team’s locker room. People work out their differences for the good of the team. The important stuff is what goes on between the chalk lines. Everything else is just a distraction. Good teams aren’t distracted.
I’ve never been more alive than when I was laughing and crying with the team. I miss the Friday night lights. I just don’t miss July and August practices.
I wrote my first book at the urging of a student who thought my stories were humorous or uplifting. “Winning Was Never the Only Thing…” The book was about my career as a teacher and a coach and the people I was fortunate to have run across. I should have quit while I was behind.
Don Miller’s authors page can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2USUuECtVZ30kyPLYDROKXQctOe6UaAbOiLHQ-IBV5nLr78HJ56V18iGs