My 14-year-old son Ned plays high school football. “You have to go to Ned’s games,” somebody tells Jill, “so if he gets hurt you’ll know who to blame.”
“Oh,” Jill says, “I’ll know who to blame.”
Most fall Sundays for about the past four seasons, Ned and I have hit a Manhattan bar that shows every Redskins game. I’ve been a Washington fan since 1972; Ned now likes the team, too. Jill will blame me if he gets hurt playing this new passion? For starters, if one thing could discourage a kid from getting interested in football over the past four years it’s the lousy Washington Redskins.
Ned has developed a head for the game; that head now wears a helmet. He plays quarterback, safety and slot receiver. He’s in a perfect school for football, an academically tough place where everybody’s too busy to lionize players of anything, almost as if Ned plays somewhere like the Air Force Academy and science grades and a neat bedroom matter more than blocking (we won’t address those two topics here, by the way.) In a year and a month of high school he’s never had to sit alone at lunch and has had probably few socially awkward moments.
Is the risk worth it? The injury rate for football players is 100%. I’ve only heard two people say that. The first was Alex’s former excellent pediatrician and the second was Aaron Rodgers.
A year ago last August, before his freshman year, Ned almost sobbed when they couldn’t find a helmet small to fit him. Later that morning the varsity coach gathered with us parents to field such comments and questions as, “My friends call me crazy for letting my son play football. How can you help me feel better about the possibility of him getting hurt?”
“We are very aware of the concussion issue and are always on the watch for it,” the coach replied.
Ned began a habit he continues today on weekends and most vacations: Up at six in the morning to join the roar of 30-some adolescent young men doing the can-can together across the astroturf, under the sun. Counting school days, he’s up at six almost seven days a week.
“I’ve never seen Ned so happy,” Jill says.
His freshman year he wore number 1 and warmed the bench, getting a few moments of playing time in scrimmages. First time on the line a second-year player shoved him in the shoulder pads and Ned landed flat on his back. When that happens, Ned later affirmed, you can lay there or get up and look for the kid who laid you out. Ned got up.
I remember late in another scrimmage the clock was winding down and Ned hadn’t gotten in yet. Oh, I thought, if Ned doesn’t get in sometime this quarter we’re going to have one unhappy little boy at home tonight.
These days, he wears number 9, unearthly white against his school’s dark blue, and he plays at least some in every game. Recently this season he cried because he’s not the starting QB right now and isn’t even sure he’s a starter at any position. All those mornings at six must sometimes seem wasted to him. Lessons for his looming career, I guess, where, “fair” and “deserved” appear on few job descriptions.
All those mornings up at 6, sometimes 5:30, at least six days a week and usually seven. More or less month after month. I don’t know any adults who’ve done that or who really ever could.
“He wanted something that took a long, long time to get,” Jill says, “and he worked hard for a long time and he got it. Now if we can just get him to put that same energy in his classes.” Football’s to her what houseplants are to me: just never lived with it before. We’ve also tried unceasingly to convince Ned that high school classes and homework are not the things that simply happen between practices.
I go to all his games. Sometimes I sneak among the team on the sideline and for the first few games nobody tells me to leave. Sometimes I sit in the bleachers in the back of one end zone – which is where I am when the smack happens right in front of me early in week three, a blur of huge gray jersey that suddenly smother the white 9.
Ooo, the QB took a real bad shot on that one ... oh wait ...
It’s one thing to watch this on TV, another to watch it live with him in it. “Mixed feelings seeing him out there, huh?” another player’s dad asks. I mumble something with that feeling you have when your suddenly tall kid goes outwhere that’s called “out there.” And that feeling stabs again a few moments later, when I see a player in a dark blue jersey hobble to the sideline before falling into a ball and grabbing his knee. When the player rolls in pain, I see it’s number 9.
These days a paramedic attends all NYC high school football games (…we’re always on the watch for it…). I get to Ned on the sideline as the medic fingers his shin and tells him to look in her face when he answers her questions. She wants to look in Ned’s eyes. Sure glad Jill isn’t here to want to look in my eyes.
Ned’s fine. He really is fine. He’s 14. I’d be on the way to the ER by now and digging out my insurance card.
“Oh yeah,” Ned says.
“Really? No shit? You’re fine.”
He wrinkles his nose and gives one crisp nod.
“You’re two for six for 24 yards,” I tell him.
“Cool,” he says.
“I’m no expert on football, Ned, but as the quarterback shouldn’t be over there with your team?” It’s not the Cotton Bowl, this level of the game, but it’s not Pop Warner, either.
Thrilling game: Ned’s team loses by 2. That night he says to me, “I can’t talk to you during the games anymore. Coach would like it if I didn’t.”
“I know, Ned. I’ll stay up in the stands where I belong.”
“I like talking to you, you know.”
“I know, Ned.”
I feel a little like some dad must have felt a century ago when he learned that his son loved flying. Of course I wish Ned’s heart swelled to something that didn’t involve collisions or concussions – but right now it just doesn’t. And my rate of both pride and worry is 100%.