We Were Football Players Once…And Young

This essay was an attempt at investigative journalism exploring our fascination with football. I felt it appropriate with the arrival of football season. It’s always a strange time for me because I don’t quite understand the obsession with it. I wanted to see what others had to say about it. I’m not sure it is finished yet, but it is already at 15 pages and I don’t know how much I want to continue with it. I felt as if this was a complete piece, but I didn’t really get into the commercial side of it because I don’t know important that is. The general population doesn’t seem to be concerned with the business side of the sport. They seem more than willing to give their hard earned dollars to support it. And I apologize about the formatting ahead of time. New to wordpress and haven’t figured out how to cut and paste from a word doc.

We Were Football Players Once…And Young

A news piece said a high school football coach was going to trial for the homicide of one of his players who died on the practice field. The report said the kid had a one hundred and nine temperature at the time of his death. Eight other players showed signs of heat stroke after the three hour practice that took place in the middle of August. Some kids testified that the coach was upset at their lack of effort throughout practice and made them run “gassers” (sprints from sideline to sideline) for forty minutes. They did so without a break. What is it about football that would make a grown man risk the lives of young kids just to win? How did football become such a phenomenon? Was this war-like sport becoming America’s Favorite Pastime? Was it already? I played highschool football. For two seasons and it started out okay, but then it just kept getting worse.

A buddy of mine, Tony, never played football. But he loves the sport. NFL, college, highschool, Madden on the Playstation. It doesn’t matter. He still attends our old high school’s Friday night games. I decided to tag along the next time he went.

I invited him in for a pregame drink.

“We’ll miss kickoff,” he said. “We can stop and get some beers on the way.” We split a six pack on the way to stadium. We sat in the parking lot finishing our last beer before entering the stadium.

“Why do you go to these things?” I asked him.

“What are you talking about?”

“Why do you go to high school football games?”

“Why are you going?” he replied.

“To see a game?” I didn’t want to tell him I was doing a pseudo-anthropological study on a culture that I just couldn’t quite wrap my head around.

“Me too.”

“I know that. But why high school games?”

“Because we don’t have a college or pro team. And I like watching the high school kids play. They’re pretty good. You never know when you might  see the next NFL star.”

“Okay,” I said. “Why do you watch football? Or any sport for that matter?”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

I started laughing. “Calm down. I’m just curious why people watch sports.”

“Because I like it.”

“Why though?”

“Same reason you like surfing, I guess.”

“But I don’t have thousands of people come cheer me on when I do it. I don’t have a coach yelling in my face when I fuck up. I don’t have to rely on other people to be good at it. It’s nothing like football. That’s a weird comparison you just made.”

“Well shit, man. I don’t know what you are looking for.”

I asked if he had heard about the kid that died after practice. He had.

“What do you think? You think the coach is responsible?”

“I don’t know the circumstances. It sucks. What do you want me to do about it?”

“I’m just curious as to why parents allow kids to be put in that kind of situation. Why put so much pressure on these kids and why do the kids put up with it? Does it ultimately harm the kid’s development or is it good for him? Is it just character building or is there something more to it, you know?”

“It’s football, man. You gonna talk this shit while I’m trying to watch the game?”

“No. I’m going to go around and ask other people, I guess.”

“Jesus, man. Really?” He turned the radio up and gulped his beer. “I thought you were up to something when you asked to come along.”

After finishing our beers, we walked among the carnival-like atmosphere into the stadium.

“Every game this crowded?”

“Yep.”

My freshman football season went by with nothing noticeable happening. Not even a win. We were bad. But the coach didn’t give us a hard time. He just let us play. And it was a blast. I was excited to be part of the team and couldn’t wait until next year. That next year was a bit differen. The JV squad, which I was a part of, practiced with the Varsity squad. I wasn’t expecting it be taken so serious. On our first two-a-day practice, I smoked cannabis before riding my bike there. I threw up during practice. And then went home had lunch, smoked again with my buddies in the neighborhood behind the middle school down the road and skateboarded until it was about time for practice again. I was already dreading going to practice the first day. I threw up again from the running. I wasn’t the only one. There were probably about seven of us. All JV. The Varsity kids had all been training throughout the year. Gradually the number of kids vomiting from the conditioning training dwindled down and we were ready to run some drills. I hated every minute of it. But I felt already vested in the team. The coach would give us lectures in the locker room about being a team and how if anyone ever quit we weren’t just giving up on ourselves but on each and every person in that locker room. We were giving up on our parents who came to support us. At this point I thought, my mom could care less if I played football. She’d probably rather me get a job instead and help with some bills. He said we were giving up on the community. It’s just football, I remember thinking. It’s a game. This should be fun. What is all this social responsibility bullshit he is trying to push on to it? I looked around hoping to catch the eye of a kindred spirit. Instead the locker room erupted into hollers and butt slaps. I stood there and let out a weak “yay” and looked at most of the other kid’s acne filled backs and how their muscles were already starting to bulge out and they were getting manly facial hair and I wondered how come I still looked and felt like a teenager. I was naïve and wasn’t aware that kids that young were already experimenting with steroids. Looking back it makes sense. I was experimenting with drugs, too. We just had different goals of what we wanted from drug use. I wanted better awareness and understanding of the world and the experiences I was having. They wanted gigantic fucking muscles. I didn’t belong with this group. I was different from them. But I remembered how the kids who quit freshman football were shunned in the halls. They became outcasts. So I was going to play football for four years and hate every goddamn minute of it because I was too big of a pussy to quit.

Earlier in the day, I was at high school as a substitute teacher. I attended the pep rally and was fascinated at the frenzy the students displayed. In the first period it was dual enrollment class and I asked how come there weren’t any football players in here. One student with frizzy blond hair and horn rimmed glasses said because it was the smart class.

“You’re saying there aren’t any smart football players?”

“I didn’t say that,” she said laughing. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”

She then told me the next class was also dual enrollment and there were two football players in that class. I then asked how many were going to the game. All but two hands went up.

“Why aren’t you two going to the game?”

“Football’s stupid,” one of the girls said. She had dyed black hair and was wearing a black Rancid shirt.

“You’re stupid,” one of the boys replied.

“That’s another reason I don’t go,” she said. “Too many jackasses in the crowd.”

I then asked the class why they think high school football was so popular. One girl responded saying because there is nothing else to do.

“So it’s just a social event. You don’t care about the outcome?”

“Yeah, but that isn’t the main reason I go.”

Most of the kids agreed.

“But why football? Why not baseball or soccer?”

“Because nobody goes to those,” a girl said.

“I know. Why though?”

“Are you asking why we don’t support the other teams?”

“Not just you guys. Everybody. The entire community backs high school football. The news paper, the news channels.” I brought how the news paper at the beginning of each season  printed layouts about each of the area’s teams and had in depth analysis on the players including weight and height. “They don’t do that for other sports. Even the school’s support football more than other sports. How many pep rallies do you have for the baseball team?”

None, the class said.

“Have you never wondered why?”

“Have you seen how big college football is?” a red headed kid said.

“So you think because of the popularity of NFL and college football it trickles down to high school as well?”

“Yeah, they don’t show near as much of the other college sports as they do football.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“They don’t make as much money.”

“So is high school football just about the money?”

“Partly.”

“Are the football players then being exploited?” I got a few confused looks. “Are they being used to make money for the schools?”

“I wouldn’t say they’re being used because they choose to play.” That brought me back to my high school years again. Maybe things have changed since when I played.

It was the last game of my JV year. All JV moved up to Varsity the last game of the season. My non-football friends were going to eat mushrooms and take a group of girls out to the beach and I was going to stand on the side lines and watch a bunch of guys beat the shit out of each other. I decided I wasn’t going to miss out on all the fun and ate a couple caps before the game. Luckily, by the end of the season I had found another player who was like me and not all that into playing anymore but did so out of fear of quitting and he ate a couple caps with me. Out on the field before the game we huddled in the end zone for the pre game prayer. I hated this part most of all. It just always seemed such a weird thing to pray for. Not the keeping us safe part, but the praying for victory part. Did this grown ass man actually believe there was god who gave a shit whether we won or not? If not, why was he trying to make us believe that silliness? Like all the other times, I wouldn’t put my head down, but instead would look around to see if there was anyone else like me who wasn’t buying this bullshit. The psilocybin had started working and the sound of the crowd was dancing around in my head. I glanced over at Brad and he was staring off into the night with a goofy grin and I diverted my eyes to keep from laughing. The coach finished the prayer but asked us to remained kneeling after the prayer and keep our hands on each other’s shoulder. He told the seniors how for most of them this was the end. The last time they would ever step foot on the field as football players. Some of the biggest, meanest young men I have ever known began crying. Some put their heads on the shoulders of others and were comforted and I had to clench my jaws until I thought my teeth would crumble under the pressure to keep from laughing. That moment is what always comes to mind when I hear the words high school football. Big, ugly, hairy high school seniors crying like babies.

On the sidelines with our helmets on Brad and I could enjoy the rest of the night in our own game. We stood off a few feet from the rest of the team and laughed every time the ball flew through the air or someone got crushed with a huge hit. The band played the same couple of songs over and over and it took everything I could to not dance. It was the most fun I had ever had watching football. I sometimes wonder if the way I felt watching it on mushrooms is the way most people see football all the time. The first half went by in a blur and I don’t even remember halftime. Around the fourth quarter, I made the mistake of looking into the crowd. The people were just staring at us. It wasn’t even loud anymore. They seemed rather bored. I don’t know what the score was; it could have been that. It didn’t make sense to me why they were here. Sure, most might have been parents, but didn’t they have better things to do on a Friday night? What about the students who were there? They couldn’t think of better entertainment? My buddies were out wondering the forts of Pensacola Beach, hanging out with girls and experiencing the wonders of life. But what was I doing?  I was wasting my time playing a game that I didn’t even care about. I wasn’t even playing. I was basically just a cheerleader without the athletic ability to do back handsprings and back flips. Brad saying to me that he couldn’t believe this was a career for some people, that you could become a millionaire for playing a game. I felt like punching him after a while. It wasn’t fun anymore. I didn’t want to be there. But I couldn’t leave.

The next dual enrollment class came in and after their vocabulary test I asked them some questions.

“Are there ever any kids on the team that don’t really like to play but do anyway?”

“Oh yeah,” Number 31 said. “Lots.”

“Why do they keep playing then?”

“Afraid,” Number 8 said.

“Of what?”

“Being called a quitter,” he said.

“By who?”

“The coach, us, their parents. Everyone.”

“Yeah,” Number 31 said. “The coach tells us not to talk to anyone that quits.”

“Do you?”

“Well, yeah. They’re our friends.”

“Why would parents push their kids to play if they know the kid doesn’t like it?”

“Most parents don’t know their kid doesn’t like it. They won’t tell them.”

“How many players do you have on the team?”

“Maybe a hundred.”

“Out of those hundred, how many you think will get scholarships?”

“Five.”

“Only one got one last year,” Number 8 said.

“So what’s the motivation to play?”

“It’s fun.”

“For you. But what about those that don’t get to play or the ones that don’t like it?”

“Some just like belonging to the football team. It’s cool to wear the jersey. You get treated a bit differently. You belong to the most popular club in the school,” Number 31 said. “Our coach, he used to be a Drill Sergeant, he said the only other place that has the camaraderie like a football team is the military.”

“Most of the time their dad’s played or something. I don’t know,” Number 8 said.

Number 31 then said, “Or for me it’s my uncle. Every time I see him that’s all he talks about. He loves talking about when he was in high school. So I feel it’s kind of like the only thing we have to talk about.”

“Where do you think this love for sport comes from? Why do you have a favorite team? And why football?”

“You know,” Number 31 said, “I’ve never thought about that before. Why is football so popular and I think it goes back to the gladiators. It’s this huge arena and we pit two teams together and they charge at one another in a battle of strength and skill.”

“So maybe it’s something from our primitive brain that we hadn’t outgrown yet?”

“Maybe.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“What about a team? Why do people pledge allegiance to a team that they have absolutely no association with?”

Number 31 answered this one too. He said, “I think it is something that’s drilled into us at a young age. Like my nephew, he is only two years old and he already says ‘Who Dat’ all the time. It’s so funny to hear him say, ‘Who Dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints.’”

“So for the rest of his life he’ll be a Saints fan?”

“Yeah, he already wears a little baby jersey every Sunday.”

I thanked the kids for their time and told them I’d be at the game tonight to support them.

I ate my lunch in the teacher’s lounge thinking I could bring this conversation up to the teachers and get some adult perspective on it. I started the conversation by bringing up the pep rally. Mrs. V rolled her eyes.

“Not a fan of them?”

“The most ridicules thing ever.”

I told her I was talking to some of the kids in the last class and told her what they thought.

“I can’t believe that many kids would play and not like it,” she said.

The Monday after my last football game, I went into the coach’s office while we were dressing out for weightlifting. I had envisioned myself walking in there and throwing my pads down at his feet and saying I’m quitting because this fucking sucks and you suck. What I said was “Coach, I’m not going to be able to play next year because I need to get a job and help my mom with her bills.” He asked if I had thought about. I told him I had.

“Well, I’m sure your mom would like that,” he said. “Go get me your pads and helmet then.”

That’s it, I thought. “Can I still take weightlifting.”

“Until the end of the year semester.”

I was the last in the weight room and when I walked in Coach said “Guys I’ve got an announcement.”

He instructed me to the front of the room to stand next to him. He placed his arm around my shoulders and squeezed down hard around my neck.

“Why don’t you tell everyone here what you just told me?”

“I’m not going to play next year,” I said. A few mumbles through the room.

“You hear that boys? He has more important things to do than be a part of this team.” Everyone booed. Brad smiled at me. Poor guy I thought. He’ll never quit. I often times wonder what became of Brad after high school. “That’s right. This here is what a quitter looks like.” People started calling me quitter. I waved. “Have you guys seen the scumbags he hangs out with off the field? That’s who he has chosen as friends. Not you guys. He wants to go hang out with the losers, with the pot heads. If anyone talks to him while he is in weightlifting, your grade will drop a letter grade for every word you say to him. I don’t want his sorryness rubbing off on you.”

After class, I told him I thought was pretty shitty of him and he sent me to the dean. I got detention. But I was able to get out of weightlifting and take a study hall instead.

A few nights after going to the game with Tony I was at another friend’s house. He often times likes to sit on the back porch with another friend of his and drink beer and roll cigarettes.  They both have beards to their bellies. I call them the Philosophers. They talk about many different subjects and are pretty serious in their exploration of answers despite neither having gone to college. I was a college graduate and they have both probably read more books than I ever will and more diverse books, too. I hadn’t hung with them in a couple of months but when Philosopher One called and said the topic of the night was corporal punishment, I thought why not. I used that as a starting off point and swayed the conversation towards football. Neither one knew anything of football. I had to explain what first downs were. They didn’t even realize that there was a team for defense and one for offense. They thought the same guys stay on the field the entire time.

“There is even a group called the Special Teams,” I said. But I’d save that lesson for another day. First of all, it’s important to understand the rules for these roundtable meetings that go on at the Philosopher’s house. There are none. All topics and subjects are welcome. A topic is presented but if the conversation starts to drift, it is okay. It needs to flow organically, they say. You do not have to believe what you are saying. It is a place for ideas to be tested out and you look at all aspects of it. It is not unusual to leave there believing one thing and then a few days later to say wait a minute I was full of shit that night. Especially as the beer starts flowing. This night it was the Two Philosophers and a Bulgarian who barely spoke English. This is a summation of what they said that night, not by anyone particular:

Football establishes abstract relationships between people that have nothing to do with the individual. It’s very militaristic in that way. You start kids at an early age and show them that camaraderie and brotherhood towards one specific goal are essential and they become indoctrinated into that way of thinking. It’s a control mechanism. Today you are fucking up the Pittsburg Steelers and tomorrow you will be blowing up Muslims. We can’t have a bunch of physicist and writers and thinkers running around. We need some people to take orders. And who takes better orders than meat head football players. But you teach how to follow orders in a fun way. You make it a game. It has to be fun or kids would quit. And you have to include that bond. It has to be formed. It has to be taught. It is crucial for the military. But we absolutely need a bunch of people like that. It isn’t all bad. Because some people, like us, we aren’t going to take a bullet to protect some fucking oil. I mean shit, we can learn to do without. We need people who are willing to give up their lives for the sake of the team. While we sit back, drink our beer and hope the meat heads practiced hard enough. I’ll fight if the war is brought to my doorstep, but even then I’m searching for those meat heads numbers that I ran into at the bar or on Facebook to come over and have my back. I’ll throw a pep rally for them if it means I don’t have to kill a motherfucker. Remember in the South Park movie they had Operation Shield Whitey. What they really should have said was Operation Shield the Intellectual. Bullshit. I fucking love wine. Igneous rocks or some shit. If you smoke you better be coughing because that shit burns off the scillia in your lungs. Fuck you I do love drink wine.

After too much wine the conversation went to shit.

Mrs. V told me about when she first started teaching. She said she went to a football game and saw the coach grab a kid by the face mask and shake him around and smack him on the head about three or four times as hard as he could. She said she couldn’t sit through it. The next day at work she went to the principal and said something about abusing children. “That’s football. It’s just the way it has always been done,” he told me. Mrs. V has never been to another football game. Another teacher was in there. She said she hates football as well. I asked why.

“My son had a full ride scholarship all set up. And the last game of the season he got injured. A ruptured spleen. Lost all chances of a scholarship.”

“But if that wouldn’t have happened do you think you’d feel the same way?” I asked.

“It did happen,” she said. “And because of that I see what is wrong with it. His coach convinced him he was good enough to go pro. He never wanted to do anything but play football. He had no other hobbies or interest. That was going to be his life. After that, he spent the next five years in a deep depression. Football ruined his life.”

Another teacher in the lounge added in, “Yeah, but he’s doing good now, right?”

“He eventually went to college and found something he liked. But he lost five years of his life.”

At the game with Tony, I was amazed at how many young kids were there. I’m not talking about the high school kids, although, that was an astounding number as well. But what really got me were the number of elementary and maybe middle school kids running around playing football. They were already being conditioned to spend Friday nights under the lights. It was what they looked forward to. Tony and I found a seat in the visiting team side. There was absolutely no where to sit on the home side. I asked one of the men sitting next to me if he had a son playing. He said no. His girl was in the band. I asked another lady nearby if her son played. She said no her son was in the band. Tony told me to just watch the damn game. He then poured some rum from his flask into my coke. I finally found a man whose son was playing.

“Do you think football is good for high school kids? Do you think all this attention the media and community give them is good for them?”

“Oh hell yeah,” he told me. “I never seen my son make the kind of grades he does.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, how good are his grades?”

“Shoot, he’s only made – what is it?” he asked his wife. “Two or three Ds last year?”

“I think four,” she said.

“Not bad,” I told him. And I turned back to watch the game.

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