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It’s a question that first resonated in my life 40 years ago and now has roared back with full force:
Why do people allow their children to play football?
It’s a question I asked myself when I first became a father, and now that the game has grown far more powerful than its rules and equipment can manage, I hear it amplify from a whisper to a shout:
Why do parents allow their precious children to play tackle football?
I love watching football, and I once wanted to play. But its violence has grown in proportion to the sometimes steroid-expanded shoulders of is players. They run faster, carry more muscle and hit harder. Injuries are more severe. Brains careen around skulls. Careers and lives are shortened.
Last week, renowned columnist Dave Kindred, who polished his journalistic chops in Louisville, roused me with a piece he penned for SportsOnEarth.com. He cited five deaths in five weeks of football players across the country. He asked the same question I had carried.
Why do parents allow their children to play football?
Thankfully, neither of my sons has shown the slightest interest in doing so. One grew to be a Marine – as if that’s more passive, huh? – but he never did more than talk a little football smack. The younger one still is trying to determine why the Kentucky Wildcats don’t play the Shelby County Rockets, which, come to think of it, might be a pretty good game.
That’s not because they weren’t around the sport. They simply didn’t think that getting out there and ramming heads into one another was a fun and edifying form of recreation.
To those who have known me for more than a few months this may seem heretic – or at least hypocrisy – so long have I evangelized about the glories of sports. But it’s the truth.
I never wanted any child of mine to play football.
Perhaps my mom and dad felt the same way, but they let me go through the motions and learn that I couldn’t run away from the big hits, which Gale Sayers and Jim Brown made look easy on Sundays. I was 5 feet nothing and listed a playing weight that would be about the same as modern equipment, yet I wanted to give it a try.
In seventh grade I played a little in what was more like a clinic than a season, where we learned to put on an athletic supporter – or, to my mom’s embarrassment, even what one was – and to line up and try to play basic offense or defense.
After a break in eighth grade, when Joe Paul Simpson, our basketball coach at Simpsonville Elementary, started practice on the second day of school – a good Kentucky boy did not skip basketball practice for football until he had proven himself on the court – I decided before my freshman year at SCHS that I wanted to play.
That’s when the realities of football hit me upside the head again and again.
I asked SCHS Coach Gene Foster if I could come out for the team. He looked me up and down – or mostly down – and asked if I were a freshman. When I mumbled yessir, he said there would be freshmen practice when school started.
Fewer than 20 of us showed up when that call went out, and two seniors – Steve Miller and Jim Marksberry – were assigned to school us in the 8-man version of the game. They taught us the basics and put us through the separation drills – you know, to show who among us was tough – and one day in a tackling drill, I was squared off against Bill Robinson.
Bill wasn’t much bigger than I, but he had a lot more mean packed into his 130 pounds. He hit me so hard, my head bounced off the ground,, and I saw stars. It was an awakening. There’s real pain involved in this!
I was quarterback on one unit, and the venerable Maury Cox was my center. Dan Pyles was on the nose guard, and he was quicker than Maury or me. Every time I went to hand off to a back, I was pounded before my second step. After a few days of this, we were in the huddle, and I told Coach Miller that I wanted to call a passing play.
He sort of looked at me and smiled. “So you want to throw it, huh? OK. Call the play.”
I did, and I took the snap and faded to throw, considering myself Y.A. Tittle or somebody. No sooner did I turn to look for my receiver, running a slant, than two or three defenders created an avalanche that buried me. I think that was the last pass play we called in that short season.
Then there was defense. I was the safety, the last barrier before the end zone. And the other eight had this big fullback named Quinten (last name rattled from my head), who was about my height but outweighed me about half a ton. He broke through the line one day and came straight down the field, no fake or cut. The coaches were yelling at me to tackle Quinten. I sized him up and recalled the correct form for driving my shoulder into his legs.
Common sense, for once, prevailed, and when Quinten got near me, I simply grabbed onto his jersey, jumped onto his back and hung on, like I used to try to ride calves on the farm. Finally, tired a bit, he couldn’t carry the extra 130 pounds and fell flat on the ground. I had saved a touchdown, but I had killed a dream:
When practice ended that year, I hung up my pads and limited my efforts to touch games on weekends and flag games in college.
Probably, too, I planted the idea in my mind that, if I ever became a father, I would recount the stories of my undersized football futility and counsel my children quickly and summarily.
No way you are playing football.