Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Kids and Football *do* mix

The 2010 Ste. Genevieve High School Dragons Varsity Football Team
I love football. My dad was a coach, and some of my earliest fond memories are of me nestled with my mom under a blanket in the bleachers, watching the high school games. I knew everyone in the crowd, and almost everyone on the field, even when I was very little. Naturally, my older brother played football in high school. When other little girls my age had Strawberry Shortcake sleeping bags for sleepovers, I had a beautifully obnoxious Chicago Bears sleeping bag (before the 1985 championship, I might add). The summer after eighth grade, I worked out in the weightroom with my dad and the rest of my male football-hopeful classmates, and I even considered playing myself. (But then I figured I probably wouldn't get many dates, so I decided against it. But that's another post for another day.) My freshman year in high school, we even won the state championship. As did our cross-town rivals, in their own Class; USA Today deemed my little, rural hometown, "Titletown USA." I can even tell you that our rivals' only loss that season was to my high school. I took statistics for the Junior Varsity team (of which my dad was the defensive coach) from my eighth grade year through my junior year in high school, then became an equipment manager for our varsity team my senior year. In college, I was invited to be the first female equipment manager at Mizzou in years (sadly, I had to earn money, so took a job instead at the last minute).
I wanted to put pictures of a mizzou football helmet, chicago bears helmet, and ste gen helmet here. image licensing sucks, fyi. So instead, you get a picture of our dog, Dozer, snuggling with a football. Which is almost as good.

In short, football has been a thread woven throughout my entire life, and one for which I'm grateful and of which I'm fond.

So when I gave birth to a boy five and a half years ago--and he grew to over 25lbs in his first ten months (exclusively breastfed, by the way--another post for another day), we deemed him perfect linebacker material. In fact, he has proven himself the ideal linebacker candidate in the intervening years: his Sensory Processing issues mean he doesn't feel pain unless it's quite serious, and  he craves body-smashing sensory input; oh, and while he can throw a decent spiral and even catch one on occasion, he gets a little too distracted for offense and much prefers defending. See? Perfect linebacker material. The next Brian Urlacher, maybe? ;)

He's 5 1/2 years old now, and here in Kansas City that means there are tackle football options for him to play. I looked for the perfect one for him this summer, but weren't willing to spend that much money on our FIVE year old. Leagues expand and get a little cheaper at age 7, so we have another year and a half to find our niche.

But now I'm hearing that football is FAR TOO DANGEROUS from just about every corner. He's obviously going to get a debilitating head injury or broken bones or lose his teeth or...well, the list goes on and on.

Here's the deal: I grew up a defensive coach's kid. If you tackle properly, head injury risk goes down exponentially. The other stuff? Not exclusive to football, and I learned long ago that my kid is the one who will try any dangerous activity to say he could do it--and he almost always CAN, with impressive technique usually--so I'm not going to "protect" him from experiencing his world as fully as he knows how. He'll get broken bones and stitches, I'm sure (I'm a little shocked he hasn't yet), no matter what he's doing; I refuse to prevent him from living his life so I can feel less guilty if he does happen to become injured.

Earlier this week, NPR featured a story about soldiers experiencing IED blasts needing to take a page from football's head injury prevention knowledge & sit out from the action for a while. (Okay, how the hell is that supposed to work if a whole company experiences a blast?? But I digress.) This morning on NPR's Morning Edition, Frank DeFord railed yet again on the topic of youth football--how dangerous it is for our youth, how we should do away with this  "rite of passage into manhood" because our kids can get hurt. Come to think of it, the first time I heard anything about the "newfound" dangers of head injury to even young football players was from Frank DeFord...

The rub, though: some kids are MADE to play football. Like mine, and like the son of a friend of ours (and I dare say a few girls we know!). They crave the weight of the pads, the impact force of the block or tackle, the camaraderie. They have loving, caring parents who realize that their children cannot be protected from every potential threat to their health and safety, but rather take sensible precautions against egregious harm. These parents--myself included--choose benign neglect over being yet another helicopter parent who, so afraid of the possibility that their child may be hurt in any way, hold their children back from finding their own limits, their own strengths, their own way.

To me, attending to your child's needs INCLUDES letting him play football. I recognize the need to teach proper tackle technique, how to recognize when your body needs to sit one out, and that it's not shameful to "get your bell rung," so he doesn't need to pretend he's fine when he's not. Maybe it's a rite of passage, maybe it's nostalgia, but maybe, just maybe, it's exactly what my kid needs.