Hope springs eternal in the rituals of youth football

by Mick Rhodes | editor@claremont-courier.com

It was a gorgeous 74 degree early spring afternoon at Pomona College’s Merritt Field, the kind of day that reaffirms one’s love of Southern California, complete with the typical late-May olfactory bounty of jasmine and fresh cut grass wafting in on the faintest of breezes.

I was one of dozens of parents and caregivers dropping off our sons (and perhaps daughters) for day one of Claremont High School football camp. My boy, a 14-year-old rising freshman, had been looking forward to this for weeks. His excitement had become mine, as happens with kids.

It wasn’t always so. Concussions and worse were on my mind six months ago when he told me he wanted to go out for Claremont High’s soph/frosh team. I think I masked my reluctance, though I can’t say for certain my face did not betray me. No matter, the day was here. He lugged his new helmet, shoulder pads, and jersey to the field and greeted his friends, some of whom he’s known since kindergarten. If he was nervous, I didn’t see it.

This was by far the most testosterone heavy endeavor he’d ever been involved with. Still, I chanced a goodbye hug and an “I love you,” and to his credit he didn’t hesitate. Leaving, I said, “Don’t break a leg.” I thought it was funny. He gave me half a laugh, about what it deserved.

I scanned the overflow crowd of kids from Claremont High and other area schools milling about and bunched up in informal huddles, smiling, joking. In the glint of the impossibly lovely afternoon sunshine I suddenly felt grateful to be a bystander to this American rite of passage. My boy was laughing, looking happier than I’d seen him in some time.

He will be okay, I thought. He knows to let the coaches know if he’s dehydrated or dizzy. Thankfully he’s a pretty big dude — 6-foot-1, well over 200 pounds — and has designs on the offensive line, which, in my limited understanding of football, would seem to mean he’s not going to be running in the open field, susceptible to violent, blindside tackles. This is my hope, rational or not.

It’s certainly rational that parents should worry about their kids playing football; it’s inherently violent. Yes, pads and helmets, and yes, surely most all kids aren’t out to maim or injure, but this is my son here, the sensitive kid I know inside and out. It’s like my mom said to me when I was his age: “It’s not you I worry about; it’s the other guy.”

I expected the months of agonizing over head trauma, broken legs and torn ACLs to intensify after releasing him into the world of high school football. But it wasn’t like that. The look he had on his face — like he was proud to be doing something grown up — infused me a version of his obvious joy.

I knew that feeling. I thought back to my years playing baseball with Glendora American Little League, Pony, and Colt teams from the time I was 5 up to high school. I thought about all the friends I made there, some of whom remain in my life today at 60. Now my son was part of that continuum. It’s a lot to ask, I know, but I made a wish that football might do this for him.

My eyes welled up as I drove home from Pomona College. The swell of emotion surprised me, but it was lovely. Here I’d been gloomy and worried for his safety, and my brain and heart had reminded me about all the fun I’d had playing sports, releasing my negativity and transforming it into hope for my son.

About my football problem

I can pinpoint the day my apprehension about football began. I was 14 and a freshman, just like my son. It was the fall of 1977 and I’d joined the team at Glendora’s Goddard Jr. High School. Again, just like my son, it was my first time playing organized “tackle” football.

Full confession: I wasn’t driven by a burning desire to prove myself on the gridiron. It was desire though. I’d noticed how the cheerleaders gravitated to football players during my wildly awkward middle school undergrad years, and I wanted in on that seemingly ironclad arrangement.

My athleticism was serviceable, but my inexperience and clear lack of football skills doomed me to backup to the backup tight end on the junior varsity squad. We opened the season at home. I don’t remember our opponent or the score, but do recall riding the bench for the entire game. It was not unexpected.

Our next game though, was imminently memorable.

We were away, against Sandburg, or “Sandbox,” as we derisively, if not cleverly, referred to our crosstown rivals. I basked in the tough locker room talk as we suited up, bluffing my way through the macho ritual. We gathered our gear and headed out single file into the assemblage of cheerleaders hailing us 40 or so boys, all puffed up as to appear as manly as possible, as we boarded the bus.

The coaches offered a quick pep talk as we pulled into the Sandburg parking lot, followed by leading our little voices in a unison shout of “beat Sandburg!” We then began disembarking, helmets on, looking every bit the gang of 5-foot nothing wannabe studs.

That’s when I realized I had made a horrible, possibly life-altering mistake: I’d forgotten my helmet in the locker room back home.

The coaches looked at me with puzzlement and not a small amount of disgust. “You … what? Well, line up anyway.” Thus began some two-plus hours of pubescent humiliation. Everyone on the team had a laugh, as did, I suspect, some spectators. By the fourth quarter I’d halfway gotten over it. But just then the head coach inexplicably ordered me into the game. How? I thought. He does remember I’m the guy without a helmet, right? There was no time for discussion. He told me to use the starting tight end’s helmet.

“And his mouth guard,” he added.

His mouth guard?

A bona fide germaphobe, I nonetheless jerked my teammate’s helmet on, and with real horror, shoved his mouth guard, dripping with his saliva, into my own mouth, and trotted onto the field for my football debut.

I don’t remember what happened next, no doubt due to being preoccupied with a mouth full of my teammate’s spit. It was gross. But I sucked it up, literally, and life went on.

I played out the year, but my football career turned out to be a one-and-done situation. Shocking, I know.

This tale of gridiron disgrace has since become an oft-told family story, one I’m long past being embarrassed about. It’s now, if not a badge of honor, at least a quite dependable comedy bit.

Last week I posted a photo of my son on his first day of football camp and one of my oldest and dearest friends — a teammate from that 1977 Goddard JV squad of lore — commented thusly: “Be sure to remind him to bring his helmet with him on the bus for away games … remember the Goddard Titans!”


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