The first time on a bike he rode no wobbling, a straight shot away from me down the street. He skateboarded and snowboarded. We signed him up for youth soccer, but in middle school and high school, football was where he found his true love: the speed, juking, and tackling, the contact and constant measuring up of strength and moves. He started working out at home and in the gym. He never loved school this way. On the field he learned loyalty, discipline, 7AM films, work outs in cloying summer humidity, pushing, and testing. This was the same kid who hadn’t cleaned his room in two years. The same kid who didn’t shine so much academically but was his own bright star and mine. He found inspiration and started praying like many of the NFL players. On their knees for God and politics and one more yard. So I thank you football for all of these gifts, but a mixed blessing it is.
In spring of junior year, CTE research hit the papers with proof of the visceral knowledge we all have that smacking our heads isn’t good for us. Denial, convenient, was now deadly. There’s a reason for the communal cringe at the crunch of helmet on helmet, at least for those of us who care about the players as people. I watch the Patriots with fascination and admiration at their phenomenal athleticism, but no amount of nachos or beer can staunch the guilt. We researched and bought our son the safest helmet on the market, a shield between our funny, bright eyed teen and danger, but games more than anything are unpredictable.
On non-Sundays, I am a career coach. I shepherd clients towards their dreams, wave a wand of permission for them to do what they really love. As their personal cheerleader, I leap and jump at their steps to success. But I was stopped cold when my son, now a HS senior told me a local college coach keeps texting him. Before CTE I might have thought this was a good thing, but now I want to say, please leave my son alone.
So how can I coach him on the brink of stepping into the world of college football? I tell him what’s in my heart. That I love him and I’ve been protecting him since he was a baby. I don’t want to see him hurt, to have anything dim his keeness, his agility. That if he wants to work with his body, he needs to keep it healthy. Bones broken at 19 can ache at 30 or 40 and damaged brain cells can haunt what might have been a normal life.
It hurts to come down on this side of my son’s dream. Badly. He may end run me. He’s already 18 and a lot faster. I’ve just asked him to look down the line a little further, to see the end zone for what it is, and look beyond it. I’m one mom trying to protect one son, but what about the rest of our football players? Now that we know the facts, is the dream worth playing as is, or is it time for a real game-changer? Let’s put down the beer and nachos and think about it.