My first experience with football was also the most violent impact my body had ever felt. The previous summer I had been a passenger in a car involved in a collision at about 30 miles an hour, but this was worse.
I had always wanted to play football and at the age of fourteen I had finally convinced my mom who had been dead-set against it, to sign the waiver allowing me play.
Football was going to make me a man. My dad had proudly declared that it would toughen me up, teach me hard work, discipline, teamwork, and how to battle through adversity.
Frankly I just hoped it would get the girls to start noticing me.
I worked hard and made the team as our starting wide-side corner. Our first game of the season was my initiation by fire. On my very first defensive play our opponents called a sweep that came right at me.
Like a smoothly breaking wave the play unfolded in front of me. Their tight-end crashed down on our defensive end, eliminating him from the play. The inside slot receiver drove into our linebacker pushing him back. Their wide receiver neutralized our safety which cleared the way for their running back. He turned the corner gaining momentum, and as he made his way up the field he had only one man left to beat.
As he came barreling towards me I went through my checklist committed to memory from weeks of repetition in practice: Keep your feet moving. Don’t let him get outside of you. Direct him inside towards traffic. Don’t watch his head or his eyes, he can fake you out with those. Focus on his number, he can’t go anywhere without his number. It’s your job to shut down the play. Get low, stick your shoulder into him and keep driving until you both go down!
Naive and inexperienced, my thoughts were mostly about making sure he didn’t fake me out and get around me. A little common sense and an understanding of the basic laws of physics would have come in handy at that moment because as I was about to find out, he had no intention of going around me.
I watched as his eyes grew wide like saucers. And why wouldn’t they? He had a one-on-one situation with him trucking along at full speed and me running in place trying to figure out from which side I was going to take him down.
Oh, did I mention that he also had at least forty pounds on me?
By the time I realized that he was planning on going through me and not around me, it was too late. I tried to get low for better leverage the way they taught us in practice, but his shoulders were already lower than mine. Instead of preparing for impact, I leaned right into it.
I remember seeing the ventilation holes on the top of his helmet as it smashed into my facemask. The crash of the impact was so loud I half expected to hear the sound of breaking glass as well. And then I saw white puffy clouds and blue sky as I lay on my back dazed.
He had run right over me. Flattened me like a bug on a windshield.
The whistle announced the end of the play.
I could hear them laughing and celebrating in the end zone thirty yards behind me.
I got up and glared at them, stewing in my rage and embarrassment. It was humiliating. Infuriating. I wanted to take off my helmet and go smash one of them in the mouth with it for celebrating at my expense.
Let me repeat that in case you missed it.
I was only fourteen. I got beat on a play by a bigger, stronger, better player, and it made me so angry that my first thoughts were to smash someone, anyone, in the mouth with my helmet.
Yes, football taught me all the things that my dad said it would. But looking back as a grown man who has calmly dealt with much worse defeats, I can’t help but wonder if even after only a few weeks of practice, it wasn’t starting to teach me something else:
There has been a lot of talk in the press and on social media in recent weeks regarding several violent off-field incidents involving high-profile professional football players.
The most shocking is that surveillance video from an elevator showing a famous running back cold-cocking his girlfriend right in the face, and then dragging her by the hair, unconscious, out of the elevator like a sack of potatoes.
Over the past few weeks the media and the public in general have been falling all over themselves in a rush to lay blame for this horrifying behavior. Turn on any sports channel or listen to any call-in show and there’s no shortage of pundits, professional or otherwise, enthusiastically stepping up to demonize the National Football League or the game in general. Mostly however, they blame the players.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not about to suggest that these young men are blameless victims by any stretch. In fact, like most people I feel that any big strong man who commits an act of violence upon someone half his size is a coward.
And I sure hope there’s a special place in hell reserved for pathetic bullies who beat on women and children.
But wanting to smash someone in the mouth with my helmet at fourteen? This wasn’t like me. Where was it coming from? Was it the large amount of testosterone coursing through my adolescent veins? Was it the youthful bravado of trying to prove myself as a man?
Perhaps a bit of both.
Or maybe it was being drilled into me at practice four times a week by my coaches, that my value in this world was directly proportional to how aggressive, intimidating, and violent I could become.
As it should with any normal well-adjusted person, my moral compass kept me from acting on those flashes of rage. But back in my playing days those moments seemed to come more frequently then they have at any other time in my life.
From that very first play I saw how violent a game football is. The young men who succeed at it not only have incredible physical abilities, but by the time they reach the professional level, most have been immersed in this culture of violence, intimidation, and rage for over a decade.
Our society and our culture actually encourages it. We take boys and supposedly turn them into men by indoctrinating them into this ultra-macho subculture. If they get really good at it we bestow them with fame, fortune, noteriety, and adulation.
All for their ability to be bigger, badder, meaner, and tougher than anyone else.
They teach you how to be tough and intimidating, and how to knock people down. The only problem is that no one teaches you that the rage you’re being trained to feel towards anything that gets in your way is supposed to be reserved for when you step between the lines.
Now I only played for two seasons, but I wonder what I might have been like at eighteen, or twenty-one, or twenty-five had I continued.
In the absence of any sort of counter-conditioning, would my moral compass really have been strong enough to keep me from acting out if say a stranger cut in front of me in line at the theatre, or if my friend or girlfriend said something mean or hurtful?
The honest answer to that question frightens me.
Now I am not condoning the players’ behavior. Clearly something has to be done. But think about it. Every Sunday millions quench their thirst for an adrenaline rush by watching these modern-day gladiators perform.
And we lap it up don’t we?
We yell at our TV screens or from the stands:
Knock him on his fucking ass!
Now let me ask you this: Is it really fair for everyone to be so sanctimonious and act all surprised by the inability of some of these guys to just turn off all of that rage like it was light switch, the minute they step off the field?