The Boys of Fall
Both Stacey and I were at least two-sport athletes in high school and remain competitive and active by playing basketball, soccer and boxing. We believe in the character formation that team sports offer: cooperation, discipline, sportsmanship, working hard with others toward a common goal, etc.
We want Oscar to be involved in team sports, so we gave him a choice this fall: he could play soccer or football. Both were being offered at our parish school through Catholic Youth Organization. He chose to play football—he wanted to try it out to see if he might like it.
CYO football for his mixed third and fourth grade team is played with full pads and helmets and all, but there is no tackling and the kids wear flags. It is a great way to learn the game. Having played football in high school and intramurals at Notre Dame (full-contact), I am volunteering to coach.
Football was always something I took for granted—my circle of friends, male and female, all know the game. Volunteering to help coach was a no-brainer for me. It wasn’t until I went to practice and saw parents on the sidelines that I realized that I had any kind of a special talent to share with these kids. It never crossed my mind that some parents would be interested in coaching, but don’t know the game.
So, I feel like I am in a privileged place to be on the field with these kids as they learn this great game. Already, I can see them learning toughness, respect, sportsmanship, discipline, and the rewards of hustling.
I helped to coach Oscar’s third grade basketball team last year, and it was an entirely different experience. At no point in basketball practice did we all gather together and shout: Who are we? Spartans! There is a rah-rah spirit that goes with football that I’ve been reflecting on the last few days.
Football is a male game. To succeed, you have to be aggressive. For many of these kids, it is the first time they have ever made aggressive contact with another person, or have had someone else touch them aggressively. This is a positive sign of a sensitive upbringing, and I don’t want them to become calloused, but they are learning to toughen up a little, which can also be a good thing.
One of the kids on Oscar’s team walked up to me during practice with tears and I asked what was wrong. He said that kid on the other side of the ball pushed him over. (Even though it is flag football, there is still a lot of contact with blocking and running.)
I told him that in football, everyone gets knocked down. The good players get up and don’t get discouraged. Football takes courage, no doubt—there are players on the other side of the ball who want to push you around. It is your job to not let them do that, so each play is composed of 11 personal battles.
I likened it to Star Wars for this player. I said, when a Jedi Knight faces a room full of battle droids, he feels small and scared. But he doesn’t let those feelings take away energy from him. He uses those feelings to give him energy and focus. He uses his courage to jump in there and do his best.
On the next play, the kid knocked down the other player and started to jump on him.
So, then we had a conversation about balance—about using courage and energy, but using them to do your job with focus, not to beat up on anyone.
It often happens in a football game that aggression becomes personal—and thus violent. I don’t believe, however, that football is a violent game. It is a game that demands courage and aggressiveness, but in the service of the team goal. At the end of the play, the best players can extend a hand to help the player they just knocked over to stand up.
Achieving this balance is my hope for Oscar in football: that he learns courage and toughness, but in such a way that helps him work towards what he sets out to do. It is all too easy for courage and toughness to be used for violence in this game, and coaches make all the difference. CYO excels at instilling the right values in coaches and players and I’m glad I can be on the field to help the kids find this balance. This virtue—initiating action in service to others—is important lesson I want to pass on to Oscar.