I walked onto the field into the glare of the lights, the springy turf kicking little bits of recycled rubber onto my feet. My little one was hyped up from his game-day sno cone and he was running in circles around me. We were looking for our coach. We found him at midfield, his shoulders slumped. He took his visor off, rubbing the stubble on his chin. “I feel like we just lost this game,” he said. “I feel like we lost.” They hadn’t. They’d won.
They’d beat a rival, in fact. His feeling of loss had nothing to do with the score, but with a player. One who faces things no 16-year-old should and who wouldn’t be able to stay on the team after that night.
My husband is a competitor. If you can hit, kick or throw a ball, he will challenge you and he will probably win. He challenges our son to races constantly. “ I will finish packing your lunch while you put away your clothes and we will see who wins!” He wants to score more points than you, sink your battle ship and finish games he makes up in his head before you. Are you at the ATM next to him? I promise you that in his head there is a battle royale occurring, unbeknownst to you, to see who finishes first. Points and scores matter to him. Winning matters. But that night, the score that was still up on the brightly lit scoreboard meant very little.
The truth is that while tackles and scores matter to coaches, and matter a lot, those things may be the least of what they are teaching our sons and daughters. I hear a lot of people argue that more emphasis is placed on sports than academics and how backwards this is. I’m not saying I disagree with that and I won’t get into the dollars athletics bring into schools, either. Should academics come first? Well, of course. Of course they should. This is high school, after all, not the NFL. It’s not anyone’s job to play football, it’s their job to graduate.
For people who lead a charmed teenage life, and by charmed, I mean teenagers with supportive parents and a stable home environment, this may not be much of a challenge. But I have heard teachers tell countless stories about students who don’t have the luxury of a “normal” teenage life.
The student who sleeps through class because he is working after school then coming home to feed, bathe and help his younger siblings with their homework. He packs their lunches and puts supper on the table and falls into bed exhausted, his homework untouched.
The student who knows he won’t eat again until he gets back to school Monday morning.
The student who calls DHS and begs them to take him out of his own home because the water is cut off again and there hasn’t been any food this week because his parents thought it was more important to buy drugs with the little money they have.
Our system expects high test scores and academic excellence in college-bound courses from these kids. And, as much as I know an amazing teacher can ignite a spark in these kids, a lot of times it’s sports that ignite that spark. It’s sports that give them a reason to achieve academically because you can’t fail and play on Friday nights. It’s sports that give them the opportunity to go to college at all.
“It’s just a game.”
“This isn’t the NFL.”
You’re right. No one out here is getting paid to run with that ball. And, yes, this is a game. But to so many kids on that field, it’s so much more. It’s an opportunity. It’s not necessarily an opportunity to win Super Bowls, although you never know, but it’s an opportunity to graduate high school. To go to a community college and get a free education. To get a degree that means as adults, these boys won’t worry about where their meals are coming from. It’s an opportunity to break a cycle and to make a life that’s more than the one they were given. It’s an opportunity give the next generation a fighting chance.
Maybe I’m giving football too much credit. I know for a lot of kids, it’s just something fun they do in high school. But for so many others, it’s where they learned about a lot more than how to tackle or throw. It’s where they learned about loyalty and hard work and friendship. Where they were given the chance to succeed.
Now, I am admittedly, not always the best football wife. My husband became a coach after many years in other professions so I was ill-prepared for what life would be like for the wife of a coach. My frame of reference was “Friday Night Lights” where Eric Taylor always took Tammy Taylor to dinner at Applebees after the game.
You can imagine my surprise when I learned that after games, coaches feed players, clean up the field house, start the laundry, download film and start reviewing plays instead of taking their wives to dinner. They work seven days a week. Seven. And seven nights. I am not always gracious about this. In fact, there are days I am downright pissed off about it. On my worst days, I wonder why those boys get so much of his attention.
And then, I’ll find the card one of them wrote him that says, “Love, your son …” Or I’ll see the tweets he gets tagged in on Father’s Day thanking him for being the only father figure they have ever known. I overhear the phone call he gets from a player’s parent begging him to talk to their son because they don’t know how to and my husband is the only one who can get through to him.
I look at our son and I see a child who is loved beyond all reason by this man and know we will all be just fine. That maybe a lot of other kids will be just fine in the end because my husband loves them too.
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe this is just a game. But I believe that what my husband is doing, what these coaches are doing, is giving the boys who suit up on Friday nights opportunities in life and reasons to succeed.
I hope that one day, when they are telling stories about the big tackle they made or the pass they threw, they’ll take a minute to remember the men who were on the sidelines and loved them as if they were their own.
I don’t know if that 16 year-old is ever going to walk into a corner office or if he will even go to college. I have no idea if he will be the kind of dad to his children that his coach tries to be for him. But I do know that he has at least one person who believes in him and tries to show him the kind of love his father should. I know that because of football, maybe he stands a fighting chance.
And I know that even if my husband refuses to say it on Friday nights, Coach Taylor taught us all that clear eyes and full hearts can’t lose.
How lucky we are, how lucky our kids are, to have coaches that believe that.