Football – When the last game is played

The other day my son, who is a freshman in college, caught me off guard by saying out of the blue, “I really miss football”. I asked him what he missed most.

He said, “ I miss the feeling when you hit someone, the satisfaction of a good hit. The physicality, the effort. I miss that but it is more than just hitting, I miss the fun of it as well, like joking around with the boys and my coaches. Just the fun of being around people who loved the sport like I did and being able to have good times with them”

It was a year ago in December when my son was a senior in high school. His last football game had just ended. We anticipated this night might be the end, the team we were playing was undefeated and steam rolled all the teams prior to us. Although we were damn good, we had to be perfect this night to beat them, we were not.

And so the season ended in the third round of playoffs for the run to the State Championship. We walked to the front of the stands, like all the parents, and watched silently as our boys hugged each other and cried. I watched boys sobbing, some were inconsolable, as they knelt on the ground, grimacing in their pain.

The poignant moment for me happened, when I noticed that all the boys displaying this deep sense of grief were the seniors. Of course the underclassmen were upset but the seniors were despondent. Like I said, we were in the third round of the playoffs and  I noticed this same behavior from the other team’s players we defeated.

As I watched, I would say to myself, “Get up! Don’t give them the satisfaction!”.

This past season I watched us go into the playoffs again and in our second round we lost a nail biter of a game to an undefeated team. I did not have a boy in this game, as my youngest is still a freshman but we will always follow the varsity, even long after all my children have graduated. I noticed in this game, like I did before, the complete and utter heartbreak from the seniors. Some hugged as they sobbed and some sat alone with the Friday night lights shining on them, highlighting their pain.

Again I thought, “Get up! Don’t let them know they beat you”

I did not understand.

Football is a very unique game, especially here in Texas. A boy can start playing tackle football as young as five. Others will play flag football well into their early childhood before they move to tackle. School football starts at 7th grade. Most boys will play 2 – 4 years of football before high school starts.

They start to learn the game early and every benefit that comes with it. They learn that teamwork is the core of the game. With that lesson comes the need to be unselfish in both how they play and where they play. They learn to respect their coach and accept failure along with success. On top of it all they make lasting friendships with their teammates because they share much in common.

Now starts the whirlwind and roller coaster ride of year upon year of adversity coupled with great joys and bitter disappointments. It is a cumulation of hard work, soul sharing and dedication to their friends. It is early mornings and late evenings of sweat, emotion and hard toil. They follow men who, for some, become second fathers and for others, horrible dictators. They play exhausted to the cheers of the crowds or stand silently on the sidelines waiting for their turn to showcase their talents. Some will have their opportunity and some will never get it yet here they are, day in and day out, strapped up, standing next to their brothers ready to take on all who face them.

In high school their world revolves around football. The season starts in mid summer and ends, hopefully for some, in December but it never really ends. It is off season workouts, 4:45 AM practices, period drills, and after school meetings. It is morning lift, team dinners, squad meals and field walks. It is pep rallies and student cheering sections. It is daily film, evening practices and weekend workouts. It is game day routines, long bus rides, home field marches and banner breakouts. It is the lights of Friday, the music of the band and hearing your name called in front of thousands. It is mental and physical exhaustion ending in either despair or exhilaration.

This is their life, every week since they were freshmen and after that final game, win or lose, it abruptly ends forever. There is no after game practice, the next day, to revel about their successes or face the punishment of their mistakes.  The locker room, that is usually filled with life, is now quiet and empty. The field, where they practiced daily and experienced most of their life together, is solemn and lonely. They will never play this game again. They will never cry, laugh, bleed, work or succeed with these boys and coaches ever again. They will now have to pay to enter their home field to watch a game and never will they wear this uniform. The ending of it is so absolute and unwavering not many people will ever know this feeling of loss like these 17 year old boys.

I now understand why they sit alone on that turf with the lights shining bright on them. I understand it is not satisfaction they are giving the opposing team but a glimpse of their future. The finality is so complete and, like time, cannot be stopped in the first round or the last. Playing each game is not just about winning but staying together as a family, one more time. Everyone on this field, on both sides of the ball, knows this too well.

If your son has ended his football life in high school, know that this will be a struggle for some time to come. It is a struggle you will never comprehend, even if you have played the game. Only he, his teammates and coaches can earn these feelings and they are separate and unique for each boy and each season.

I will end this with a quote from my son, that night of his last game:

“Well, it’s a wrap. What a ride!”.

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