A Dream & A Promise
By Sheryl McAlister, a writer based in South Carolina.
I’m a football hypocrite. There; I’ve said it.
I’ve been a fan for a long time. Not obsessed, but a fan nonetheless. I liked the NFL’s Washington and Atlanta teams when I was a kid because my Dad did. I enjoyed tailgating at University of South Carolina football games and later Clemson games. I’m a Carolina Panthers fan. I used to be a sports writer and covered high school sports, so every weekend for a lot of years I spent watching and covering the local version of Friday Night Lights.
My nephew made his middle school football team this season. He’s a terrific young athlete, and this was a goal of his very young life. While I am happy for him, I have mixed emotions.
This is a violent game. And he’s not a big kid. Yet. His Dad is a big guy. His Mom… not so much.
He’s fast. He’s smart. He’s a team player. The coaches seem to like him. I just can’t seem to wrap my brain around the fact that he’ll likely be a wide receiver. And while they are among the fastest on the field and the primary target of pass plays, they are also the primary target of every defender on the field ready and willing to rip their helmets off.
I don’t like to see anybody get hurt. And while I’m willing to watch other people’s boys play football, I’m a little afraid to watch my boy play.
But I have made a solemn promise to my nephew to keep my feelings to myself. As if.
The story of the promise went something like this. A few years ago when my nephew started talking about his desire to try out for the middle school football team, I started a campaign to send him and his parents every news report I could find about the dangers of young kids playing such a violent, contact sport. I sent every Op-Ed and the latest scientific findings. The information did not fall on deaf ears. But this is where my campaign was thwarted.
My nephew and I were on our way back from a Carolina Panthers’ game. He said he needed to talk to me about something, and he needed me to both listen to what he had to say and support him in his decision. I had no idea where we were headed with this conversation. I reluctantly said I would give it my best shot.
“You have to understand, I am going to try out for football,” he said to me. “And I just need you to be okay with that. You can’t treat me like a baby any more. Now, I know Mamo (his grandmother) will always treat me like a baby, but you….”
I wasn’t sure if I was just dissed or complimented. I opted to believe it was a compliment.
I said to him: “I sincerely appreciate your position on this topic, and I would be 100 percent okay with it if you can assure me you will run so far, so fast that no one will ever tackle you.” A ridiculous request, I realize. But he was 10. And apparently a lot wiser than I gave him credit for.
“That’s not reasonable,” he said. “At some point, somebody is going to tackle me.”
“Not if you run fast enough,” I pressed.
He rolled his eyes.
“It’s okay if you encourage me to eat good food and drink a lot of water, but I really need you to support my decision,” he said earnestly.
I said “OK. You have my support.” (Whether he tried out or played did not hinge on my support. I was just touched that it mattered to him what I thought.)
His first game was this week. He was one of the smallest kids on the team, but it was a hard-won position. This is the time where football begins to get serious. These aren’t the leagues where everybody gets a trophy for showing up. So the fact that he made the team is a real testament to his talent, heart and attitude.
Football coaching legend Lou Holtz would have liked my nephew. Coach Holtz said: “Ability determines what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. And attitude determines how well you do it.”
My nephew got in for a series of plays late in the game and made good use of his time on the field. I was most proud of him for being a good teammate on the sidelines. He’s more accustomed to playing with teams where he starts and excels. This is new for him, a true learning experience, and it’s one he has decided to embrace.
Still, these boys are big. And my boy is so little. But he’s fast. Thank goodness, he’s fast. This is his dream, after all. Not mine. And I wish for him a fantastic journey.
“Go fast enough to get there,” Jimmy Buffet once said. “But slow enough to see.”
Copyright 2016© Sheryl McAlister