The sum of my experience playing organized football is one season in a DeKalb County Pop Warner league in Atlanta, Ga. I missed tryouts because my family had just moved there from Cleveland, Ohio and I joined the team a week before its first game. I had no experience playing in pads and like most kids I wanted to be a running back or wide receiver.
The extent of my knowledge of the game was the stiff arm, a button hook, an in, and out, and a fly pattern. But when you’re 10 years old, 5-6 and 125-lbs., and added to a team as an afterthought, you start as a guard. And if they see you have reasonably good speed for your age, you get looks at linebacker or corner. I was lost.
We moved again the next year and organized football was not possible. However, I continued playing the game. Pick up football seemed like a daily ritual wherever I lived. Sure, we played basketball and baseball, but whenever I had a chance to steer the game to football I was the chief lobbyist.
Like most, we played the game anytime and everywhere. Front and backyards in the summer and fall. Parking lots waiting for the school bus. High school practice fields in the middle of the night after sneaking out of the house. Soccer parks in pouring rain. Neighborhood streets where we’d yell code words that I no longer remember to warn of approaching cars. Oklahoma drills with my pal Tres – now a local football coach for kids – in apartment hallways on cold rainy days.
When you love a game there are moments that stay with you – modest as they are. There was the time that my friend Jeff was pushed out of bounds after catching a deep fade and he hydroplaned on the cool, wet grass under the fence separating the field from the parking lot. We ran to him fearing the worst, only to discover that his momentum pushed the bottom of the fence upward as his body slid into it. He wasn’t writhing in pain, but laughing that he was stuck.
My friend Tres – who was deemed too short and light to earn playing time for our high school team despite making plays on a daily basis in practice that said otherwise – once hit our neighbor Joel so hard that you could hear the smack. And in that same game I remember getting hit in the legs and flipped end over end while leaping for a crossing route. I can still recall seeing the ground and the sky in harrowing panoramic rotation that ended with the thud of my back against the muddy earth with the ball still in my hands. That Monday at school, the member of that varsity football team who submarined me that weekend gave me props.
That was the closest I really ever came to suffering an injury. However, I had friends who stopped playing after breaking a bone, rupturing a tendon, or tearing a ligament. A talented musician I knew in college once told me the reason he got more serious about the saxophone came from an experience on the football field. He was a starting tailback for his high school team in Detroit before getting a planted in the backfield as he took the exchange from his quarterback. Losing feeling in your extremities for even a short period of time can be a huge motivation to take another path.
I share these memories with you because I bet many of you have similar. Based on Peter King’s SI article, One Team, 25 Years On that profiles members of the 1986 Cincinnati Bengals, there are a lot of NFL players that feel the same way, even with their bodies and minds paying steep prices.
But not all of these former pros feel this way, and I can’t say that I blame them. The money, the camaraderie, and the experience of performing at the highest level against the best in the world engenders feelings few will ever have. Yet I could imagine having regrets if I had to spend a majority of my life suffering in various ways – some debilitating in nature – as a result of just a brief window of my life.
I want to know what you think. Read King’s article and fill out these polls below. Feel free to comment at the end of this post as well.