Fond Memories(?) of a Violent Game


Playing the game of football holds amazing memories, but I never got seriously injured. How do you feel about its long-term effects on former players? Photoby LC Nottassen

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.

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5 comments

  1. I would allow my kid to play organized ball. My wife wouldn’t. I would not win.

    I played high school ball with Pete Johnson. Pete went on to play on an earlier Bengals team that went to a Super Bowl. I was a too light receiver and DB. Pete was already a bruising running back. The act of tackling Pete in practice, all by itself, was cause of more than one concussion. Mine came on a collision so severe I left the field with my vision impaired, fumbling with my helmet. One of my buddies got it off for me and my vision cleared immediately. Pete’s knee had driven my grill face plate up out of line. It took my 140 pounds holding the top of the face opening and my buddy’s 200 pounds holding the bottom of the mask with us leaning away from each other to pull it back into place. Sorta. If Pete was even bruised he didn’t admit to it.

  2. When I was a freshman in high school, we were basically tackling dummies for the Varsity team. For some reason, I was a 160 pound DE, which in our defese was actually a 3-4 WOLB. One Monday, we had been run all over the Friday before, and our coach was calling our starting DEs (kitties). In preparation for the upcoming game, we were practicing staying at home instead of going with the TE when he downblocked because the RB would run straight at us. I was the RB in practice, so for about 10-20 straight plays, I ran head-on at a Senior who out-weighed me by 75 pounds and had been called a (kitty) for about 15 straight minutes before the drill. I’m not even sure how much longer we practiced or what we did for the rest of practice, but I never said anything because I hardly had a chance to get in. If my son decides to play football, I will make sure he knows the importance of letting someone know if his head does not feel right regardless of the circumstance.

    • Nothing like baiting the animal before they throw you in with them. Good thought to instill that in your son. Nothing wrong with a healthy level of confidence and self awareness in a child to think, “yeah, I’ve had enough.”

  3. I remember Pete Johnson. I still have his football card(s). Great story, thanks for sharing!

  4. My 14 yo wants to play. Mom is allowing it (for now), but 1 head knock could put an end to it. I played football at a private HS (in mid 80’s). As a Freshman, I was 5’9 & 160 lb MLB (2nd string for JV). We had All State RB and 2 OL & we had a tough game coming up. Coach wanted to focus on Offense game plan since our Def was solid. JV Def rotated vs Varsity Offense. They were yelling at us to show them what we were made of…. well, Star RB rockets up the middle. I throw off the OG block and head straight at him. He lowers his head to punish me & try to run right thru me…. I lower my head to wrap up his legs. Head to head collision…. I get knocked out cold. I wake to coach yelling at me about doing something foolish while 3 trainers take care of RB. I get ignored. Missed 3 weeks with “head issues” and never played again. Still miss it, but those 3 weeks were tough…. could not do anything. Focused on swimming from then on…..

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