Growing up with football and growing concerned about football

This is a column I wrote nearly five years ago — February 2013 — about my youth football days — fun but tough — and what I believed then and now to be the future for American football. It probably doesn’t have one in its current form. A few high school teams in North Carolina aren’t fielding varsity teams this year due to lack of players. I have a longer look at this and other stuff coming tomorrow.

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Growing up, the only youth sport in which I was even marginally competent was football — and I emphasize the word “marginally.”

I was on the small side. Wore glasses thick enough to repel the space shuttle. Had the speed of a junked car. When other kids accurately pointed out that I was “Blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other,” I laughed with the joke. Starting fights to correct statements that are abundantly true didn’t make much sense — then or now. Explains why I’m not in politics, probably.

But I was tough, because I had to be. I couldn’t back down about anything. I had to prove I could play with everyone else. And because I was already a splendid disaster at baseball and basketball, well, making it in football was everything.

So I played in one of those Pop Warner youth leagues when the little town next to mine started one. I joined the Walnut Cove Lions.

Madison football

My football career began inauspiciously — as an undersized member of a team for older kids. Because there was no junior pee wee division the first year Walnut Cove had a team, I suited up for the pee wees. My playing time was limited to those occasions in which the team was so far behind our opponents would have to surrender like Lee at Appomattox in order for us to win. On the occasion I actually got into a game that year, I recall a runner escaping my attention and scampering past my clueless defense for two straight scores. At this point, alert coaches decided that free safety wasn’t the place to put the half-blind kid.

A year later, the junior pee wees were born, and I flourished, to a fashion. Moved to either the offensive or defensive lines I managed to start all but one game the remainder of my four-year youth football career. The only blemish on my record came the following season — after I had grown into the pee wee division — when I was benched for a game as noseguard by the coach who noticed that my play on defense in practice scrimmages against the offense was not to my usual standard. He suspected me of “lollygagging.” He somehow overlooked the fact that the regular center, was sick that week and someone who was 100 percent better and more ferocious replaced him and knocked me in the dirt play after play.

Yes, college has nothing on youth sports when it comes to grooming people for life in the American workplace.

Team photo

The Walnut Cove Lions junior pee wee team in about 1969. I’m the kid with glasses on the back row.

Still, I have fond memories of those days. I was generally coached by good men, family men, men who thanklessly volunteered in order to make sure that kids in rural Stokes County had the opportunity to play organized football with uniforms and everything. Of them all, only one coach was a sadistic maniac. He arrived for every practice with a Sun-Drop bottle filled with a brownish substance. We weren’t allowed to touch the bottle. He got crazier as the afternoon wore into the early evening. Go figure.

But every single coach liked to see us 9- to 12-year-olds knock the total snot out of each other. We were screamed at to hit low, smash each other in the helmet and be tough. If we failed to do so, we were usually compared to girls. Pretty horrifying thing for a 10-year-old boy back then.

Yes, in sports — and the military — such observations are seen as motivational tools. Can’t say it didn’t work like gangbusters.

So we ran headlong into each other for what seemed like hours. The players with the most scars on their helmets got vigorous pats on the back and calls of “attaboy!”

The one drill we all dreaded involved the “chicken coop.” It was an open-ended contraption with a height of about three feet, the top covered by chicken wire. Players were told to line up facing either other underneath the wire and then fire into one another — clashing helmets — repeatedly. This was supposed to teach us to hit low. What I learned, mainly, was about the exceptional capabilities of BC Powder and Excedrin.

By the wisdom of the day, those drills were fine. And as a lineman, I was marginally competent at all of it. No better, no worse. A passable piece of the interchangeable puzzle parts that make up the machinery of a working football team.

I left football after that because I felt I was too small to play on the line in high school and this getting beat up and going home with headaches at nightfall seemed patently ridiculous. I became more of a fan of the game. I loved high school and college football. Still do. I like the strategy behind a well-timed offensive play or how the blocking or defensive schemes come together.

And, sadly, I like to see people knock the snot out of each other.

I’ll acknowledge that pro football’s move to improve safety for its players is wise and long overdue. Helmet on helmet hitting is a serious problem. All levels of football need to look at it carefully. Concussions are nothing to fool around with.

I also want the game to continue. People should have the choice about whether they wish to play or not. But it should be made as safe as is humanly possible. It’s a contact sport after all.

Still, if I had a kid today the last thing he or she would be doing is playing football.

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