Two of my sons are playing tackle football this season. How cute, right? Dress them up in their tight little pants with their professional looking jerseys and brand new Nike cleats. Make sure they put on their too-tight helmets that will not come off their heads no matter how hard they are hit, and their pads that make them look like they are ready to take on Tarik Glenn. But it’s not a costume, I remind myself. This is the real deal.
To prove my point, let me give you a picture of Carmel-by-the-Corn, Indiana. This is how the Urban Dictionary (a sophisticated and reliable source of information) describes our city:
A City in Indiana where a bunch of rich people live. Filled with Paris Hilton wannabes who drive huge cars and listen to rap music, when they clearly shouldn’t. Every single teenage girl in Carmel has a pink RAZR. Every single one.
See also: spoiled, annoying rich, loaded, wannabe
Maybe that’s a wee bit of an exaggeration, but most things in Carmel seem to be blessed with the Midas touch, including youth football. It’s intimidating to walk onto the field to pick up your children when your ghetto-looking Suburban is squished in between two pimped out Hummers, one driven by Pamela Anderson and the other by Reese Witherspoon (or women who look an awful lot like them), as they yell: “Jacob, hurry up. You know we have 8 pm reservations at Ruth’s Chris!” Oh, I should mention that everyone in Carmel has blonde hair. Pretty blonde hair. Not the dirty blonde kind or the brassy greenish kind. It’s true. Except me. And my sons. It’s a good thing they’re handsome anyway.
But looks can only go so far. In the Carmel youth football leagues, you have to have skills. And lots of them. My oldest son hasn’t played in three years but somewhere along the line, he decided it would be a good idea to play in the 6th grade league. All 85 pounds of his super skinny frame – there against large kids. Tall kids. Talented kids. Fast kids. Ferociously serious football fanatic kids who have dads that live for football season and coaching their sons’ football teams to victory. So harsh are some of these fathers that they have burst vocal cords and had to have them surgically repaired. (Okay, I made that up, but I would be willing to bet that it HAS happened.)
Thankfully neither of my son’s got the dads that live for football. They love football and coaching their sons, but more than that, they love coaching kids in a game that parallels much of life. Both boys’ teams are undefeated, which makes watching their games even more exciting. But if it weren’t for what happens at the practices, these kids would be just one of many teams playing youth football around the United States.
Here’s a story I LOVE to share to illustrate my point:
My oldest did not want to go to practice one day. He was tired and had been feeling sort of weak. I told him we had already missed two practices and his team needed him there. He started freaking out about going. Really panicking. So I called his coach and told him what was going on. Instead of saying, “Oh well, we’ll do without him today,” or “That’s okay, hope he feels better soon,” he said: “Well, what can I do to help? Tell him we really need him. He’s a part of the team and everyone counts.”
I told my son who was standing nearby but he didn’t believe him. My son is probably the weaker player on the team, which is made up of some stellar athletes. I told the coach that he was really down on himself and the coach responded, “Can you at least have him come and sit on the sidelines to watch the plays so he knows what ‘s happening?” I told him I would try.
When we pulled up, my son refused to get out of the car. At first. Eventually I got out and sat on the sidelines to see if he would join me. After about 5 minutes, he emerged from the car and sat next to me. When his coach saw him, he called him over and asked if he wanted to join the team on the sled. My son said no. But the coach continued to pursue my son and asked him to run to the storage shed to get him something. Reluctantly, he stood up but as he started to run I saw my son puff out his chest just a little. No longer was he hunched over, looking sick or defeated by himself.
After the team returned from the sled drill, they noticed my son there and started calling his name. “Yea, look who is here, Coach!…. Alright! He’s here!!!!” They were genuinely excited about his presence.
And here’s where the magic came in. The coach looked at my son and said, “Come join us for this one.”
My son started to respond saying, “But I don’t have my sho…..” Before he could even finish his sentence, I heard the coach yell out, “Everyone take off their shoes. We’re doing this drill barefoot.”
Barefoot! My son had worn flip flops, but before he could use that as an excuse, the coach got his entire team on board and excited with his creative idea. All for my barefooted son.
As the kids excitedly kicked off their cleats and laughed at the idea, I got tears in my eyes. The next thing I heard was music to my ears. The quarterback, the “coolest” kid, said, “We get (son’s name) on our team.” And others chimed in with the same thing. My son smiled. And he ran. And he blocked. And he caught the perfect pass and ran it for a touchdown. The other coaches were there in the midst of all of it as well. One of them humored my son by continually saying some phrase my son told him to say. I hope to always have that moment captured in my brain – of a bunch of sixth graders and their coaches playing football barefooted in one of the most competitive youth football leagues around.
When practice was over and the kids were talking about how awesome it was to kick off their shoes on the field, I headed over to thank the coach and said, “I could kiss your feet.” But then I looked down and realized he too was barefoot and well, I’m not really into kissing man feet anyway. So a thank you had to suffice. And a grateful heart, knowing that on that day my son felt valued and wanted by his team and respected and worthwhile by his coach, a man who obviously loves kids more than he loves football. Keep it up, Coach Pippen and all of the other Dolphins coaches and dads. You are all an inspiration!
The Dolphins Win the Carmel Dad’s Club Super Bowl, 2008