My son was on the ground. He wasn't bouncing back up like normal. The coaches gathered round him, unsnapped his helmet, and took it off. One of them looked like they said "breath." I didn't panic. That's a luxury a man can't indulge in. I didn't worry either rather I started thinking about worrying. It wasn't time yet to worry but it was time to find out what was going on. I reluctantly walked onto the practice field to where my son still lay. He wasn't holding a body part but he was in obvious pain and seemed to have trouble catching his breath. By this point it had become almost a scary moment. "He got hit in the balls," I heard one of the coaches say. I laughed and my son, seeing me laughing, smiled. He was up soon, I told him to get back at it, and practiced resumed. I felt sympathy for his pain but pretty much felt relieved. A nutshot, while painful, isn't often serious.
This is my son's first year of tackle. I didn't agonize over the decision to let him play. I'd actually made the decision a few years ago when I first let him put on a helmet and play flag; when I first saw the gleam in his eyes as he did the dirty work on the lines and fell in love with the game. I've never tried to discourage or deter his feelings towards the sport even though I was always a baseball man myself. He has his own personality and football fits it.
That doesn't mean I don't second guess my decision. There is growing evidence, and more evidence, of the long term health effects of playing football and sportswriters are questioning the morality of watching football and writers and players both are questioning whether to let their children play the game they make their living off of. Long before I ever had a son I had a doctor I trust, a doctor who played college ball himself, tell me he didn't think kids should play football when he looked at the number of people with permanent pain in their knees and backs from their glory days of high school football. He didn't think it was worth it even in the days before we learned more about concussions and other brain injuries. The risks of the sport are great.
It's a personal concern for me too. It isn't just an abstract idea. My brother is walking around with knee and back injuries partially caused by football. Neither of my grandfathers were football players but they did both suffer from Alzheimer's and because of watching their declines that disease is probably my life's greatest fear. So given his genetic predisposition, why would I let my son do anything that would increase his risk of getting something I fear so much for myself?
I could rationalize the risks away. Thousands of football parents and fans do that every day. I could say that more kids get brain injuries from riding bikes than they do from football and I wouldn't be lying. I'd just be ignoring the fact that that's because a whole lot more kids ride bikes, and for longer periods of time, than play football and that riding bikes is therefore far less risky. I could say that everything we do in life is risky and that my child has as much of a chance of getting hurt during the car ride to his game tomorrow as he does playing in it and I might not be lying. I'd just be ignoring the fact that car rides are a risk I have to expose him to while football is not. I could share an amusing anecdote about how in the middle of my son's first season of flag football, when the decision to let him play was still fresh and weighing heavy on my mind, he broke his foot not during football but while playing on the monkey bars at school and it would be true. I'd just be ignoring the fact that its is an ironic coincidence and nothing more.
I sort of envy the parents that can ignore the risks of their children playing football by using those methods and the parents that are ignorant of the risks in the first place. I'm not a stick my head in the sand can of parent or person, though. If I'm going to put my son at risk, or let him put himself at risk, it is going to be because I've carefully considered the risk and decided the benefits are worth the risks. I've decided football is worth the risk for my child.
A few days before the nutshot he was playing in a scrimmage and getting bounced around like a pinball. He's big for a third grader, if a bit short, but he plays in a league of third and fourth graders so he isn't often among the biggest players on the field. He is often lined up across from the biggest players on the field and he tries his best to block them or get around them depending on what he's supposed to do. Sometimes they knock him down, although not as much as they should given the size differences, but he gets up and goes back at them. Mostly he makes the plays he should make and he does it with a smile on his face.
I tend to parent differently than most people and sometimes I explain to my son the way I'm parenting, and why, when I'm doing it. It's an approach that wouldn't work with most eight year old kids but it works with my thoughtful son. After that pinball practice I broke a sports parenting rule and actually told him why parents encourage their children to play sports. One, it gets the kids they hell off our backs for awhile and burns up some of their energy. Two, it's a way for them to learn lessons they don't even know they're learning. I told him playing sports was sort of stealth teaching of life lessons.
"If you approach life the way you approached the scrimmage tonight," I lectured, "you'll have a good life. You got back up when you got knocked down and tried again. Whatever obstacle was in front of you, you tried to go through it and if that didn't work you tried another approach. You did everything you could to do what needed to be done and, most importantly, you did it with a smile on your face and said it made you feel like a boss. If you live your life the way you played football tonight you'll be in good shape."
Ultimately, football isn't the riskiest thing I let him do. We go rock climbing as often as we can and I let him take try things sixty feet in the air that are risky so that he can know the exhilaration of doing something he thought he couldn't and appreciate the rewards of effort. Of course, while rock climbing I can be right behind him. I'm teaching him to handle firearms and how to hunt so that he can understand how a disciplined approach can make him safer and better at some things and so that he can share the bonding experience of hunting and shooting with myself and the other men in his life. Of course, while shooting I can be right beside him. I can only watch the football from the sidelines.
Could he learn the same lessons and get the same benefits from less riskier behavior? Most kids probably could be my son wouldn't. He plays on the line because when he played flag football he saw right away that the line was where kids made the most contact with each other and he likes contact. He like physicality. That's why the only other sport he still competes in is wrestling. He likes the line mostly because of the contact, sure, but it's also because I've explained to him that the line is a dirty job but someone has to do it. Lineman don't always get the most recognition and most kids don't want to play there. My son, though, likes the idea of doing things that have to be done that no one else wants to do. He takes pride in his own accomplishments and it doesn't much matter to him if anyone else notices or not. That's who he is. That's his personality and I try to let him be who he's going to be. So for better or worse, I let my son play football because he is who he is; my son is a lineman.