My younger sons started playing in early elementary school. Walking into those games, dressed in football pants and t-shirts, the boys labored to carry the bulky shoulder pads and helmet. Once, I offered to help John carry his pads. I got what I can only describe as a look of disdain coming from that little tan face. Disdain, not directed at me, but at the idea that a football player wouldn’t carry his own gear. Somehow he knew that was just not right.
Unfortunately, the idea that mom would be the one to wash the football pants and wrestle to replace the knee pads was not similarly offensive.
Through the years, my boys learned a lot about being men from football. I learned a lot about being a mom to boys.
1. Conversations with coaches are very simple. They can start “Thank you for” or “How may I help you?” or “My son will not be at practice because.” Acceptable reasons for the son not making the call himself include being unexpectedly unconscious or out of the country. That’s about it.
2. Football pants do not actually need to be washed very often, thank goodness. Or rather, the normal definition of “need to be washed” does not apply to football pants. Sweat and grass stains, no problem, mud – maybe, blood – yes.
3. There are plenty of people out there eager to tell my son what he is doing wrong. I leave that to them. I tell him what I admire.
Or, I can just be quiet and make sure he has something good to eat and remembers to drink his water.
This season my third son John is an All-State center on his high school football team. He is a senior and a team captain. My fourth son Owen is a sophomore on the same team, playing safety and special teams.
We started the season with high hopes, routing a team from Memphis. The next week we played the number one high school football team in the country, Trinity-Louisville losing by 4 points in a game that was undecided until the last play. The next week we struggled and lost to a local rival, another very good team. (Objectively, we might just have the most difficult high school schedule of any team in the country.)
We then traveled to Chattanooga to play Baylor, a boarding school along the banks of the Tennessee River. Baylor was undefeated heading into our game. We needed a win.
With 11 minutes to go in the game, we are down 20-10. We get the ball back. Our boys have been playing hard all night and show no signs of letting up. Our fans, however, are exhausted. It looks hopeless. Dads are sitting with their faces in their hands.As much as those boys look like big tough men out on the field, to the moms in the stands they are just our little boys. Little boys determined to carry their own pads, little boys bravely getting up to get after it again despite being tired and hurting, little boys dealing with the confusion of at times unfair calls, harsh coaches, of giving their best but just not being big enough, or fast enough, or strong enough.
Through the years we football moms have fed them, comforted them, when they would let us, driven them to practice, told them to drink water, and given them ice packs and Advil.
All the “doing” is not too bad. The worst part is all the hours of waiting . . . waiting for practice to end so we can get them home to dinner and homework, waiting for their chance to play and, worst of all, waiting in doctors’ offices for X-ray or CAT scan results.
Our team had worked so hard, all summer and fall. And again we are waiting – the possibility of a third crushing defeat rushing towards us like a tsunami, threatening to overwhelm us as we sit and watch, hoping and praying.
Three moms decide that they like doing better than waiting.
They get up, cowbells in hand, and head to the student section, encouraging the rest of us to come along. One is a health-care executive at a medical school, another is a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and the third a pre-school teacher.
Tonight, they are high school cheerleaders.
Many places this might not seem unusual. But our high school is about a mile from Vanderbilt University, and culturally, it is even closer. While our school enjoys great success on the gridiron, many of the fans are still rather reserved. Good plays are rewarded with polite applause. We seem to think it rude to make noise when the other teams’ quarterback is under center. People stand for the National Anthem, Kick-off, and to go get a drink at halftime. Unlike the citizens of my home state of Alabama, here we see football as a game and not an epic struggle between good and evil.
But tonight these moms lead a charge, and other moms follow. Something comes over us. We begin to cheer and pound our feet on the bleachers. We run from place to place along the sideline to be as close to the action as possible. We act like a bunch of crazy women. We are a bunch of crazy women.
It is not like any other cheering I have heard.
Mostly, it is just noise. But from the cacophony, some words begin to take shape. We aren’t so much football moms as moms. It is not football players we are cheering, but our sons.
“You can do it, son.” “Try again. “ “You have got this.” “Don’t quit.”
“You’re fine.” “Get up.” “I know you can do it.” “Keep going.”
For years we have said the same things to them as they learned to walk, ride bikes, and master algebra. And now we yell these words — we pray these words — as our sons struggle to meet the challenge before them.
We yell and stomp and jump around.
We watch our boys score two touchdowns in 6 minutes to win the game.
We hug and laugh and cry.
First, we feel a flood of relief that we did not lose again. Next comes joy at their success. But then, as we watch them celebrate with each other and with their devoted yet demanding coaches, another feeling begins to push away the relief and overshadow the joy. It is a deeper, more serious, more resonant feeling. It is respect. “Did you see that?” we say. We are impressed. We are proud of them.
And I think this reveals one big reason why boys play football. Why they are willing to get up all summer for the 6:00 a.m. work-outs, to push themselves to their limits in the weight room, and to suffer the pain of the hits. They do it because it is really hard. Though lacking the stakes of the battlefield, it is the closet thing to war many of them will ever experience. Win or lose, football provides an opportunity to earn respect. We can say to them: “Wow, look what you did!”
Even more importantly, they can say to themselves and each other: “Look what we did!”
I love my sons, and I believe that they know this and need this. However, some expressions of that love are not always acceptable. They might not want my hugs or my pep talks. Gifts I buy might not be on target, and often the ways I serve them go unnoticed.
But perhaps, even more than love, it might be that what a teenage boy needs most from his mother is respect.
Respect for who he is and for who is he working to become, whether it be on the football field, on the cross-country course, or in the classroom.
A scene from a few years back has lodged itself in my mind. At our high school honors night, a young man had received the highest honor given to his class. His mother came up to him afterwards, beaming. She shook his hand and warmly told him ”Congratulations. I am so proud of you.”
She communicated love, yes, joy, of course, but primarily she communicated respect.
She is the mother of 8 boys. I think she may be on to something.
Read this and others essays about life with four boys at https://ihcounsel.wordpress.com.