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The Challenge of Raising a Boy to Be “Tough” in 2020

How can you raise boys to be "tough" without that toughness morphing into that toxic kind of stubbornness?

It was a difficult labor, my wife pushing for more than three hours. Somewhat by accident, she didn’t get any painkillers during the birth — by the time we thought about an epidural, it was too late — but she kept pushing even after doctors suggested it was about time for a C-section. Afterward, I would tell her how proud I was of her toughness, and that it was the most incredible athletic achievement this longtime sports fan and sportswriter had ever witnessed.

When our first child was born eight years ago, I announced to my wife, “It’s Owen!” We had wanted a surprise, so we’d chosen a name for a boy and a girl – and then nurses whisked his tiny gray body to a warming bed.

I walked to the other side of the delivery room and followed the nurse with our son. Tears streamed down my face. I reached down to Owen’s tiny hand, and he grabbed my finger. My first memory of my son was that I was impressed by the strength of his grip.

For some silly reason, I had a small speech planned for this minutes-old baby, something he certainly would never remember but that for the rest of his life I could remind him about as the first words he ever heard. It went something like this: “Hi, Owen. I’m Dad. That’s Mom. We love you so much. I want you to be kind, and I want you to be strong.”

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Those were the only two things I wanted for my son’s life: Kindness and strength. He could become anything he wanted — a neurosurgeon or a car mechanic, a science teacher or a professional football player — but as long as he stayed both kind and strong, I would stay a happy, proud father.

I know why I wanted him to be kind. Nobody likes a bully. Nobody respects a bully. Kindness is, I believe, at the root of what every parent ought to teach a child, whether that stems from religion (“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,” Jesus said) or from some common-sense, irreligious view of the universe, a simple, central tenet of the civilized world. That’s something we have taught Owen throughout his life, whether it was after his younger brother was born and a sudden competitive element was introduced to his home or whether it was when he was in elementary school and we told him he should always be welcoming and kind to the girl in his class who had Down syndrome, and to stand up for her if she ever gets bullied. If you ever get in trouble at school for getting in a fight, I’d tell him, you will be celebrated at home – as long you got in that fight for the right reason. In fact, I will take you to ice cream.

Of course, I wanted him to be kind. But why, in my firstborn son’s first seconds as a living, breathing human being, did I insist that on top of kindness, the one other thing I wanted in him was to be strong?

 

The past several years, as my two boys have grown from infants into rambunctious boys – an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old who are both into Star Wars and LEGOs and sword-fighting and the “Hamilton” soundtrack – I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that speech I gave my firstborn son. Why was traditional masculine strength such an important part of how I viewed his growth from an infant to a toddler to a boy to a man? Why, when he’d cry over the sort of bump or bruise that all toddlers cry about, did I so often insist that he wipe away those tears and be tough?

I’ve especially been thinking about my views of parenting over the past several years as I’ve gotten to know the family of Zac Easter, who I wrote about in my book, LOVE, ZAC: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy.

Even if you never met this Zac Easter, you know a Zac Easter. He was the ultimate boy next door, a joyful mischief-maker. He would take a baseball bat to the Christmas lights as a toddler. Once, as an 8-year-old, Zac was riding his bike outside and saw an ambulance speed by, so he purposely crashed his bike just to see if the ambulance would stop. Everybody loved Zac. His nickname was Hoad, a derivative of Odie, the lovable mutt from the “Garfield” comic strip and cartoon. Like most second-born boys, Zac was always trying to keep up with his older brother. Whenever Zac’s mother, Brenda Easter, would tell me what Zac was like as a child, it always reminded me of my own joyfully devious second-born son, Lincoln. Just like Zac, Lincoln often serves as his older brother’s little shadow.

Zac’s story, however, ends the way no parent wants their child’s story to end. Just before Christmas 2015, Zac Easter took the 20-gauge shotgun his dad had got him for a birthday more than a decade before and shot himself in the chest. Why the chest? Because Zac wanted his brain preserved for science.

Zac had played football from third grade through high school in rural Indianola, Iowa, not far from Des Moines. His father, a former Division I football player, was his coach. Zac’s older brother would be named to his high school’s athletic hall of fame and would go on to play collegiate football. Zac was smaller than his older brother, but whatever Zac lacked in size and strength he made up for in toughness. Ignoring all pain, Zac, often leading with his head, was always the toughest guy on the field. “He was out there to fuck people up,” his older brother bragged. “He was there to do some damage.”

During his decade playing football, Zac suffered concussions year after year after year, doing his best to hide them from coaches and family. Later, he came to believe those concussions had caused chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, to take root inside his brain. It sounded like a far-fetched idea, that the terrifying and degenerative brain disease we’ve come to associate with retired professional athletes in contact sports would be found in a young man who didn’t play a down of football after his senior year of high school. 

But it turned out Zac was right. Five months after Zac’s death, Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neuropathologist whose groundbreaking research alarmed football fans about the dangers of their favorite sport, sent Brenda Easter an email titled “Brain Report.” The attached brain forensic neuropathology report showed CTE. 

Yet even until his final days — even as Zac was blaming football for his years-long decline — Zac’s fearlessness toward pain was a point of pride. His toughness was central to his identity, and in the journals that he left in his childhood bedroom on the night he died by suicide, he bragged how he was always willing to put his body on the line. Among Zac’s final words were these, typed in a suicide note that was meant to relieve his family of the burden of explaining his death:

 “Just know that I enjoyed playing through it and after fighting through it all, I still consider myself to be one of the toughest people I know.” 

Football was central to Zac’s idea of what an American man should be: Strong and tough and impervious to pain. On Thanksgiving night of 2015, a couple weeks after a very public and dramatic suicide attempt and only weeks before Zac died by suicide, there he was, sitting on the basement couch with his girlfriend, watching his beloved Green Bay Packers.

When he was playing football, coaches had often criticized him for leading with his head. Even in the mid-2000s, when Zac entered high school, the culture of football was starting to frown on helmet-to-helmet hits. His school had recently hired its first athletic trainer, a woman who stood on the sidelines and took away the helmets of players she thought were concussed. But, hell, how much could you criticize Zac when he was exemplifying for all his teammates what a football player is supposed to be? 

Rub dirt in it and take a lap. Fight through the pain. Play smash-mouth football. He got his bell rung. Pick your favorite football cliché — stretched end to end, the amount of football clichés out there would fill Lambeau Field — and odds are it’ll include an ode to toughness. As Zac’s most admired football coach, Green Bay Packers legend Vince Lombardi, said, “If you can walk, you can run. No one is ever hurt. Hurt is in your mind.”

Football’s violence has always been an essential feature of the sport, not a bug that needed to be worked out. When football had its first existential crisis in the early 20th century – at least 45 players died playing football between 1900 and 1905 – President Theodore Roosevelt convened college presidents at the White House to save football: To make the sport less physically dangerous and therefore more palatable to the average American. But Roosevelt did not want to eliminate football’s violence. Having young men risk life and limb for sport was, in Roosevelt’s view, a prime way to create a strong, tough, American man – and in turn a strong nation.

“I emphatically disbelieve in seeing Harvard or any other college turn out molly coddles instead of vigorous men,” Roosevelt stated. “In any republic, courage is a prime necessity… Athletics are good, especially in their rougher forms, because they tend to develop such courage.”

Zac Easter embraced this culture. Even as this culture contributed to his demise, he continued to worship it. Football makes a man. Zac Easter had starred in football. Therefore, he was a man. 

 

A few months before my first son was born, NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau died by suicide. He was posthumously diagnosed with CTE. A few months after my son was born, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend then himself. He was posthumously diagnosed with CTE. The disease has been found in the brains of football heroes who lived long and productive lives – like former NFL MVP Frank Gifford, a Monday Night Football announcer for 27 years who died of natural causes at age 84 – and in the brains of football villains who died suddenly and tragically, like Aaron Hernandez, the New England Patriots tight end who was convicted of murder and died by suicide in prison.

When Zac Easter was playing football in the first decade of the 2000s, CTE and concussions hardly registered on parents’ minds. It was still something you laughed at, a player walking all wobbly back to the huddle. But parents can no longer plead ignorance to the dangers of contact sports like football. It’s out there for all of us to see, with the reams of scientific research and with the litany names like the idolized Junior Seaus to the anonymous Zac Easters, all representing lives lost too soon.

And yet I still watch football, often with one or both of my sons beside me.

What exactly are parents of boys supposed to do now?

I still think there’s value in instilling toughness and strength in boys. I still think there’s value in a sport that prizes the catharsis and the life lessons that come with facing down your greatest physical fears.

But my views on instilling manliness in my boys have evolved, similar to America’s views on football. Not necessarily to a gentler or weaker view, but to something that takes a more thoughtful and nuanced look at what it means to be tough – of what it means to be a man.

At times, football makes me sick. In January 2016, weeks after Zac’s death, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown was hit in the head by the ultra-violent Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Brown’s head swung backwards and crashed into the turf. His body went limp as trainers rushed onto the field. A referee threw a flag for a 15-yard penalty, a paltry punishment for a hit that may have permanently altered a man’s life.

Maybe it was overdramatic of me, or maybe it was because I was fresh off meeting Zac’s family for the first time, but I thought Antonio Brown would die on the field that day. He did not. But I genuinely believe his well-documented personal problems – tossing furniture out his 14th-floor apartment window, being accused of sexual assaults, being charged with felony battery and burglary, getting into a bizarre standoff with his team over wanting to wear a helmet the NFL had banned as unsafe – are at least partially attributable to that notorious play.

But plays like that are no longer socially acceptable. A generation ago, those plays would have been celebrated on ESPN’s “Jacked Up” segment, or NFL Films would have featured them on a “Thunder & Destruction” videos. Recognizing the concussion concerns as today’s existential crisis for the sport, all levels of football have legislated those types of hits to the head out of the game. The sport is still ultra-violent, but in a more civilized way that protects the most vital organ of the human body. (This does not, however, address the so-called subconcussive hits that pile up over time and could contribute to CTE.)

Personally, I’ve shifted how I raise my sons, too. When my sons were younger, if they got in trouble, I made sure they looked me in my eyes while we talked about what they did. “Look me in the eyes like a man,” I’d say. Now, I think of that as such a silly thing to say. How exactly is that a manly trait? Shouldn’t a girl be encouraged to have confidence to look someone in the eye as well?

I still want my sons to look me in my eyes. I still want them to have a certain level of toughness. I still watch football, and I value the physical pain that its players endure in the name of a higher team goal. It’s just a sport, but they’re learning to sacrifice for something bigger than themselves.

I still want my sons to be kind, always. And it’s cool if they’re strong. But that strength should be measured in so many different ways than those traditional views on masculinity used to dictate. And hey, if they want to be any number of other things at the same time – sensitive or thoughtful or creative or sincere or loyal or generous or adventurous or silly or sentimental or pensive or even a little bit afraid – well, that’s pretty damn cool, too. There’s a lot more that goes into making a man than just being tough.

Reid Forgrave’s writing has appeared in GQ, the New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones, among other publications. He currently writes for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. His book LOVE, ZAC: Small-Town Football and the Life and Death of an American Boy, which examines the story of Zac Easter, is available now.