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I made no secret of how I felt about my 12-year-old son playing tackle football. I hated it. And I was ashamed for having given in to his two years of nagging to play. The decision wasn’t easy, and as I walked Yosef to the field on his first day of practice, my mind couldn’t suppress the image of Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker, Ryan Shazier, struggling to re-learn to walk after sustaining an on-field injury last season. Nor could I quiet the voice of Green Bay Packer great, Brett Favre, talking about the thousands of concussions he’d sustained and his post-NFL-retirement struggles.
That day, though, I acted tough. I half-heartedly patted Yosef on the shoulder pads, watched him snap his chin-strap into place, and said, “Play hard. I’ll see you in a few hours.” My worried head hung low as I walked slowly back to my minivan, wondering if I’d made the right decision. I wasn’t alone in my quiet, reflective shame. As I scanned the field, I caught the eyes of several other seemingly concerned parents retreating nervously as their helmeted kids took the field. I sighed, mumbling to no one in particular, “That’s football, I guess.”
Now, nearly two months removed from that initial drop-off, I still worry about the injuries my son might sustain. I’m nervous about him participating in the collisions that tackle football invites. But while the worry may continue, my shame does not. I no longer regret having signed Yosef up. The truth is: the decision to allow your child to play football is a decision that is intensively personal and requires a serious dinner table conversation between parents and their kids. It is easy to read of Brett Favre’s memory loss or to watch the violent hits levied by any middle linebacker in the NFL and to make a judgment for your child. More difficult, though, is to analyze the facts as they relate to your family.
As I examined the facts, two stood out in particular and helped assuage my concerns:
My son was ready, physically and mentally
The combination of his age and weight (85 pounds) put Yosef smack-dab in the middle of the limits for our local Pee Wee football division. It was important for me to understand my son’s size relative to the kids he’d be competing against. I may not have allowed him to play at the highest or lowest ranges on the age/weight spectrum.
Through years of soccer, I’d also watched Yosef develop coordination and field awareness that, in my judgment, would be important in keeping him safer on the football field. If tackle football has been his first competitive experience, it might have given me additional pause.
And lastly, I knew that Yosef could take the in-your-face, loud, forceful coaching that he would get on a football team. While not every coach is a “screamer,” my experience is that coaching in football is different than in other sports ⏤ it’s more intense like Jon Gruden and less calm like Tony Dungy.
I trusted the league, it’s rules and coaches.
Once I decided that Yosef could handle himself on the field, I needed to feel good about the team he would play for, the league he’d play in, and the coaches that would be acting on my behalf. To feel better about his participation, I made the most of preseason conditioning sessions where coaches were accessible. I spent time asking them questions:
- How do you teach tackling?
- How old are the helmets, shoulder pads, and pants?
- What is the required training commitment for coaches?
- Are there many injuries during the games and practices? How are you trained to respond?
- Frequent water breaks are part of the practice routine, right?
- Your team is aligned to which national organization for youth football? (Pop Warner, etc.)
I made sure that I felt comfortable with the answers the coaching staff provided. And, if it wasn’t clear or I detected inconsistencies, I asked again before any tackling took place. In the end, I was confident that my son was ready to play football and that his safety was of paramount concern to those in charge.
Today, my reservations about allowing Yosef to play seem like a distant memory. The shame of giving in is gone. My son is staying healthy, active, and loves being part of the team. And while my worries will persist ⏤ you can never stop worrying as a dad ⏤ I’ve moved on to cringing at the sound of crunching pads and shooting “Come on, man” looks at the parents screaming from the bleachers for their kids to “HIT SOMEBODY!” Then again, that’s just football, I guess.