Recently, my son and I went out to dinner, and over burgers and fries, he lowered his eyes and told me he had something to say. Bracing myself, I waited expectantly for an admission of a poor grade or that he’d met a new girl, but the words that came out of his mouth were much more surprising than I expected.
“Mom,” he said. “I really wish you’d reconsider letting me go out for the high school football team next year.” He sat back and looked into my eyes as his 13-year-old frame spilled out onto the chair. I took in his hopeful look and pondered how best to tell him that my answer was still, and always will be, “no.”
We live in a small town and football is a big culture here. Friday night under the lights, promising high school athletes, and a well-funded athletic program in our district has led to my son being enamored by the game of football. Admittedly, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement of it all, and sitting in the stands watching the pigskin fly immediately takes me back to my high school days. To this day, I can’t hear the cadence of the high school band without thinking fondly of my high school band’s halftime routine.
While we aren’t diehards, we do love football in our house. Sundays during football season find us with the sounds of referee whistles and yells about bad calls coming from our family room. Frankly, the smell of chili on the stove and a huge plate of nachos while our favorite team beats our rival isn’t a bad way to spend a cold winter afternoon. And while my husband and I enjoy watching football, my son loves it and has wanted to play football since he was young.
But my husband and I have always thwarted that ambition. When it comes to our son strapping on a helmet and playing tackle football, we are a united front.
When he was smaller, it was easier to avoid enrolling him on a football team. When he’d ask, we’d simply tell him the practice schedule didn’t fit into our busy lives or that I’d accidentally missed the signups. But, the truth of the matter was that both my husband and I thought football was far too dangerous a game for young kids to play. And while I recognize that they don’t play tackle football when they are very young, the risk of concussion and other sports-related injuries is just too high.
I am not comfortable with the idea of my son playing tackle football. And I know I never will be because both my husband and I know firsthand how hard it is to recover from a head injury.
When my son was 8, he had a freak accident during gym class that resulted in a major concussion. When the injury first happened, he appeared initially to be okay. He had a large, purple goose egg on his head and a mild headache, but as I drove him home to rest, he seemed to be his normal self. Within a matter of hours, though, his condition rapidly deteriorated. Intractable vomiting, dizziness, and lethargy led to his inability to stand or even walk. He didn’t recognize us and was only able to move if he crawled on the floor. We rushed him to the emergency room, and a CT scan confirmed that he, in fact, had a major concussion.
Six weeks of brain rest and many months of monitoring symptoms impacted his life greatly. School work was next to impossible, he tired easily and often spent hours resting either at home or in the school nurse’s office, and he wasn’t able to attend any activities that put him in danger of banging his head again. He couldn’t ride his bike, couldn’t play at the park, and basically spent six weeks impatiently resting on our couch.
And his injury was caused by a freak accident, not by ramming heads intentionally with other large-sized teenagers under the lights of a football stadium.
Watching our son endure not only the pain of a concussion but also the lengthy recuperation from an unexpected injury made an indelible mark on me. It solidified my resolve to keep him from playing tackle football, no matter how much he says he wants to or how much he pushes back against my decision. As his parent, it’s my job to keep him safe and to draw boundaries to protect him. Saying no to football is one of those boundaries, and it’s the right decision for our family, given our experience with a severe head injury.
I know that there are plenty of parents out there who feel differently, and I respect their decisions to let their kids toe the 50-yard line. I’ll gladly take my son to football games to cheer for his classmates and support our local athletes anyway we can. But as a worried mother, I just can’t get past the danger and the fear that our son will be permanently hurt in a game or at practice.
It’s not easy to stand firm in our decision to say no to him playing football, especially when the game is celebrated so much in our town. I know he wistfully watches the game from the stands and wishes he was one of the kids with a giant number emblazoned on his back. And when we watched the movie Rudy recently, I could tell he was bummed that he would never have a winning play to relive at high school reunions and that a stadium of people would never chant his name repeatedly.
But as we walk out of the restaurant, he throws his arm around my shoulder and says, “I’ll forgive you for not letting me play football if you’ll buy me an ice cream.”
I smile and agree because it’s a small price to pay for his safety.