Danny attacks from the blindside. He perches on the far right of the defense, then sprints for the opposing quarterback like an osprey diving for a fish. Before he can snag his prey, a whale of an offensive tackle knocks Danny sideways.
I sit on my hands in the bleachers as Danny jumps to his feet and back into formation for the next play. I’m still baffled by this football-playing version of my son. I thought my combination of progressive (dare I say feminist) parenting and Danny’s lack of interest in contact sports meant I’d blissfully bypass the fate of other parents who had to witness their boys get bashed on the field of American football. But there I was last Friday night, watching like a hawk as Danny hustled out on the field for punt coverage.
Over the years, both my teenage boys happily threw spirals to their dad in the backyard; I’d take pictures of the sunsets behind them. On Sundays, they woke early to watch NFL RedZone while I finished the crossword. But their dad and I have both been openly troubled by parts of the game: the long-term effects of concussions, the sometimes Neanderthal nature of the behavior of players on and off the field. I figured some of this must have sunk in. Neither Danny nor his older brother ever asked to play.
With Danny’s high school sophomore year halfway over, I thought I’d made it. I wouldn’t have to cringe at the sound of helmets hitting teenage heads, or watch my kid limp off the field, wondering what an MRI would say. Danny was a fast runner but had chosen sports like archery and fencing at the local community center. He liked things that were medieval, yet he wasn’t aggressive. He wanted to be an ornithologist.
Days after he turned sixteen in February 2021, Danny got his driver’s license and then asked if he could play football. There’d be a spring season, he told his dad and me over flautas from our favorite taqueria. There’d be free Covid testing at school every week. Players would wear masks when they weren’t wearing mouth guards. It would be safe, he pleaded.
But the driver’s license and the request for football tested the limits of my parenting. How could I put my beautiful boy out into two of the most dangerous territories we had in our rural county – highways and football fields – all at once? I had been worried enough about Covid. Now I had to swallow the risks of repeated head trauma?
My husband and I discussed Danny’s surprise request at length, but from the start, I knew it would be hard to say no. We’d come down hard on video games and restricted cell phones until they were fourteen.
But Covid had changed things.
As the months of isolation ticked by, I worried more about Danny than I did his older brother. The lockdown hit when Danny was at that tender spot of freshman year, finally feeling comfortable around his classmates, and finding a home on the track team. In the first and only track meet of 2020, Danny won the triple jump and the 400. Then my phone beeped loudly with the news: all flights into the US had just been shut down. School closures followed days later. So much for track meets.
Danny handled virtual school well, but he spent way too much time in his room. His mood grew extremely irritable. Especially with his older brother, a senior with the freedom of the car and more established high school friends. Danny wasn’t alone. The CDC reported that the proportion of 12- to 17-year-olds visiting emergency rooms for mental health reasons rose 31 percent in 2020. I fit right in with the 46% of parents who told a January 2021 University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital poll that their teenagers’ mental health had worsened during the pandemic.
Which is why during year two of the pandemic, I knew it was going to be hard to say no to football, and why, of course, we said yes, even though it was the last sport I wanted Danny to play.
I took solace in the fact that he’d never played before. Surely Danny would ride the bench. But by game two, Danny – with his lanky build – became a starting linebacker. That’s defense, for those like me who need a football primer. Turns out he loves being the fast guy who rushes the quarterback and tries for a sack. Sack is now a word my family tosses around at the dinner table. It’s replaced Danny’s once detailed descriptions of raptors.
Overnight Danny is a dude who fist pumps, who ices his bruises and rolls out his hamstrings. He shouts encouragement to his cohort on the field. I suppose he’s finding his voice – even if a mouth guard I insisted he get molded at the orthodontist sometimes muffles it. Somehow I’ve turned that mouth guard into a talisman; as long as he’s wearing it, he will stay safe.
I’ve joined the legion of football moms, and my son has joined a new tribe. On a recent Friday, he and his teammates, and the other team from across the county, descended on In-N-Out Burger to gobble double-doubles and rehash the game in the parking lot. As he told his dad and me about it, Danny’s Friday night sounded like a throwback to the Happy Days reruns I watched endlessly as a latch key kid in the ’70s.
Danny was so obviously happy – with the game, with the new friends, with his discovery that he loves strawberry milkshakes.
I have now invested in a comfortable stadium chair, and I marvel as my son, Richie-Cunningham-turned-tribal-warrior, celebrates great plays with grunts, and grumbles at any interceptions or fumbles.
I had been ready – confidently ready – to say no to football for eighteen years. But when Danny asked, I didn’t refuse. It wasn’t the time to say no. It was the time to say yes to anything possible that caught Danny’s interest to join, to be with others, to fight for something.
It’s easy to blame the pandemic for Danny’s interest in football, yet I sheepishly might be ready to admit I am grateful for Covid prompting him to try out football. We are all desperately trying to cross an ever-receding goal line, past the collective grief of the pandemic, the disruption and loss worldwide, not to mention the social unrest and cultural divide our country is facing.
Is football Danny’s answer? For the moment, yes. And for the moment, I will sit closer to his dad, six feet apart from the two other guardians allowed for each player in the stands, no food or drink, double masks in place, keeping my eye on number 23 as he gazelles onto the field. Doing something his dad never did. Doing something his brother never did. Something he knows his mother worries about. And owning it with a fist pump, his own resounding yes.