So. Football. After growing up in a home saturated with baseball, where Opening Day was a school holiday, where I knew how to read a box score before I lost my front teeth, and where the summer soundtrack of hickory on leather and background play-calling underpin every last one of my childhood memories; my son now plays football.
Since he was a nearly 9-pound newborn, people have been asking when he was going to play football. I would smile and nod and change the subject. I wanted my son to be whatever he wanted to be— funny thing about those liberal-arts ideals—kids tend to believe you, and then you have to mean it. Turns out he wants to play football. When is he going to play football? The answer is now.
I suppose it was inevitable. He turned 14 at the end of August, when he reported for practice. The youngest freshman at the high school, he’s also the biggest kid to make the team. He didn’t know anything about football when he showed up, but the coach took one look at him and told Jon he could teach him football; he can’t teach a 14 year-old to be that tall or that big.
Dropping him off at his first practice, I worried and fussed and double checked and made sure he had enough water and he rolled his eyes and said he’d see me later. Three and a half hours later, I picked up a drenched, muddy, hot, sweaty, exhausted kid who fell into the car, suddenly glad for mom and her air conditioned car. He had never worked so hard in his life. He also said he was going back tomorrow.
Frankly, I was surprised. Jeff is a kind kid. He reads a lot. He’s imaginative and likes Legos still. He likes to cook and hang with his family. He’s thoughtful and empathetic. He’s spent his whole life being aware of Bean, disability, autism, and he remembers hard things in our lives. He remembers David more than Bean or Abby, and he was less shielded by age from the struggle and pain. I wasn’t sure how he’d like the physicality of football. I honestly thought he might decide it wasn’t for him. I was wrong.
Turns out, he’s really good at it.
The physicality, the channeled discipline, the teamwork, the camaraderie, the friendships, and the hard work, have all helped him grow in ways I never anticipated. I see a kid now taking pride in overcoming something that was hard for him. He was acknowledged by his coach and team for that hard work. It’s not just that either- he’s actually good at it. He’s strong. He’s focused. And he’s happy.
Bean ran to meet him at the locker room the other day. A crowd of giant young men in pads and practice jerseys were milling about near the doors, filling water bottles and sitting on their helmets. From the car, I watched Bean approach, and the boys called out to him “Hey! It’s Little Jeff!” “Hey man, high five!” “Little Jeff!” and Bean just beamed. He came back to the car with a smile lighting his face. “Mom, maybe I’ll play football too…”
It’s been a learning experience for me, and probably a necessary and good one, to step back and allow him to venture beyond the bonds of my comfort levels. It’s not about me. This is something foreign to which I will never belong—and that’s okay. He and Jon bond over football. He says he can hear Jon yelling at every game—he’s an…exuberant and enthusiastic football dad. Jeff introduces Jon as his dad; he tells people he has two dads. (It’s fun to just smile and let folks wonder.) He calls his grandpa to talk about the game or a play he made. He knows David loved football, and Jon and David’s favorite team happens to have been the same one. Jeff has now adopted it as his team, and this is a domain in which I am not included, and where I really don’t desire a place.
There is tremendous joy in watching him create his own room in the world, and forge his own relationships. He’s using tools I helped him develop, but which are now manifest in in ways totally unique and beautifully tailored to him. He did that. I helped him with the raw materials, but this is what he’s making from those materials.
This part of parenting is awesome; no one really tells you how much fun it is to watch them become independent people you not only love, but people whom you genuinely admire. So anyway. Football. It’s not my native language, but I’m learning.