On any given Saturday in Texas, in the fall, families gather to cheer on little boys in full protective gear, as they battle it out on local football fields. Here, we start them early and make them tough. Most Texas cities, large and small, have youth football leagues with team members as young as 5 or 6 years old.
Mothers wince as their babies hit or get hit. Fathers beam with pride and live out dreams deferred through the youthful arms and legs of their little men. Every parent in the stands expects that their son has the potential to be as great as their favorite Monday Night Football sensation.
Despite the fact that my young son is fortunate enough to play for a Houston youth league which emphasizes the importance of good grades in addition to athletic ability and good sportsmanship, I can’t help but notice the degree of intensity on the faces of many parents, including my husband's, on Saturday mornings.
A particularly feisty mom put her hands on her hips and demanded, “Shake it off, boy!” as her child took a particularly nasty blow when the helmet holding his head hit the ground during a play. “Get your butt in gear!” barked a father to his son, clearly dissatisfied with the lack of speed in the boy’s hustle onto the field to join the game.
Being the Master People Watcher that I am, I have often observed just how much bigger this Saturday football thing is than just letting boys be boys. This football thing is a ful-blown pursuit of fame and fortune, or if neither, then at least bragging rights.
When I taught at a private school, I was grading papers in my room and overheard a parent-teacher conference next door. The father of a child had been summoned to discuss his son’s failure to complete weekly homework assignments. After hearing the parent’s explanation that the boy was merely too tired to crack the books after football practice, the teacher asked, “Isn’t Joey’s schoolwork more important than football?”
What the hell was she thinking? That father literally exploded. In his best Bayou City drawl he shouted, “Lady, all I want you to do is teach him while he’s at school. I already know he ain’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, but my boy can play football and I’m here to make sure he gets his shot at a career. So you just get off his back with your stupid homework. I’m paying for my kid to be here, so teach him and leave us alone.” Joey was six years old and in the first grade. The homework in question involved writing a short list of spelling words, three times each.
I can only assume Joey made it to ninth grade this year, but if his father had his way, Joey’s football game is probably tight. But, just how tight does a boy’s game have to be to make it to the collegiate level and beyond?
According to a 2005 NCAA study, 5.8% or just about one in 17 American high school senior boys playing interscholastic football will also play at an NCAA-member college or university (either by walk-on or scholarship). The odds of those same high school seniors going on to play football professionally are approximately 9 in 10,000.
Good luck selling those steep odds to the families assembled on Fridays and Saturdays to watch their perceived first-round draft picks, from Pop Warner through 5-A varsity. They love football and when it comes to their sons, visions of signing day photographs, Heisman trophy ceremonies, and championship rings dance in their heads.
Who wouldn’t love to see their son flash a million dollar smile at the camera and say “Hi, Mom” from the sidelines? Who wouldn’t be tickled to death that their boy is the lucky son-of-a-gun featured in the “I’m Going to Disney World” commercial after the Super Bowl? I’d sure enjoy that ticker tape parade just as much as any other mom. I think I’d be darn cute in a Campbell’s soup commercial with my Bubba, AKA the Enforcer.
Yeah, my boy is that good, too. I swear!
Unfortunately, the pressure kids face to be their athletic best can drive them to dangerous behaviors, including anorexia, bulimia and abuse of performance enhancing drugs. Also, if athletic performance overshadows academic performance, kids don’t have a “plan B” when hoop dreams and end zone fantasies fail to materialize. In my current position, I see more than a few varsity letter-jacket wearers lining up to take the GED exam or remedial college courses every semester to jump-start their stalled vehicles for success.
Last Saturday, our team of rough and tumble six-year-olds triumphed over their equally sweaty, snaggly-toothed, cherub-faced peers in opposing colors. After shaking hands with the losers and running through a victory tunnel of smiling fans, the battle-weary gladiators enjoyed hot dogs, chips and Gatorade. While the adults continued to bask in the glow of conquest, the tykes from both teams caught an amazing second wind to chase each other in, under and around the bleachers, proving once and for all that the best experiences in life are usually obtained off the field.
Sharon Watkins-Jones, Author
Sharon is a community college administrator, former special education teacher, wife of 17 years and mother of two school-age children in northwest Houston. Her primary interests are family-inclusive culture and arts, travel, politics, historical literature, Texas Longhorns and all things Disney.