Youth football leaves empty spaces around the dinner table

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I don’t agree with everything President Obama says, but I did agree with him when he said if he had a son he’d have to think twice about letting the kid play tackle football.

My 8-year-old boy has played flag football with the local recreational league for the past two years, but now he believes he’s ready to strap on the pads and start smacking people around – and getting smacked around.

His campaign to convince me to let him play tackle football started heating up last year. Though he was passionate, persuasive and persistent in his appeals, I finally had to draw a chalk line in the turf and decide that tackle football is just going to have to wait.

My decision had nothing to do with the possibility of him getting hurt. He can get hurt doing just about anything. In fact, his first serious red badge of courage – or maybe more appropriately, red badge of disobedience – came in the cul-de-sac in front of our house when he was just 10 feet away from me.

We were riding our bikes together and – as young boys will do – he decided to try and pull off some fancy maneuver he saw one of his friends attempt. I told him to stop before he hurt himself, but about 30 seconds later I turned to see him hurtling through the air and face-planting into the pavement. He got a huge gash on his forehead and narrowly escaped a trip to the emergency room and a nice set of stitches.

Neither was the issue about whether he’s tough enough. He’s plenty tough. He plays tackle football with his friends for hours out in the front yard. They prefer the front yard so they can put their machismo on display for the other kids to see. Despite my best efforts to teach him fundamental football skills, his technique leaves a lot to be desired, but he’s game and seems to like the contact.

No, the real issue came down to upholding my responsibility as a father to maximize the quality of my family’s home life together. I’ve heard one too many horror stories about what it’s like to join the local youth football league and I’m convinced that jumping into that fray at this point in time would have negative consequences on my family.

One of my policies as a parent is to never sign up my child for some sport without being prepared to take a leadership role in the program. It wouldn’t be right to abuse the generosity and sacrifice of a volunteer coach by dropping my child off at practice, then going about my business for the next hour and having the coach serve as a babysitter.

So, joining a tackle football league would not only include any sacrifices he would have to make but it would also include the prospect of me being obliged to serve as a coach, water boy or mascot or something. I waffled back and forth for a while, but I finally made up my mind after having an eye-opening conversation with a fellow who got hornswoggled into coaching one year.

His tale was nightmarish. He constantly shook his head at the memories as he talked about having to organize pre-season workouts during the summer, manage maniacal, hyper-competitive parents, hold drafts, tend to equipment problems, schedule daily practices, try futilely to teach distracted little kids the basics of blocking and tackling, etc.

The more he spoke, the more tarnished the prospect of participating in youth tackle football became. But what really sealed the fate of my son’s early football career was when the guy brought up the fact that every Friday night was spent huddled up with the staff breaking down game film to prepare for the next opponent.

What?! Breaking down game film to increase the likelihood a bunch of 8-year-old chaps will win a pee wee football game? He described the competitive environment and the pressure to do the things all the other coaches in the league – including every high school, college and pro coach around the country – were doing to gain a competitive advantage.

When the fellow mentioned the fact that after practices, four nights a week, his family never ate supper before 10:30 at night, that was all I needed to hear.

Any family counselor would agree, and statistics have shown, that one of the most effective ways to keep the family unit strong and give your children the best chance of growing up to be responsible, well-adjusted adults is to make sure that no matter what else happens, that daily face-to-face gathering around the dinner table should be preserved.

As far as my family goes, an overreaching football league for 8-year-olds is not going to interfere with that. With the usual bustle of modern life and everyone running in 100 directions, the battle to maintain our quality time together is already difficult enough.

None of this means my son has been dissuaded. I’ve tried every tactic I can think of to defer his desire to play tackle football until junior high when he can practice after school and then come home to do his homework and join his family at mealtime.

When we’re watching football on TV, I make sure to replay every brutal head-snapping, bone-crunching hit in slow motion and ask him if the idea of getting his molars rattled still seems like a good idea. He’s never fazed.

Even that Play of the Day last season when Jadeveon Clowney knocked the snot out of that Michigan State running back had little impact. His stock response: “Well, when I play tackle, I’ll have all those pads on.”

“Well, what happens when somebody knocks your helmet off like that guy?” I ask.

Crickets.

I did relent enough to allow him to attend a recent tackle football camp. If the camp leaders end up calling me and telling me he’s got pro potential and I start seeing dollar signs, then I may have to call an audible.

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