Unbroken (Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, September 12, 2012)

by Jim Lynn

Sept. 12, 2012


A personal essay after a decade of Friday night lights

By JIM LYNN — Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

Finally, I can breathe.

Another high school football season has started. Nearly 1.1 million boys are strapping on shoulder pads and helmets, taping ankles and listening to pregame pep talks in dank locker rooms in high school stadiums in nearly every county in every state. The parents of 1.1 million boys are holding their breaths, about to turn blue with every crack, every thud, each loud enough to be heard dozens of feet away in the stands, above the noise of the crowds and the pep bands.

For the first time in a decade, I’m not one of those parents. I can breathe.

This is the first fall in a long while that Carol and I haven’t had a son playing grade school, junior varsity or varsity football. Nine seasons, to be exact. One-hundred and five games, give or take. Thousands of miles travelled to all sorts of small, mostly hard-scrabble private schools in out-of-the way small towns for a blur of Friday night lights.

We were young parents when this pigskin odyssey began, not really thinking but just following the culture. All boys play football. Duh! Holding our breaths each season, knots in our stomachs over heat risk during two-a-days. Cringing at each play in this blunt-force trauma that Theodore Roosevelt once threatened to outlaw. I’m in my early 50s now, saddened more than a little by the memories. The laughter, the camaraderie, the near-win of the state championship, both boys playing on the same team for a while, and all those after-game omelets at Waffle Houses all over the South.

But I don’t miss the worry.

The start of every season of high school football is greeted with the usual articles quoting the same experts about the risks of lifelong brain injury. No one listens. We just buy our children more and more expensive helmets. But this season, the debate has been escalated considerably by George Will, the celebrated political writer and noted sports fan.

Will’s recent column, and the discussion on ABC News that followed, have sounded the alarm loudly for the parents of 1.1 million children. He opened his column getting straight to the gritty point: “Are you ready for some football? First, however, are you ready for some autopsies?”

“… Accumulating evidence about new understandings of the human body — the brain, especially, but not exclusively — compel the conclusion that football is a mistake because the body is not built to absorb, and cannot be adequately modified by training or protected by equipment to absorb, the game’s kinetic energies,” he wrote.

Will is correct, of course. But as George Stephanopoulos pointed out in discussing the column, Americans don’t seem to be in any mood to give up football, either as paying fans who support professional and collegiate ball, or as parents of the 1.1 million.

Will is wrong, of course, with his prediction that parents, at least anytime soon, will just say no at registration time.

“It will start down below, at the small level of kids playing football in grade school and then in high school,” he said recently on ABC’s “This Week.” “We now, in our hyper-cautious parenting, put crash helmets on children riding tricycles. How many of these parents are going to let their children go out and play football once they learn the chronic, the cumulative effect of small brain trauma?”

The risks hit home for us, finally, after the final buzzer of the final championship game, when I looked at my son’s helmet.

The helmet spoke the proverbial thousand words. The steel facemask was severely dented on one side. Quarter-inch steel, bent like pipe cleaners. The plastic coating shorn off in places. The paint on the helmet as much scraped off as there. The helmet quite literally looked like a car wreck. Paint streaked across it from collisions with other helmets.

Was Roosevelt right?

We laugh. Boys need to be tough. Hundreds of years from now, anthropologists will shake their heads and call the sport barbaric. But for millions of boys in our generations, high school football has been and remains central to the culture of growing up in America. Friday nights have become the clichés of movies and television. But the books and movies and television dramas don’t fully capture what it’s like for a family to live it.

Thousands of miles. Dozens of days leaving the office early to get a start on that week’s two-hour drive, or three-hour drive, to towns with just a couple of traffic lights but where everyone shows up on a Friday night to see if the private school boys can beat Glenwood this time. Trips made one way with anticipation, the other way in darkness, euphoric in victory or cold and wet and down in defeat, but bruised either way.

A hundred sunsets in small towns throughout rural Alabama. Small private schools, many in the middle of farm land on low budgets with metal buildings for classrooms and a few bulbs missing from the stadium lights. Concession stands where the home team dads grill hamburgers and the home team moms hand them out, three bucks apiece. Where the younger children run around the perimeter of the field because the parents of both teams know they’re safe. Prayer before the games. Handshakes afterwards. Restrooms decorated as a small welcome to visiting parents. The games are social gatherings as much as sporting events.

And most poignant, the winning and losing teams intermingled in a large circle at midfield in prayer after the last whistle. Focused on one of the few things more important than football.

You learn after a while which towns have the best hamburgers. (Pike Liberal Arts Academy in Troy and Morgan Academy in Selma.) You know which schools have the parents who yell at the refs or the players who play a meaner game. And you come to know which concession stands usually run out of peanut M&Ms.

Mud, blood, sweat, tears, frigidly cold games and frighteningly hot summers. Coaches yelling for another ounce of effort when there seems none left. The heart-stopping moments when you look and you squint and see that it’s your son scoring the touchdown. The euphoric thrill of upset victory and the tear-streaked faces of unexpected defeat. Postseason chances out of nowhere when our kids got breaks against teams that were supposed to be stronger. Postseason hopes dashed by a short-range field goal missed, with only a fraction of a second left on the clock. Passes made; passes dropped.

And an endless stream of thudding hits, some of them cracking helmet-to-helmet, the hardest getting the loudest cheers.

Yeah, I miss Friday nights, badly. After so many years and so many games, the emotions and memories run deep. But now, at least, I can breathe.

Jim Lynn, an independent journalist and a former editor and reporter for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, now helps manage client information for TSYS; lynn36867@aol.com.