There are countless thousands of kids who compete in high school football every year and emerge none the worse for the wear, but it's a violent game, and the better a kid is at it, the more danger he puts himself in.
My grandson, Duke McCarthy, is 14 years old. Like many, if not most, boys his age, he loves team sports. He's a freshman at Bellarmine College Prep School in San Jose, California, and one of his first acts upon joining the student body there was to go out for the freshmen football team. But, like his father before him, Duke's a bit of a late bloomer physically and, at only 5'3" and 87 pounds, he possesses neither the speed nor the strength to make up for his lack of size. He ended up getting cut from the squad, much to the relief of his mother, my daughter, who did not relish the idea of her son getting banged around by kids twice his size.
His coaches were impressed by his enthusiasm and all-around attitude, though, and have named him the team's analyst, an assignment he has tackled with gusto. He views film of his opponents' games and has software for plays on his computer. It is a great opportunity, giving him the chance to study the game at a more sophisticated level than most kids his age. He's learning the details and nuances of what goes into a team sport; how everyone doing his job can lead to a well-coordinated attack, that sort of thing. I suspect that, given his choice, he would rather be a member of his on-field team, suiting up with pads and a jersey with his school colors, even if it meant sitting at the end of the bench every week, but he's making the best of his situation.
Next year, as a sophomore, he'll be bigger and stronger and in a better position to compete (his father eventually grew to be a six-footer, weighing in at about 180 pounds). He might make the team and give his mother a reason to start worrying again. There are countless thousands of kids who compete in high school football every year and emerge none the worse for the wear, but it's a violent game, and the better a kid is at it, the more danger he puts himself in. If he should be good enough to play at the college level, the greater his chances of getting hurt would be. God forbid, should he have the talent to play as a professional, he is almost certain to have his body dinged up in a way that will affect his quality of life in middle age and beyond.
Given all that, there is probably not a pro player in existence who regrets taking his chances. The opportunity to compete at the highest level is irresistible. A player becomes part of a very special fraternity that sets him apart from everyone else. "See that old guy over there, the one with the limp?" Someone might say to you, "He used to play for the Patriots." You'd take a good look at the guy and try to imagine him as a young stud in his uniform, performing at the top of his game on the field. It's the same basic drive that led my grandson to try out for the freshmen squad at Bellarmine.
I freely admit that much of this is mere speculation on my part. I played in only a game or two of tackle football in my life. I was a skinny kid, severely near-sighted, slow afoot, and otherwise ill-suited for the game. As I recall, none of us wore any protective padding beyond helmets. After distinguishing myself in absolutely no way, I stepped away from football, except for the tag version, played on the street. ("Go out by the telephone pole, then make a button hook.")
The truth is that I was not good enough at any sport to consider even trying out for it on the varsity level in high school. That did not dim my ardor for sports in any way, though.
Baseball and the Red Sox were always my first love. When Duke was younger, he and his family made annual summer pilgrimages to Cape Cod and I always made arrangements for them to go to Fenway Park for a game, hoping to instill in him my own love for the Red Sox. He claims now (admits?) to being a Red Sox fan, which is a great comfort to me, though probably not to him.
Duke, everyone calls him Duke though his given name is Richard, the same as his father, paternal grandfather, and me. We all take credit for having him named after us, but he is his father's son, having inherited his looks, positive disposition, and intelligence (in addition to his slow growth pattern). We do not talk often on the telephone, being separated by 3,000 miles and three time zones, so I am not a part of his daily life, much to my regret. He's not missing much by not seeing me regularly, but I'm missing out big time by not seeing him and his sister Bitsy and watching them grow to full maturity. His parents have thus far done a terrific job raising both kids.
I am a Boston guy, it's in my DNA, and when his mother, Leslie, and her sister, Meredith, went to California 20-some years ago separately, just to see what it was like, they both called with essentially the same message: "Daddy, there's no winter out here. I'm not coming back." They have since married and settled down there to raise their own families: Leslie in Los Gatos, a lovely town just outside of San Jose, and Meredith in Carlsbad, north of San Diego. And I am back here, bracing for another winter.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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