My mother often told a story about my early interest in football. It was a holiday gathering with all my cousins running around doing the normal things young kids do at the yearly get together. I was normally the child that had to be checked on regularly due to my knack for pushing the boundaries of any endeavor in which I partook. But on this particular Sunday afternoon, I sat in front of the small black and white TV mesmerized by one of the first football games ever shown on national TV. It was the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants championship game. I was four years old. While I can’t say that I remember the game, I do know that my love for football goes back as far as I can remember. We only had a 12-year-old Pop Warner team in our small town growing up, but at age 9, I became the youngest and smallest kid on the team. My football career had begun. With twelve years of playing and 38 years of coaching (that streak is still active), I might not be considered unbiased to give an opinion on your child paying. But like many things in my life, times have changed, and I do have concerns and a sincere opinion on the game I love.
Bigger, Faster, Stronger
If I were to point my finger to the biggest change in the sport over the years, it’s not from the game itself; it’s from the players. They are bigger, faster, and stronger, which leads to more violent impacts on the field. Naturally, with these collisions that occur, there’s going to be more injuries, especially trauma to the head. The bottom line is the increase in concussions in the game of football, or at least the awareness of more concussions in football.
In my playing days, it was a badge of honor to stumble back to the huddle and continue playing after “seeing stars” or “getting your bell rung.” In today’s game, this would put an athlete into concussion protocol, which is designed to measure the severity of the blow and to determine when or if a player can return to the field. In youth football, this might be determined by the coach, but at the high school level and beyond, the decision is made by highly trained athletic trainers or, in the case of the Forsyth County School System, a medical doctor that is on the sideline at every game. This takes the ball out of the hands of the overzealous coach whose only concern is to get the player back into the game.
With this being said, I want to conclude with my personal guidelines what might be helpful when it comes to making a decision on your child’s football future. Without any hesitation, I believe it teaches many valuable traits in young people that can help them to grow in many aspects of their lives. Organized football takes discipline, physical strength, commitment, and plenty of hard work. It is the ultimate team sport where diversity of race, socioeconomic status, size, and athletic ability are all needed to work together to achieve success for the team. Kids that go through years of the rigor of football are going to be better prepared for the rigors of life in my opinion. Does this mean I believe football is for every young man to make him better prepared for life? Absolutely not! The first thing is to make sure the kid has a sincere desire to play. Not only is it physically demanding, but as previously mentioned, football is a game of contact. I have seen many kids that come out for football that are probably there for daddy instead of their own desire to play. When the contact starts, they are often at the wrong end of hits being delivered. This is not only a negative experience for the kid that knows his dad is watching his manhood being demoralized, but it is a frightening experience, knowing he is going to have to take this kind of punishment every day just to please his dad. Rule number one should always be make sure the kid has a sincere desire to play. It is also important to know when your child should start playing football. I don’t think there is anything wrong with starting kids as young as 6 or 7 years old with flag football. Once they start contact football, a lot can depend on their coach. If he’s teaching the kids the fundamentals, and emphasizing having fun and being a part of a team, it can be a great experience. The contact level for kids 8 to 9 is generally light, and serious injuries are very uncommon. If kids really want to play, I believe they should start by at least age 10 or 11. There are definite situations where kids hit growth spurts or are athletically gifted and are urged by the high school coach to try out and have great success. But kids in the 11 to 12-year-old range that have played before are accustomed to the contact and physicality of the game, and this might lead to doubt and tentativeness among an older first-time player.
Football is the Ultimate Team Sport
Hopefully, I have been impartial in my opinions on any decisions or concerns about your child’s participation. As a parent, you know your child better than anyone and his participation should be a decision you are comfortable with and fully support.