Some athletes just get it. Some people just know what it felt like “That Day”…
I’ll never forget, far too closely linked to my emotional centres, that day it was all over. Twenty grown men, sitting in a room unwilling to gear down and shower up. Stuck sitting at stalls, no words, tears streaming. Walking out of that same room for the last time with garbage bags over our shoulders wearing the final track suit we’ll be issued and my (all of a sudden, former?) teammate said, “what do we do now that we are civilians?” A question I couldn’t even begin to answer. That day felt like the beginning of the end. If being on a football field is the only thing keeping you from crazy, then when it’s all over it really feels like everything is over. At least a few, if not a hundred times a day I would contemplate if I made the right decision, or should have kept playing. It would drive me to the point where all I wanted to do was sleep, or get in my car and drive to the edge of the earth. I’m guessing it’s common, or at least among my circle because we always joked, “How’s Civilian Life?”
At fourteen in a visit with a Psychologist I was asked “do you feel like this all the time?” I answered, “the only time I don’t is when I’m on a football field”. Athletes, know the cycle from a young age; workout, rest, eat a lot, back to business. Over and over, striving to be the craftsman who stands out. Stands out to coaches; teammates; colleges; pro scouts; and to fans. We make personal sacrifice, after personal sacrifice, for the game we love, to raise our hands in glory if only for moments with our teammates. An immature pursuit of happiness perhaps….
No doubt I have a love hate understanding of the World’s Most Powerful Game. This is highlighted by a message from my mentor, Uncle Mike who played for the storied U of M under the great Bo Schembechler. In giving me advice for training camp he said, “it’s normal to have a headache throughout camp, your head will always hurt, except at the actual point of contact- all the pain goes away when you are actively hitting, don’t worry that’s normal.” This is one of many snippets that lead my mind to love and hate the craziness of this beautiful game.
I played my whole life. It was all I ever wanted to do, so people are surprised when I say I don’t care much for football, watching, or playing. It became about the last thing I wanted, because I felt it would remind me of quitting too soon and everything else that goes along with the love-hate relationship. Most recently, I said I wouldn’t watch Concussion movie. I felt it would bring back sick to the stomach feelings and implicit memories of my own head trauma. But one night the pendulum swung to the love side and so, hesitantly, I watched. It’s easy to look at the warriors in the film and think my God, I will never let my children play football. I was only knocked out twice, that’s not too bad. But what about the everyday grind of 1,400 practices and 175 games? How much an impact has that had on my brain and nervous system? Whatever the answer, It was extremely tough to bear the film, each hit coming back like a fresh smack, but some unexpected thoughts crept in to rival the upsetting feelings. Thoughts alluding to how fortunate, or lucky I am, and a lot of sympathy for those lives lost that were captured in the film. Not in a “better them than me” way, heck I may well have a ton going on in this head that will come crashing down soon, and humbling, that is the part that makes living every day to the fullest that much easier now.
For whatever reason “that day” happened and for the first time in my life, that day started to have a lot less of a depressing effect.
The wives of many players who have felt the full negative force of the game, such as Taz Anderson, stress this love-hate relationship “We love the game so much. We built our life on it. The harder the hit, the more we like it. We have a grandson who plays. After seeing the movie, I should probably call his parents and say he shouldn’t play anymore. But I can’t. Isn’t that awful? I’d rather roll the dice”, or Justin Strzelczyk’s wife saying, “something that brought us such joy and gave us a wonderful life. I don’t think he would have changed it for the world, even today, knowing that he might end up that way. A lot of guys wouldn’t quit. But is it worth it?” Clearly there are two largely oppositional forces at play here, nobody plays the game because it is safe, but they play because they can’t imagine themselves without it.
I wasn’t there, but from what I gather, back in the day Aristotle referenced “happiness,” or eudaimonia. as what we might consider a final goal, encompassing a totality of vitality, not something gained or lost in hours, like sensations. It is the ultimate measure, in your final moments, of how well you lived up to your full potential as a human being. For this reason, one cannot truly make any pronouncement about whether one has lived a eudaimonia’s life, until the game is completely over. With this in mind, as sign ups for youth football are around the corner, let’s think of all the reasons why so many are willing to die for this game and the great things football did for my brain.
When we send our kids to play football we expect their teachers to demonstrate head fake learning about life, learning and leadership. Sure they learn to throw, catch and hit, but more important is learning in the deepest sense about; relational trust;, self sacrifice; goal setting; commitment; perseverance and on and on. While I gave up on playing professionally, I know I gained more career capital from almost making it than I have from anything else in life. It is incredible how this game prepared me for a life of leadership in education by teaching me to worry solely about the process, not the results. Whenever something “crazy” happens in my life, people say things like “you always take things in stride”, or “you are always so calm”. I know now more than ever, this is a learned skill. Take for example an irate parent coming storming into your office to complain about something surrounding their child. If you have ever returned the season opening kick off into the heart of 12 animals, who trained as hard as they could for the past 11 months to be able to destroy you, then you know how to rise up to true challenge. An appreciation for change and resiliency is embedded in the fact you must always have the greatest plan, all the while prepared for when one of your teammates, or better yet 10 of them go down with injuries and you have to fill those spots. A full understanding of what it means to learn is the most valuable asset of a football player, not only for studying mountainous playbooks, but also for receiving constant feedback and being expected to change immediately. Having the metacognition to understand strengths, weaknesses and next steps for yourself is the only way to get to the next level. Finally observing coaches who give up on players and no longer correct them for doing something poorly remind me that I need to seek relentless constructive criticism as early as possible to push me to be the best I can be.
This may hit home with some who didn’t play, but empathy can be tough when it is simply impossible to put yourself in other’s shoes. That said, some people “just get it”. Life is a series of games and hopefully a long career, where sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes you win and so the pattern goes. Results are determined, not exclusively by your effort but by a concoction of one part preparation, one part resiliency, two parts external factors and a dash of what others try to do. But the bottom line is, if you can, you play. It is easy to think this madness should be put to an end and let’s face it, we saw the extinction of Roman Gladiators and perhaps the role of the football will the the same fate one day. Before autopsy, no one will know the physical souvenirs in my head, but I do know the game made me the person I am today. Was it worth it…?