I have an old friend from high school, M., who has made a complete success of his life but still likes to joke (well, half-joke maybe) about his one paramount regret: that he never went out for the high school football team. M. ran the high-hurdles in school and he was tall and fast, and one day the football coach saw him and, figuring he would make wide-receiver material, asked him to come out for the team. But M. declined. And 25 years later, we’re still talking about that moment as if it was the pivotal one in his life.
“Yeah, I could have been one of the great ones,” he’ll say in a mock-tragic tone borrowed from melodramas about dissipated ex-boxers. He’s joking, I know, but he’s been making the joke for a couple decades now, which makes me think there may be some substantial regret beneath the joke.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot now that A.J.’s flag football season, his first in organized football, is over. It was, for me, a strange, exhausting, often exasperating and ultimately wonderful experience. For A.J., I think, it was just wonderful.
Trying to teach a bunch of six-year-olds to play football—or even getting them to sit still and listen for a few seconds—was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done. It leaves me with a whole new level of respect for teachers who have to work with these kids every day. But I’m also very glad I volunteered to help coach because it gave me a chance to watch A.J. fall in love with football.
We had a little end-of-season pizza party for the kids a while back. J., the other coach, gave awards to all the kids; A.J. won the Most Valuable Player award. J. also had the kids present me with a football that they had all signed. It was one of the nicest presents I’ve ever received and I was completely taken by surprise. I loved that all the signatures were in their scrawly first-grade handwriting and they all wrote their jersey numbers next to their names, just like little pros who are used to working the trading-card show autograph circuit. So I’ve got this ball in my office now and it means an awful lot to me.
I got to know some of the dads a little (I’m convinced that the fact that A.J. turned out to be such a good player earned me some kind of social capital) and I was especially impressed with J., the coach, a former free safety at Michigan State who turned out to be a very sweet guy. A funny thing happened in the second week of the season. A.J. had two really impressive touchdown runs in that week’s game and all through the next practice J. kept calling him “Wheels.” I could tell A.J. loved it, too. Well, the next week, A.J. scored two touchdowns again, but J. just called him by his name at the next practice. So when we got home, A.J. says to me—not sadly, just matter-of-factly—“Coach didn’t call me Wheels this week.”
So the next time I saw J., I told him this story about what A.J. had said to me—just because I thought it was cute and funny—and for the rest of the season, he never once called my son anything but Wheels.
Wheels is absolutely football crazy now, by the way. We just got back from a week at his grandmother’s house, including a 16-hour drive, and he spent just about every spare minute asking me to toss him the football we brought with us. We played catch with that ball in Interstate rest stops in seven different states.
And already A.J. is asking about next season. He wants to play in the tackle league, with full pads and full contact. I’ve written before about my ambivalence about kindergarten kids playing competitive football: It just seems like too much too soon. (Let’s not even start the discussion of the way they turn the kindergarten girls into cheerleaders.) But first- and second-graders playing tackle football seems even more extreme somehow.
Why this mania for accelerating all the experiences of childhood? For guys like my friend M., not going out for high school football could seem like something approaching a life-altering decision. Maybe for A.J. and kids his age, the decision to go out or not go for 80-pound pee wee football in second grade will one day seem just as momentous. But I can't imagine a better season--one more full of gifts--than the one Wheels and I had this year.