Dustin likes football.
Dustin likes watching football.
Dustin likes that our sons play football.
But Dustin especially likes watching me watch our boys play football. It has become a sport, of sorts, all its own.
This year Ford, 9, started playing tackle (as opposed to flag) football. Nothing prepares a mother for seeing her son, who still seems small and sensitive in so many ways (to her, at least), dressed in gear intentionally meant to make him look like a Transformer — or, OK, maybe an armadillo. The shoulder pads nearly swallow his head and neck. The padded leggings look like a fat suit. And then there is that bit about him needing a cup. (“Why doesn’t he just use a water bottle like me?” Owen asked.)
My first concern was Ford’s teeth, and in particular, his front teeth. Ford is not short on front teeth. He gets them — large, square, nearly perfect — from his dad. So it was only natural that Dustin be the one to figure out the whole mouth guard thing. Apparently they boiled the plastic and stuck it in Ford’s mouth. I couldn’t watch. But when they were done, I was relieved to see that Ford had what looked like a large, plastic orange protruding from his lips.
“Ind a eels ike a inky,” he said through the glob in his mouth.
“He said it ‘kind of feels like a binky,’” Owen said. And then: “And his pants make it look like he’s wearing a diaper.”
Ford took the mouth guard out and said, “Nothing brings you back to being a baby like playing football.”
I considered that for a moment and silently disagreed. Underneath all that gear and padding, my child definitely did not look like the baby I gave birth to.
I missed the first few practices, partly because I had other obligations, but mostly because I was afraid to see what would happen to my son when other kids, many of them bigger (and made even more so with padding of their own) piled on top of him like a stack of pancakes. When I did venture to one of the practices, I made myself busy talking to other mothers.
One night, however, it was inescapable. I had a front-row seat to tackling practice, and there was nowhere to hide, especially because Dustin was standing beside me saying, “Oh, this should be fun to watch, you watching him.”
The team was doing drills. First it was one-on-one blocking. Two padded kids stood in front of each other, and after a countdown from the coach, they pushed one another until there was just one left standing. This is not unlike what happens on a daily basis in our backyard. When our boys play tackle at home, however, there is comfort in the fact that they are relatively the same size. Most boys on the football team are twice as big as Ford. And that’s without the padding.
The first pairing that I witnessed involved one very large boy and another one who looked to be the same size as Ford. When the coach’s whistle blew, the smaller boy charged forward and immediately ran into the larger boy like a bird smacking against a glass window. He was catapulted through the air in one ungraceful arch, and he landed on his back with a thud.
“Seriously,” I said, turning to Dustin. “You’re going to stand there and let our son do this?”
Next the coach picked Ford out of the group of boys. He handed Ford the ball and designated him the Runner.
“Oh, no,” I whispered.
The coach selected three other players (did I mention that they all looked much bigger than my son?) and lined them up opposite Ford.
“Oh, dear …” I saw what was about to happen, as if in slow motion.
The three “linemen” (as Dustin called them) hunched down until their shoulder pads touched their ears.
“I can’t watch …”
Dustin turned to our friend Bill, who had just walked up, and said, “Get a load of her [meaning me] watching them [the boys].”
The coach counted down from three.
When the whistle blew, Ford ran with the ball. The three players met him halfway. Ford spun around and hugged the ball to his chest. His face clipped the side of one player’s shoulder pads. And what happened next can only be described by its noises: plastic smashing against plastic, groaning, helmet hitting helmet. The four boys collapsed into a heap on the grass.
Dustin and Bill clearly were enjoying the spectacle. They verbally cheered while simultaneously exerting no physical action of their own. They were pleased with the results.
Meanwhile, I nearly bit through my bottom lip with agony and pain. And then I realized, maybe youth football really is like having babies.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at email@example.com.