This piece has been updated.
Last fall I was tending the chain during a sixth grade travel football game. I watched my son take a hand-off and make a nice gain before being taken down by a dog pile of opposing bodies. When he emerged from the wreckage he seemed a tad off (a parent can tell). His play quality noticeably deteriorated after that, and he seemed bewildered by instructions the coaches were shouting at him from the sidelines.
They took him out of the game after that.
After the game my wife and I learned from the on-field doctor that he’d suffered a concussion. It wasn’t from a helmet-to-helmet collision, which little leagues have banned and officials severely penalize – shoulder tackles are the rule. But rather the back of his head hit the turf with enough force to rattle the brain inside his skull. He was out for a mandatory two weeks after that.
One would think this incident turned me off to youth football but it didn't. I only relay the story so no one can argue: “What if your kid gets trucked, Schaeffer?”
So, with that said, there are several reasons why I not only support youth football, but I whole-heartedly embrace it. In fact, I think Pop Warner, PAL and other such programs across the country are more vital to the United States today than ever before. Here are my reasons:
I hate to lead off with a cliché, but some have genuine validity and this is one of them. Football literally teaches a boy to get back up after being knocked down, brush himself off and move forward. What better life lesson to learn at such an impressionable age? It also teaches him how to win gracefully, lose with dignity, and take instruction and even ridicule.
Teaches Fellowship and Teamwork
This is an era wherein so much of a modern child’s daily activity involves retreating into a private e-world of cell phones, tablets and Xbox. Football forces boys to work together, to constantly communicate, to help one another and, if needed, scorn each other into shape. It teaches them to be part of something bigger than themselves where they must rely on a team effort for success.
This is a self-evident benefit whose importance cannot be overstated. Disicpline is forged in the furnace of the intense conditioning of practice, studying complex plays, suiting up in all weather conditions, and concentrating and focusing during a game. Mastery of self is the first step to mastery of life.
Provides Male Role Models
From my vantage point on the sidelines I could observe coaches interacting with their young players. The styles were different and some were more vocal than others but they all presented a common meme. These were real men teaching boys how to take on life like a man. I have argued that the United States seems to have become more effeminate since the 1940s. Football coaches fulfill a role sorely missing in our society: positive masculine figures for boys to emulate.
Several opponents were from poorer areas of the region and I couldn’t help but admire these teams’ coaches especially. I could tell from the demographics of their parent fans, mostly women, that for some of these boys their coaches were the closest they had to fathers. And they served as excellent role models. They instructed, they encouraged, they comforted, they scorned and disciplined, they demanded respect, and they taught their young charges some of the essentials of honorable manhood.
Promotes Physical Fitness
By the time the season was over, many of the once-paunchy kids were shredded. Their body fat melted away under the relentless assault of a thousand wind-sprints and “gassers.” This alone is reason enough to get kids away from the video screen and onto the practice field.
There is, of course, the threat of injury; concussions especially have received ample press. Although many parents opt to steer their children towards "safer" contact sports like soccer, ice hockey, lacrosse, etc. injuries including concussions are quite prevalent in all youth sports, most notably soccer. Although head injuries may not be so numerous in soccer, they are often more severe. In fact girls’ youth soccer sees more concussions than boys’ youth football. This makes sense when you consider soccer games routinely feature unprotected heads colliding and zooming balls smashing into unguarded faces or exposed heads.
Studies show that number of injuries in youth football stays constant up until eighth grade, after which they spike dramatically in lock-step with puberty. A 90-pound kid has neither the bulk nor the speed to really tee off on an opponent and cause serious injury unless by fluke. And they are encased in advanced padding and space-age helmets that back in my day were only available to the pros. But as one would expect, physics is indifferent and by high school level and above football players are big and fast enough to inflict devastating hits. But this is about youth leagues, not higher level.
To be sure, many of the benefits I attribute to youth football apply to other youth sports as well. But these other sports are not relentless assault in the arena of public opinion … even as football is truly America’s pastime. I played football and am grateful I did. I can still remember the coaches and many of my teammates. I have no doubt that when my father passed just days after I turned 16, the lessons I learned on the football field gave me the moral fortitude to get up, brush myself off, and trot back up to the line of scrimmage and take on sudden adulthood.
We are living in an "Alice In Wonderland" age in which colleges offer “safe spaces” that coddle to the oh-so-delicate sensibilities of a tirelessly whining and self-absorbed generation. We need youth football now more than ever to counter the neutering trends of our emasculated culture. This country must raise some tough hombres to face a complex, competitive and dangerous world. Short of the military there is no better place to prepare a young man for his future role as a steward of our nation and society than the gridiron.
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