Why did I play football in junior high and high school?
Sometimes I think back to those days more than four decades ago and ask myself that question.
My first thought is, I did it because I have always loved the game. But you can love a game without playing it. In fact, I get a lot of enjoyment these days watching someone else play football.
There were reasons other than liking the game to play football — and more than a few reasons not to.
Football’s a rough sport with lots of contact. The hard hits often hurt; you get lots of bumps, scrapes and bruises. Sometimes you receive concussions. Sometimes worse than that.
A few of my buddies got broken bones playing football. One of them ended up in a leg brace, crippled for life. Another hurt his knee so badly he needed major, season-ending surgery.
The game is going to hurt you. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. You know that from the outset. Whether or not it cripples you depends on a roll of the dice.
Another reason not to play football is that it’s very uncomfortable.
Your ankles are taped for support, you stick a molded piece rubber in your mouth to protect your teeth and you wear uncomfortable pads and a helmet — and let’s not forget the important, well-placed “cup” — to provide at least some measure of protection.
Then you practice and play in that getup in all sorts of weather conditions. I remember being so dry during some hot summer practices and a few games that I couldn’t even spit. And back then — in the pre-Gatorade ’60s — the infrequent squirt of liquid we were allowed was saltwater.
It’s not just hot weather a football player has to contend with. There’s bone-chilling cold late in the season, rain and sometimes snow. If you’re really unlucky, you get all of the above at the same time.
No, I didn’t play football in grades 8 through 12 because I got a kick out of getting hurt or being uncomfortable.
I did it for other reasons:
1) Being on the football team was the cool thing to do back then. I hope it still is but somehow I doubt it. Back then you were part of the “in crowd” if you were a jock, even if you weren’t a star player. In high school I couldn’t wait to get a letter sweater and wear it proudly on game days.
2) All of my close friends played football. I was with these guys in class and in our free time. I wanted to share the experiences as well when they played sports.
3) I liked being part of a team. I still do. You work together, you laugh together and you cry together. Sure, you depend on your own skills to succeed when you’re on a team, but you also depend on the skills of your teammates. Football, more than some other sports, is a team effort; it takes 11 people on offense and 11 on defense doing their jobs if they’re to have any hope of winning the game.
4) I wanted to please my dad and make him proud of me. My dad, H. Raymond Roberts, never told me I had to go out for football or even that he wanted me to.
But I knew he hoped that I would. “Have you gotten an invitation to join the team?” he’d ask early each summer, before practices started.
Dad always wanted to play sports when he was growing up but wasn’t allowed to. He grew up during the Great Depression and its aftermath. His family was poor and had no medical insurance. His parents were afraid he’d get hurt.
So Dad really enjoyed watching my brother Bruce and I play sports. He was probably the best fan any football player could have. He’d often stop by practice to watch on his way home from work, and he never missed a home game even though I spent plenty of time on the bench some seasons.
I did provide him a few moments of pride like my sons have done for me since then. In eighth grade, the first time I got my hands on the ball, I scored a touchdown. I was a fullback, albeit a short, skinny one, and I more or less fell into the end zone from a few yards out. Though he later joked that I had tripped over my own feet, Dad thought a star had been born. Sadly, he was wrong.
My next few minutes of fame didn’t come until my sophomore year in high school. I was on defense playing a linebacker position when the ball suddenly appeared over head and sailed right into my arms.
I put the ball on my chest and covered it with both arms like Dad had taught me to do to avoid fumbling, and took off. I got to about the 20 yard line of the opposition before someone on the offense caught me from behind and brought me to the ground hard.
The tackle “knocked the wind out of me,” as they say, because I was already out of breath from running and fell on the ball when I hit the ground. But I’d intercepted a pass, something I never thought I’d accomplish. And for a few fleeting minutes, though gasping for air, I felt like a hero.
Moments like that when all’s right with the world are a guy’s reward for going out for football.
Copyright 2009, by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.