My son Rafael finished up his freshman year JV football season with a mild concussion and a triumphant 42-19 loss against Kennedy. He declared it a great game because, head injury aside, he got a lot of playing time, plus it was the smallest point gap the Albany JV Cougars enjoyed all year long (outside of one fluke victory early in the season).
Naturally my wife Linda flipped out over the mild concussion – the term used by the team trainer – and promised Rafael he would never play football again. But Rafael kept his cool. The season was over anyway, and he knows his mom. If he just didn’t faint or his eyes didn’t roll back in his head for the next day or two, she would back off and he’d be suiting up again next fall.
I was thrilled with the Cougars’ 1-9 season. It wasn’t the score lines, of course, which did it. What did thrill me – the thing I am truly grateful for – and proud of – was Rafael’s enthusiasm and refusal to become demoralized.
After Friday night’s final game, I asked him how he kept up his morale. “I didn’t care about losing or winning. I just cared about getting to play.” I asked him what he liked best about playing football. “It’s funner than baseball or soccer or tennis, because I know the kids on the team from class. It’s not just a bunch of random kids.”
When I pressed him a little further, he also said that he loved the rough contact and the fact that, as a noseguard and left tackle on a crummy team, he didn’t need to be that fast. And, like his father, Rafael is not terribly fast or coordinated. The second time he broke his ankle was chasing his little brother down the front lawn and tripping over his own feet.
When Rafael came home one afternoon in late summer and announced he was going to play football, I was floored. Pleasantly so. He’d be getting some much needed exercise, but, more importantly, HE came up with the idea. This was all him. Over the course of his fourteen years, my wife and I had made him try soccer, baseball, swimming and tennis, but we had never so much as mentioned football. He did it because one of his friends, Brandon, was going out for football. Fate, unfortunately, had other plans for Brandon: he tore a knee ligament in practice before the Cougars got to play their first game. He was out for the season, but Rafael decided to plow on.
And it must’ve been hard to plow on after defeats that ranged from 37-0 to 47-0, and – perhaps a JV record, 73-0 – not basketball, friends, football.
But plow on he did. The only time I ever saw him upset was after a game against Piedmont, not because they lost, but because his coach sidelined him for missing one practice that week. He came home after the game with tears in his eyes. He wasn’t hungry for dinner. His voice cracked as he told me how the coach waved him off.
Uncomfortably I told him I hoped he knew how proud I was of him. Uncomfortably he nodded, just this side of imperceptibly.
He never missed another practice, not even after the crushing 73-0 blowout, when half the team didn’t bother to show up for Monday’s practice.
I loved seeing Rafael come home tired and exhilarated after practice, sweaty hair still clinging to his forehead. I loved seeing him wear his jersey to class on Friday game days. I loved him showing off his bruises to me – half dollar size welts up and down his arms. I loved sitting on the uncomfortable metal bleachers and watching him, the bright fall sun glancing off the benches and warming my face. I loved the little football brochure they published, with the players portraits, my son scowling into the camera. (the team voted on whether or not to smile for their portraits – “not smiling” won by a landslide, which suited my son’s metalhead personality to a T).
I looked at that picture closely – the little shadow of a moustache over his upper lip, his high cheekbones, the well formed nose – and pronounced him handsome.
I asked him what the highlight of the season was. The game against St. Mary’s, he answered, because he didn’t think he’d get to play at all. He hadn’t missed any practices since the one, but he had forgotten his helmet in his locker that day, and it was an away game. But fortunately not that far away – just about 10 minutes across town. Rafael had specifically asked my wife and I not to attend his away games – I didn’t bother asking why “home” was acceptable but “away” wasn’t – I just put it under the “your-very-existance-is-a-source-of-unspeakable-embarrassment-to-me” umbrella.
We respected his request.
But now he needed us.
He called his mom and she rushed his helmet out to him. Not only did he get to play, but, due to injury and other kids being pulled off the team for low grades, he got to start on both offense and defense.
His team mates nicknamed him “Satan.” He’s not any more evil than any other hormonally roiled 14 year old, but as I say, he’s a metalhead and his jersey number was 66.
I encouraged him to make a third “six” out of duct tape and put it on his jersey, but he declined.
He prided himself on never puking in practice. Other kids did, even better players like Max. But, as Rafael put it, “he ate stupid stuff before practice – burgers, buffalo wings, crap like that.” Can you not just see that frontal cortex maturing before your eyes? Synapses firing as he links actions with consequences (greasy fast food + practice 20 minutes later = much hurling). Love it.
I asked him if his coach had given him any words of wisdom that he might remember and carry forth in life. Rafael thought it over. “Yeah,” he said, “Coach Massa told us ‘No John Madden bullshit’ after we did a center run against varsity in practice. It got us a touchdown, but Massa made us run ‘gassers’ afterwards.”
Gassers are the wind sprints dreaded by all players, the type of thing which led to poor Max spewing buffalo wing mulch.
As a precaution, my wife woke him up at 3 am the night of his mild concussion, just to make sure he hadn’t died. He hadn’t. The next morning, though, when we asked him to walk the dog, he deferred, claiming his concussion left him a bit woozy and light headed.
Love that kid. Can’t wait for next fall!