Waking up on a cool fall Friday morning still gives me chills. I still get excited walking to class when the brisk wind is rustling the autumn trees. Whenever the weather is warm and I walk by a turf field, the distinct rubber smell somehow finds my nose, taking me back every time without failure. Every once in a while, it will spark a text message to an old friend or an old coach. It reminds me of memories and lessons I’ve stored in my head that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
As Chris Borland, the former San Francisco 49er, retired recently citing future health as the reason, I knew it would add to the controversy on the topic of football. I cringed. Did I cringe because it could lead to more attacks on the game I grew up playing? Of course. Did it make me cringe because my brother is a Division 1 football player who has been playing the game at a high level for almost as long as Borland? Perhaps. Did I cringe because my Saturdays and Sundays in the fall and beginning of winter often revolve around the sport? Absolutely. But I mostly cringed because I know what the game has brought me, and what the game has brought many others, without many downsides at all.
I started playing football when I was in 2nd grade. Every Friday, I wore my jersey to school. This continued until my junior year of high school when I stopped playing. Every day that goes by, I think about that decision, and whether or not it was the right one. Here are the things I learned and gained from the game of football that outsiders may not understand, and that is okay. I learned to work hard in football. I didn’t learn work ethic in the classroom. My parents preached about hard work in my household, but only football showed me hard work. At a young age I had already learned to test my limits both mentally and physically. I credit my work ethic in college to football, from staying up late studying to get an A on an exam or to waking up early on minimal hours of sleep to work out. In an era where hard work seems to be less and less valued, football put me on a path to pursuing success.
Race relations are in the news daily. Constantly people are wondering how we can coexist in a society that struggles to see beyond skin color sometimes. It’d be wonderful if we lived in a place like Martin Luther King Jr. once described, “little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” I can recall walking out on numerous occasions to midfield as a captain, holding the hands of my fellow teammates, some white and some black. I created lifelong friendships with kids that I may have never of had the opportunity of getting to know otherwise. In football practices, race never mattered to any of us. We were teammates, a bunch of guys working through late practices together, fantasizing about going home to drink some ice-cold water and have a nice meal. Without football, I wouldn’t have had that special bond with so many different kinds of people who I may not have had the chance to associate myself with in a different setting. The diversity of my football teams throughout my childhood and high school career would be a sight to see for any social reformer. This often goes unnoticed; football presents a field of equality and diversity when other places don’t.
Sure, the NFL may be dangerous for longtime participators. I am certainly not here to deny that. However, the game has gotten safer and safer throughout history. There is no question in my mind this trend will continue. From experience, no one is moving fast enough or colliding hard enough at a younger age in order to create some of these more brutal injuries you see at the higher levels. When I saw John Harbaugh’s recent release of a piece he wrote on “Why Football Matters” I agreed with everything he said. However, I thought a view from a person who doesn’t rely on football as a source of income may be more valid. From the outside looking in, it is so much harder to see the good in football. Injuries are open to the public eye, bonds created and lessons learned are not. Football to me meant opportunity. An opportunity to challenge myself mentally, physically, and socially on a daily basis. I played many sports growing up, baseball and basketball to name a few. None had a greater effect on the way I live my life today than football. I know others feel the same way, and that is what inspired me to write this.
I could go on and on about why some of us need football, but I certainly wanted to focus on a few points. Often, fighting for football can come off as selfish. Yes, we all love watching football games with our family and friends on the weekend. We don’t want that to go away. We also don’t want good leadership and teamwork to go away. Tell me ten professions where leadership and teamwork aren’t valued and required, and I’ll tell you you’re a liar. Is football the only place where these qualities can be achieved or learned? No. Is it an affordable, enjoyable, and effective one available to hundreds and thousands of kids across the nation? Yes. There is no worse feeling than the day you don’t have football to go to anymore, and instead of being happy to be done with the grueling practices, you are overwhelmed with sadness that you won’t compete with your teammates that day. There is not better feeling than being under the hot sun and hearing the words “Water break!” Those memories won’t be taken away from me, even if football is.
Football is like life – it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority.