My son Grant is naturally athletic and not even remotely interested in team sports. When asked if he wanted to play baseball he answered, "There's nothing about baseball that I find impressive." He likes running races and just completed his first triathlon, but spends most of his time playing guitar, skateboarding or building with Legos. That is until two weeks ago when he started football. Apparently football is impressive to Grant because he was stoked to be old enough to play. And this is the real deal - helmets, pads, drills, coaches barking orders and players screaming back.
Football camp preceded the start of the season and covered a wide age range from 3rd through 8th grade. When we arrived at the field on Monday morning, it was dotted with boys in various shapes and sizes. Footballs whizzed past our head and Grant nervously took it all in. When the coach blew the whistle, I slapped Grant on the butt and told him to hustle to join his teammates. As he jogged off, long blonde hair bouncing with each step, I felt a lump start gathering in the back of my throat.
The girls played in the dirt of the baseball field while I lingered and eaves-dropped on my son's first experience with organized sports. The coach started laying the ground work and it sounded a bit like this: "When a coach gives you an order, you say 'Yes Sir.' Got it?"
A crowd of 200 boys barked back, "Yes Sir!"
Coach continued, "You do what we ask, when we ask. No complaining. No talking back or you'll be running lines. And I don't want to hear anyone talking trash. None of that 'Ha ha! You missed that ball. You're such an idiot' or any of that kind of stuff. If I catch you talking trash, you'll be running lines. We only encourage out here. If someone misses a pass, you say, 'That's okay man. You'll get the next one.' Am I clear?"
A crowd of 200 boys barked back, "Yes Sir."
Oh goodness. The lump was turning to tears that threatened to spill past my sunglasses and down my cheeks. "Please God," I prayed, "help me not be the mom who dissolves into a pile of tears on the sideline. For my sake and for Grant's." I opted to ditch before I became a blubbering fool and as the girls and I walked slowly away, I heard that crowd of boys chanting, "1-2-3-4" as they did jumping jacks and burpees.
We arrived a little early to pick Grant up from camp. The boys were huddled up while Coach revisited the events of the day and told them what to expect for the next day. He cleared the huddle with one last exercise - running to the fence way in the distance and back. 200 boys took off running as fast as they could. Grant arrived huffing and puffing back to Coach somewhere in the middle of the pack and I couldn't have been prouder.
As Coach called the group in for one last team chant, he noticed a straggler. Young, overweight and not athletic, the poor boy was just reaching the fence and hadn't even started heading back yet. His face dejected, he looked like he was about to quit and my heart sank for him. How do you live that down? Being the last player to finish by boatloads on the first day? He looked like he may not come back for day two.
What happened next was not what I expected. Coach called out, "Hey. We've got one last guy who's still out. Let's bring him in guys." All 200 of those boys turned and saw their wounded teammate. Instead of heckling him, they all started cheering for him. Shouts of "C'mon man. You got it. You can do it" echoed across the field.
Tears streamed down my face as I watched this kid transform before my eyes. He lifted his dejected face and his eyes lit up. His head held high, shoulders squared, he ran back to his teammates as fast as his chubby legs would carry him. Across the field he ran and into the huddle where he got pounded on the back and praised for his good hustle.
Without his teammates, he never would have known just how capable he was. Of being a finisher, even when it hurts. What could have crippled his football career before it even got started became a defining moment for this kid. I witnessed the power of encouragement in this boy's life and I gotta agree with Grant. Football is impressive.