In the interest of “full disclosure,” I will be the first to admit I am a “football illiterate.” I know nothing about the game, have never been interested in it, and can count the number of football games I have seen on one hand. Growing up, my family was not sports-minded and the only interest we had in football concerned the Army/Navy game because my father graduated from The Naval Academy. In college, I went to several games—not because I wanted to but it was what my date wanted to do. I hated the cold and the spectacle of men plowing into one another. I am more likely to think the Super Bowl is a kitchen appliance than the culminating event of the professional football season.
Given this background, it may not be surprising to understand my ambivalence when my grandson, Ryan, started to play football. Just because football did not interest me, I did not feel it was necessary to impose my views of the game on Ryan and his parents. He is a member of The Creek Outlaws, a Pop Warner league in Jacksonville, FL. I barely remember his first few seasons—he was so young I probably considered it a “passing phase.” Football started to get my attention in 2012 when The Outlaws did so well they went to the regional playoffs in Orlando, FL. They lost the national championship by 8 points (the score was 8-0). The parents and Outlaws were crushed—they had a great season and came so very close to winning.
Fast forward to 2013, and Ryan, age 11, was a member of The Outlaws for his sixth season. By this time, the publicity concerning the risks of playing football and lawsuits against the NFL for downplaying the dangers of concussions for players had caught my attention. On The Today Show, I watched football star Brett Favre tell Matt Lauer about his memory problems he believed were the result of concussions he had sustained from playing football—he could not remember his daughter playing soccer after an entire season of attending her soccer games. At the time, I rationalized that the health risks Favre was discussing concerned pro football until I heard his words, “If I had a son, I would be real leery of him playing football” because of the physical toll it could possibly take on him.
I wrestled with the question, “What is a grandmother to do???” I have tried to develop a practice of keeping my opinions to myself. I have learned that I have little control over my children and even less control over grandchildren. However, there is an “Unless” category to my general position. My “Unless” category goes like this: If I feel strongly that an activity might endanger a child’s welfare and I would never forgive myself if I said nothing and the child or others suffered as a result, I had better speak up. Thus, my “Unless” category is self-serving—it has more to do with the turmoil and regret I might feel if a tragedy were to occur and I wish I had said something rather than nothing.
I considered the best way to broach a discussion of how safe it was for Ryan to play football with my daughter and used the Brett Favre interview as an opener. It was clear from my daughter’s response that Ryan would continue to play—she explained that since he played center, he was in a much safer position than if he played quarterback. Her response comforted me a little—call it denial or football ignorance. When I repeated her words of comfort to friends they would respond, “Are you crazy??? Playing center can be a very vulnerable position!”
This past season, the Outlaws again performed very well. My daughter kept me up to date on their progress, and once again, they played in the national playoffs for the Pop Warner Football League in Orlando. I watched the game streamed live on my computer through the internet. I must admit I found the experience a little surreal—not only the technology but also watching the Ryan and The Outlaws play in Orlando while I sat at home in Philadelphia. I listened as a professional sportscaster reported the game and talked about the players and my grandson. I learned Ryan was a “snapper” (something I had always thought was a fish choice on a dinner menu). The announcer said Ryan was the youngest member of the team, and at first, they “really didn’t have a role for him.” The team (and Ryan) must have figured it out because according to the announcer, he had not “had a bad snap all year.”
On December 13, 2013, Creek Outlaws won (24-0) the title of the 2013 Pop Warner Super Bowl Division II Champions in the Pee Wee Age Division. I was happy they won and relieved no one was hurt—in my mind, finishing the season with no serious injuries made them all “winners”; the fact that they won was a bonus!
After watching the game, I wondered if I could apply Appreciative Inquiry, a process that focuses on strengths, energy, and interests of what is positive about football (rather than assessing “what’s wrong”). Ryan said he learned about sportsmanship and leadership from playing football. Despite the fact I continue to have strong safety reservations about children playing football, here are additional lessons from “my outlaw” experience I think team members may have learned.
1. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose. We learn a lot from both experiences but winning is more fun.
2. Losing can develop strength, develop resilience, and can make a group more determined. As the announcer for the playoff game said, “When you see a team that comes up short one year, stays together, and then comes back next year, these are the teams you don’t want to be up against.”
3. In any venture, discipline is important. The announcer mentioned that The Creek Outlaws have “such good discipline.” The coach offered the importance of discipline, attitude, and focus—sounds like a winning formula to me!
4. There are times when it does not appear a person will qualify to play in a game but they can surprise you. The son of the Outlaws’ head coach was able to play football even though it appeared for a while that he would not weigh enough. (His son is named “Peyton”—I asked—he was not named after Peyton Manning!).
5. There are times when you show promise but it might not be clear at first what role you will play or how you will best contribute. Hang in there, and allow yourself and others time to figure it out.
6. Football, as most ventures are in life, is a team effort. As The Outlaws’ head coach, Mike Hughes said, “Nobody is the superstar.” There are no stars on the football team and no stars in the coaches—“all checked their egos at the door.” Or, put more succinctly, “There is no “I” in team.”
7. For a team to be successful, it helps for each member to have some “skin” in the game. The announcer reported that “every person touches the ball in this team” and “every player plays a lot.”
8. It helps in life to have people cheer you on. As the announcer commented, “The Outlaws had a phenomenal fan base.”
And what lessons did Grandma learn from football? Once you express your opinion (if you feel it is absolutely necessary to do so), realize you have little control, hope for the best, and celebrate when things go well. Football season is over for this year, and Ryan is now playing basketball. He plays center—and please, if playing center in basketball is dangerous, don’t tell Grandma—she doesn’t want to know!
— Christina Robertson