By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
It looked bad. The 13-year-old QB clutched his right wrist, the one connected to his throwing hand. He seemed to be in more than great pain; he looked terrified.
The Plantation Wildcats were already down 7-0 to the Pembroke Pines Optimist Bengals in a big semifinal game. We really couldn't afford to have our quarterback coming up from the bottom of the pile screaming. One of our well-weathered coaches got a look at his mangled bones and came back to the sideline muttering, "Oh, that's ugly."
We didn't know it then, but he had broken both wrists. His right one was crushed so badly that it required surgery.
The gruesome injury was soon forgotten; there was still a game to be played. And it wasn't long before the Bengals were chewing through our defense again, running the ball almost at will. I was standing at ground zero. As a member of the so-called chain gang, I held the yard marker on the sidelines, trudging off four or five yards at a pop. My son, a defensive lineman wearing number 35, was also on the sideline, watching.
That familiar tension and anger started to rise in me. Why wasn't 35 getting a chance? The previous season, one that saw Plantation lose a heartbreaker in the Super Bowl to Weston, he was named the team's defensive lineman of the year. This season, the kid had been relegated to the sidelines, deemed too small for the position by the coach who'd taken over the D-line.
Now, with the season slipping away and a return to the Super Bowl in doubt, the defensive line was getting rolled over again. We needed a spark. I thought we could use 35.
I might have been wrong. I have the disease, after all. That's what Plantation's defensive coordinator, Coach Joe, sometimes calls football. A disease. The former University of Florida linebacker says it mostly in a positive sense but also as a way to describe the game's inexorable hold on people, for good and ill.
And this game — hell, this whole season — was decidedly ill.
All of the frustration that had been building during the past several weeks was coming to a head.
"When this thing is over, I'm gonna raise hell," I said out loud while staring out at the field, not sure whether my fellow chain-gangers heard it.
I was becoming one of them, one of those angry and insufferable football dads. I was fully aware that this was a kid's game, that it really wasn't my call. But it didn't matter. I knew the scenario was absurd just as surely as I knew I was going to blow up.
There was still time. The D-line coach could see the light. The stars could suddenly realign. The game might turn around.
The disease, though, was telling me it would never happen. It was in control now, and it was causing me to forget one very important human being.
You should understand that I never wanted my son to play in the first place. I steered him toward sensible athletic pursuits, like baseball and soccer. Hell, I'd have chosen badminton over football.
The baseball and soccer thing worked for a few years; the kid enjoyed and occasionally excelled at those sports. He never so much as asked about football. But around the fourth grade, the questions started coming. He'd hear my dad talk about my youthful exploits and say, "Football? I want to play."
I told him I wouldn't be party to it. He said he'd get signed up anyway. I told him good luck.
Well, it was in the summer before his sixth-grade year that he signed up to play for the Plantation Wildcats. His accomplice was none other than his mother. My wife.
So I drove him to his first tryout and, in the car, noticed he was wearing baseball pants. I just laughed. Cute kid had no idea what he was getting into. Might not even make the team.
Florida, after all, is one of the nation's hotbeds of gridiron talent, and this was the American Youth Football League, rightly considered one of the strongest youth organizations for the sport in the country. It's a travel league that stretches from north Miami-Dade to Boca Raton. In all, 14 towns field 98 teams, from 8-year-olds in the pee-wee division to high-school-aged players. The AYFL is only 12 years old, but already it has a slew of former players in the college ranks, and a few have made the NFL, including Jon Beason, a first-round pick for Carolina in the 2007 draft.
As we pulled up to the practice field, I knew it was a serious league, just not quite how serious. Both Coach Joe and the head coach had played college ball, and both were greatly committed to the team. It had a bit of a militaristic feel to it. Two of the other coaches were cops.
It wouldn't be easy for my son. He was one of the smallest boys in the tryouts. It was the 95-pound team (which means that no player can weigh more than that). He scaled in at about 77.