The Lost Season

They were cheering for me. For hurting this little kid. Grown adults.

I had a kind of eerie out-of-body experience; there was something deeply wrong with this scene. Then I went back to playing the game.

The following season, I signed on with a travel team, the Eastern Eagles in Louisville, Kentucky. I played end on both sides of the ball and filled in as backup quarterback. We won the city championship, and I made the league's All-Star team. It was a Top Ten moment of my life.

The writer's son, number 35, waits by his coach in hopes of playing time that doesn't come.
The writer's son, number 35, waits by his coach in hopes of playing time that doesn't come.
AYFL parents inevitably become passionate fans.
Laura Massa
AYFL parents inevitably become passionate fans.

But my dream of playing in the NFL began to die around the seventh grade while I was playing middle-school ball. In my last game that season, against archrival East Middle, I was starting as a flanker back. The coach kept running me up the middle into East's beefy line. Then he'd run our tailback, Brian Walker, on the sweeps, with me as lead blocker. At least twice, I led Walker into the end zone in what was a lopsided victory. I kept waiting for my sweep, my touchdown, but it never came.

The truth was, though, that Walker was faster than I, and the coach planned to use me as a workhorse the next season. I didn't want to be a workhorse.

Plus, I was banged up. I'd had knee and back injuries that sometimes had me walking like John Wayne. The game steals your grace. Of course, boys don't necessarily want grace. They want toughness. And it gives you that.

I'm sure I could have been a decent high school player, but college ball was probably out of reach. At the beginning of the next season, a friend came by to pick me up for the first practice. I was playing with other friends and, surprising even myself, I told him to go on without me.

For years after that, the disease was kept at bay. It no longer infected my soul. I thought I'd broken it.

Then came my son and the AYFL. Remission was over.

Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing.

Vince Lombardi popularized that little idiom — and the sentiment behind it pervades the AYFL like a virus.

Don't get me wrong. The league is in many ways a wonder. The amount of work and time put in by the coaches and kids is nothing short of staggering. Fifteen hours a week on average from the kids, a lot more than that from the best coaches.

The problem, perhaps, is that it is too good. The NFL is one thing; a bunch of kids trying to learn the game is another. The desire to win is palpable, sometimes stifling, and can get downright ugly.

In most youth sports, you have at least a bit of a rotation; in the AYFL, that magnanimous idea often flies out the window. And it can drive those left out of the action to distraction.

During one game between Plantation and Boca Raton, I witnessed one father lose it. His son sat on the Boca bench.

"Put my son in! I paid for him to play, and he's going to play! He never plays!"

He called for a league rep and complained nonstop for the entire second quarter of the game. "This is not right!" he yelled over and over. "I paid the money. My son should play."

When the half was over, he called for the coach, who refused to talk with him. I can't begrudge the coach for that; the guy was off the chain. He had the disease.

The coaches have it worst of all. I can't tell you how many full-grown men I've seen screaming — I mean screaming — at little kids until their faces turn beet red and you're sure a blood vessel is about to burst. It's sometimes suspenseful to watch, because a lot of these men are former players who have transformed over the years into overweight potential heart attack victims.

On rare occasions, I've seen coaches manhandle players. I once saw an enraged coach grab a 12-year-old on the sideline during a game and jack him up to face level in anger. AYFL, meet Woody Hayes.

During another game, two coaches, on the same team no less, screamed and cursed at each other. It was a miracle they didn't come to blows; the whole scene played out in front of their astonished players.

Another common vice you see in the AYFL is gloating after winning. Once, after scoring against us, the West Pines team lost its collective mind in a glaring show of stupidity. A bunch of the players and even a coach or two ran halfway across the field to taunt our team.

Last year, the same West Pines team put a highlight video on YouTube that included an opposing team's running back suffering a knee injury. It shows the player writhing on the ground and then cuts to the boy being led off the field. The team not only glorifies the worst part of the game but mocks an injured child in the process.

And yet, they pretend they're teaching the players how to be good "young men." Sure.

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