The Lost Season
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.
But he immediately showed aptitude for the sport. He was very quick and had a love of contact. He wasn't loud about it and wasn't overly aggressive; he just had this almost eerie comfort on the field. I was astonished at how he could take down much bigger and more experienced players.
Early on in his playing days, though, he got a glimpse of the dark side of the sport. During practice, he went head-to-head, literally, with another player who happened to be a longtime friend. The hit left the other boy writhing and crying on the ground. He'd suffered a tiny crack in a neck bone. He sat out three or four weeks as it healed.
Both learned that day to keep their heads up when hitting.
The coaches dumped 35 in the pool of defensive linemen. Obviously, he was undersized for that position, which is generally occupied by behemoths. But soon, he was starting games, making plays, doing what football players do. He registered a number of sacks, but his real specialty, in my opinion, was stopping the run. He plugged his gap with the best of them.
That year ended with a first-round playoff loss to a team from the south Broward town of Pasadena Lakes. Afterward, the coaches gave him the "Most Improved Player" trophy. It boded well for his future on the team.
Early on in that 2007 season, Coach Joe would point him out at practice and talk about how he was proof that heart and will was all that mattered in this sport. He wasn't a star, just solid, a blue-collar player who did his job and never stopped.
The team overcame a so-so start and by midseason came together to become a powerhouse in the league with a 7-3 record. The year didn't end, though, without a couple more visits from the disease.
We beat Boca Raton in the first round of the playoffs but not before the head coach's son, a bruising fullback, suffered a broken leg on a brutal hit. He made it with considerable help to the bench, but paramedics had to load him into the ambulance on a stretcher.
The next week, we faced West Pines, which was riding a monumental 37-game winning streak that included two straight Super Bowl wins.
We had the upper hand 11-6 in the fourth quarter when Pines began trying to mount a comeback drive. On a big fourth-down play, the West Pines quarterback dropped back to pass. Flying at him was 35. The quarterback flung the ball just before the collision. One of our players — the very same kid who'd suffered that neck injury the year before — made an interception. Though my son had done the hitting, this time it was 35 who rose up in terrible pain.
As the offense took the field, he walked over to me in the stands.
"My back," he said, tears streaking down his field-worn face. "It hurts."
He'd forgotten to keep his head up. He didn't go back into the game, a classic that ended 11-6. The West Pines streak was over, and we were going to the Super Bowl. The team was elated, but 35 could barely get around. That week, the doctor informed us that he'd cracked a couple of small bones in his lower back called phalanges. Thankfully, there wasn't much risk of longtime ill effects from the injury, but it would hurt like crazy for a month or two.
Football was, of course, out of the question. Yet he insisted on dressing for a practice, even though he couldn't play.
We lost the Super Bowl the next week to Weston by one touchdown. The winning drive included a crucial defensive offside penalty, and the touchdown run came through a gaping hole on what would have been 35's side of the line.
Despite the injury, destiny seemed to point to the idea that next year would be the year this Plantation team took the title.
Of course, I was sold completely now; my misgivings about him playing football had vanished. It took me back to my playing days, made me wish I hadn't quit so soon and could play again. Was I reliving the sport through my son? Of course I was.
Yes, the disease was flourishing after a long remission, and it made me think back almost three decades to a patch of grass a thousand miles away.
I was 10 years old and playing defensive end, my whole being focused on the quarterback standing behind the line. The kid was small, but he was supposed to be a hotshot. I wasn't sure why, but I desperately wanted to crush him.
It was early in the game when it happened. He tried to run the ball around the tackle — right into my wheelhouse. I had a perfect bead on him. Like all hellacious hits, it felt like slow motion. I flew into him with everything I had. It seemed like he started screaming before he hit the ground.
He thought (wrongly) that his ribs were broken. I got up and let out a primal yell. My teammates ran over to me for congratulations. I looked into the stands, and all the parents were cheering wildly, louder than the screams of the boy beneath me.
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.
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.
The Pembroke Pines Optimist Bengals, another powerhouse program, has had a nasty habit of running up the score at the end of games. Last year, they were beating us in a hard-fought game by two scores with less than a minute left. All they had to do was let the clock wind down. Instead, they faked a run and threw a bomb for a last-second touchdown to widen the margin. The same team did it again this season to Boca Raton.
Then there's Weston. This year, in a rematch of the previous season's Super Bowl, we turned the table on the Warriors and gave them a good drubbing. In the second half, with the game out of reach, the tone turned ugly. The Weston coaches screamed bloody murder from the sidelines, and the players began hitting our guys late and stepping on our players when they were on the grass. It would have been laughable if it wasn't such a disgrace.
All the teams mentioned above have one thing in common: They routinely vie for the championship. And this season, we were the team to beat.
It was clear from the beginning of camp: The only way this team could be a true success was to not only get back to the Super Bowl but to win it.
We have the core coming back from last year's season, and we also got a few key additions, including a star running back, a phenomenal receiver, and a standout defensive tackle.
The team was more crowded with talent, and I wondered if 35 would still start. It never occurred to me that the coach — who had taken complete control of the line for the first time — would shut him out completely.
Let me make this clear: The coach in question isn't a bad person. In fact, he's a very nice guy. He was level-headed, had a good sense of humor, and was well-liked by the kids.
I'm convinced his decision wasn't personal. But it wasn't right either. The coach simply decided that 35 was now too small to get any meaningful action on his defensive line. The league's limit was 125 pounds, and 35 weighed in at about 97. Basically the same difference as previous season, but the coach's mind was made up, and it blinded him to the kid's abilities.
In the first game of the year, a blowout win over Sunrise, 35 got a little time on the field, enough to get a tackle on the line and a fumble recovery in the backfield.
The next Saturday saw a rematch on the road with West Pines. We beat them again, this time 14-0, but the kid played only a few snaps. After the game, he choked back tears, shell-shocked that he didn't get to play more. It tore me up to see him that way. The prevailing emotion wasn't anger; it was sadness.
That weekend, I did something I'd never done: I called the coach, always a dicey proposition. I asked him for only two things: that he keep evaluating the kid at practice and that he give him an opportunity. Not a starting job, not a certain amount of playing time, just a chance. I brought up the year before, the way he played against the top teams. I told him that he would make plays if he was simply given a shot, one that I thought he'd earned during good play at practice and two years of sacrifice.
The coach sort of agreed with me and said he thought 35 would be "fine."
But he was still blind. My son got into games when we had leads and played well. It was hard to complain; the team was on fire. After seven games, Plantation was not only undefeated but hadn't given up a score, routing opponents to a collective score of 199-0. Total domination.
The next game, though, was against always-tough Coral Springs. That week of practice, a youth football publication called the Blitz News followed us for an article. And 35 was on top of his game in practice.
One of the starting tackles wasn't showing up to practice, and another was playing soft and half-hurt. I thought 35 would surely start that week.
But the coach made a baffling decision — he started the half-hurt player. It was an insult, but 35 managed to keep his head up, especially after the coach promised that he would put him into the game before the kid who wasn't showing up to practice.
That Saturday, Coral Springs almost immediately established dominance on the line. Our defensive front looked flat. The coach made substitutions, but there was no 35. Then he put in a player who hadn't gone to practice. Still no 35.
As the game wore on, the massacre of our D-line continued. The key play in the game came on a third down and long late in the third quarter. In what was still a scoreless game, Coral Springs went to its strength, running the ball. I swear they knocked one side of the defensive line back ten yards for a first down. It was — or should have been — an embarrassment for the coach.
Soon, Coral Springs bulled the ball into our end zone, ending the scoreless streak. They wound up winning 14-0. Blitz News had a new story; it was Coral Springs the photographer shot after the game.
And 35 never got on the field. This time, though, he took it well, resigned to the fact that he'd been put in some strange doghouse and wasn't going to be set free. He told me after the game that he asked repeatedly to get in but that the coach wouldn't hear of it. "They're pushing around our biggest guys," he told him, as if that mattered.
The disease was really kicking in now. It actually began to affect my sleep. The wrongness of it all rolled around in my head like a fumbled ball in a blooper reel.
If the other linemen were superior to 35, I wouldn't have complained. A couple were, but the line as a whole wasn't dynamic. There was a lack of discipline. It was, as Coach Joe said repeatedly, playing soft.
The head coach, meanwhile, complained about a lack of heart and harked back to the previous year's team as a model of togetherness.
And here they had a hard-as-nails, all-heart veteran defensive tackle who fired off the line as well as anyone sitting on the bench. It was baffling.
I'd think about talking to the coach, but then I'd remember that I had told him I wasn't going to bother him again. I thought of talking to Coach Joe too, but I knew that he didn't like to hear from parents and that it might work against the kid.
So I tossed and turned and did nothing. I cursed the coach's name in front of my son, something I knew was wrong. I began to dislike the team in general. I still rooted for it, but when the defense played poorly, it vindicated my viewpoint. I became convinced there was no way the team could win a championship. When the head coach told the players in one of the never-ending pep talks that they were going to take it all, I chuckled to myself.
Fools, I thought.
My son was frustrated too, of course, but it would surface only occasionally. I told him if he wanted to quit, I'd support him. He said he didn't, so the torture continued.
I understand there are thousands of fathers across the country suffering the same fate. Some of them right, some wrong. Football is in us. It takes our time, it takes our dreams, it takes our bodies. It's not just a disease; it's a religion. And I had become one mad heretic.
My son kept playing hard at practice, but he may as well have been invisible. During those practices, 35 injured two of his fellow players on hard hits, putting one in a cast and sling after cracking his shoulder and knocking another out for the remainder of the season.
They were injuries born of the kid's frustration, more visits to the dark side. Those hits alone were unfortunate testaments to his will to play, but the coach didn't notice any of it.
On November 8 came that playoff game against the Bengals from Pembroke Pines, the one we had to win to get back to the Super Bowl. And from the very first snap, it was obvious we were in trouble.
The Bengals controlled the line and ran all over us. We couldn't get anything going on offense either. They were up 7-0 at the half, and we were lucky to be that close.
The Bengals quarterback, when he dropped back to pass, may as well have been falling into his mother's womb, it was so safe and quiet back there. Of course, they didn't resort to the pass much. Why throw when you can run it down the other team's throat?
Then came that dreadful injury to our quarterback and a couple of unsportsmanlike-conduct calls on one of our coaches, who was ultimately ejected from the game.
There was no 35 until the very last down. I yelled something to the kid about not taking the charity. All the frustration of the season welled up in me. I didn't know what I was going to do, just that I was going to do something. When the game was over, I tossed down my yard marker, shook the hands of my fellow chain-gangers, and walked over to the D-line coach.
"You know what I'm not going to miss?" I asked him pointedly, expecting no answer. "Having to deal with you. You're the worst coach I've ever been around."
He said something like, "Oh, really?"
"All I asked you to do was to give him a chance, and you couldn't even do that. You did teach him one thing. You know what it was? How to lie."
I was talking about that Coral Springs game, but I didn't elaborate. I realized I was going a little too far, but I didn't care. I was going to finish this.
"If it was so bad," he said, "why didn't you take him off the team?"
"Believe me, I wanted to, but he wouldn't do it. He had too much class for that. He wouldn't quit because of you."
Class. I was borrowing one of football's favorite words, a word that counteracts the dark side of the game.
"Well, what you're doing isn't very classy," he said.
That I couldn't disagree with. Yep, he got me there. So I went on to the next point.
"And you know what? Your defensive line got worse every single game. Don't believe me, then look at the film, coach. Look at the damn film."
As I was saying this, I could see the defensive coordinator, Coach Joe, perking up. The only decent thing about my harangue was that none of the players saw it. But I knew there was a chance Coach Joe was going to explode on me. He started to tell me to move on. I said to him, "I knew you were going to get in the middle of this, Joe. This isn't about you —"
And right there, I knew it had to end. I pursed my lips, turned away from the coaches, and put both my hands up in the air.
"I'm done," I said.
I walked over to 35 on the field.
"C'mon, we're walking," I said. "I just gave coach a piece of my mind."
He started walking with me, but before we got to the parking lot, he stopped.
"Dad, I don't want to go," he said. "I want to be with my team."
I told him OK, go ahead. I'll see him later at the car.
My confrontation with the coach was liberating, but at that moment, all the frustration washed away. I was a little awestruck by the kid. He had kept playing with all he had no matter how useless it all seemed. He stuck by his team even when it abandoned him.
His team may have been beaten, but he didn't let this lost season beat him. He didn't let the disease get him — and that was all the cure I needed.
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