According to Super Bowl half-time star Justin Timberlake, his two-year-old son, Silas, “will never play football.” He’s not alone. Among American parents, nearly fifty percent feel the same way.
I’ll admit that I never encouraged my sons to play football, and they didn’t. But in the Claremont of my youth, football was a way of life. Starting in grade school, we played pickup games at my house from Labor Day to Thanksgiving. My much older cousin Carl was the Stevens High School varsity quarterback, and I imagined myself doing the same and becoming the next “Steinie.”
At 125 pounds, I was really too small for the sport, but I did play for one year on the Stevens High School freshman team, and that experience has stayed with me ever since. I’m not saying it built “character,” which is what people used to claim, but it made me less fearful, maybe a bit tougher, when it came to facing life.
I won the starting quarterback position by default. Dominic Zotto, who was bigger and better than me, got hurt and couldn’t play. My passing arm was weak, so mostly I handed off the ball and got out of the way. One time, in practice, I held the ball too long and got sacked, hitting my elbow on the ground. I felt a shooting pain and cried out, “My arm, my arm.” The coach looked over at me from the sidelines and said, “Run it off, Steinfield.”
Unfortunately, a lot went wrong that freshman season. Our record was zero wins and eight losses, meaning zero comebacks, which is the sort of thing one never forgets. I’m not saying that I was entirely to blame, but I was a pale shadow of my cousin Carl, and no one called me by his nickname.
I didn’t try out for the team the next year. Dom Zotto took over and, in our senior year, led the team to the New Hampshire state championship.
I don’t regret that fall of 1953 season, though I wish we had won at least one game. Nor do I regret that I stopped playing, with no lasting damage to my arm or my head. No one got concussed, and we never heard of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the disease that we now know afflicts thousands of former football players.
Just a few days ago, over 100 million of us, including Justin Timberlake I presume, watched the Super Bowl, American’s most popular sporting event. By doing so were we encouraging brutality and promoting CTE, urging injured players to “run it off?” Maybe so, but I’m a citizen of Patriot Nation, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
The game was hard fought, with the Eagles ahead until the fourth quarter when the Patriots did what they always do. But then a funny thing happened. Philadelphia got the lead back, and with two minutes to go the Patriots were behind. No problem, we’ve been there before, remember a year ago? Tom Brady knows what to do. It will all be fine.
But then it wasn’t. An Eagles player stripped the ball out of Brady’s hands, and the Eagles recovered. Two minutes later, eight points behind, one second remaining on the clock – and it still wasn’t over. Brady threw a Hail Mary pass that Gronkowsi almost caught … but he didn’t.
The reality is that sometimes comebacks don’t happen. I learned that painful lesson when I was a high school freshman. In that sense, football is a lot like real life.