We were late. The ft junior varsity scrimmage of the season was a few plays old as my wife and I walked past the chain-link fence and saw several Magruder players gathered around a teammate.
"Who's that on the ground?" Carol asked.
"Your son," I said.
In the parking lot a while later, as we were driving to the hospital to make sure the ankle was sprained instead of broken, Carol turned to the back seat and said, sternly: "John Scott, you do not have my permission to get hurt (playing football) ever again."
It was a mother's command barked in frustration and hope. They are that way. Sensible to a fault. Unable to understand why the perfect beings they have brought into the world would want to get involved in anything that requires lots of padding and still causes lots of pain.
Scott shot a bemused look toward that still-swelling ankle.
"You hear her?" he said.
Football families have been devalued in the last decade or so, the pros being mostly to blame. From baseball through football and hockey, coaches feel compelled to convince their fans that everybody in the whole bottom-line system is fam-a-lee. One or two of the players actually believe it.
Well, there have been genuine football families since there has been football. In that regard, ours shared a bond these recent seasons with the Don Shula family, the Joe Gibbs family and, tragically, the Nick Buoniconti family. For more than three weeks, the Buonicontis have experienced what all parents huddled in backless seats fear most -- that sometime their son will not return from playing football. Or that, like Marc Buoniconti, he likely will remain paralyzed the rest of his life from trying to deny an opponent a few more inches of grass.
For parents, the dominant aspect of football life through high school is not first downs or missed tackles. Or even victories. It is rides -- how the budding Butkus will get to or arrive from those lonely practices on bare ground outlined against a cornfield. Household budgets have been balanced, novels read cover to cover in dimly lit cars while underpaid coaches run two dozen extra trap blocks.
If such statistics were kept, I'd guess that more pot roasts are lost each season than games.
Playing semi-serious football, or beyond the flag-folly games that introduced him to the sport, was Scott's idea.
Soccer had absolutely no appeal.
During this play-or-not-to-play debate, I remembered that my latest injury had in fact come from the gentleman's game. Minding my own business on the green the previous summer, I was plunked on the head by the ball a friend had whistled through a thick pine with a pitching wedge. Worried that it might be struck again, the ball was about to bury itself in a trap until my temple got in the way.
"Where'd it go?" yelled Jim McKelvey, still blocked by the pine.
"Eight feet from the hole," I said. "Great shot."
So Scott was allowed to continue football, with one stipulation: He had to build a neck. The present one was inadequate. Clarinets were thicker. In surprisingly short time with primitive weights, the neck exceeded specifications.
In the year or so of boys' club football, the only enduring memory is a pep talk. The only thing not little about little league football is the ego of some coaches. Scott's coach was terrific. Organized. Dedicated. Caring. His teams almost never lost, and they often shut the opposition out for weeks at a time. Before critical games, he would remove a newspaper from his jacket and say to the assembled 11- and 12-year-olds:
"You know what they're saying about you?" He would stab the paper with his finger, knowing full well that no sports section in the area devotes an inch of pre-game hype to preteen football. "They're saying you don't stand a chance." Or some such malarkey.
Borrowing that technique -- all coaches at all levels being copycats -- a rival took the paper pap to another level. Before sending his 11-year-olds into battle, he told them how the newspaper had degraded them and added: "Here's what I think of that." He pulled a lighter from his pocket. At the instant he flicked it, a burst of wind intruded, and he set the newspaper -- and himself -- on fire.
Personalities frequently do flip-flops when your son is on the field. At Redskins games, Carol has been known to bellow suggestions that surely find their way inside Gibbs' head. Despite 55,000 others also in full voice and his ears covered with a headset, Gibbs hears.
She was quiet as soup for most of Scott's games during a senior season that ended about two weeks ago. The team had not been close to its state championship form of the year before; the defensive players Scott was going against seemed awesome; the breaks stopped going our way, as they had in the past.
As Carol was withdrawing, I was going glib. Generally, I would sooner carry the garbage than a conversation. All of a sudden, I was the family chatterbox.
The kids Scott was firing out against as a guard seemed larger to us in the stands than they did to him on the field. Still, there was the 190-pound linebacker from Churchill at the start of the season and the 240-pound tackle from Richard Montgomery at the end. Scott topped out at 5-9 and 167.
About sports, sons usually get their dumb genes from fathers. Because we had been cuffed and dirtied in our youth, gotten bones broken and lived, fathers tend not to be quite as squeamish. But I was nearly sick with worry when Scott had to block the Walter Johnson tackle who weighed 325.
The kid accidentally falls the wrong way and Scott's limbs get shattered. Luckily, he didn't and they didn't. In four seasons, including his starting as a sophomore for the junior varsity and as a senior for the varsity, the injury tally read: sprained ankle, hyperextended elbow, a neck problem more scary than serious and lineman's nose. Lineman's nose is a season-long gash near the forehead that comes from helmets getting misplaced while creating holes for halfbacks.
Blocking and tackling are like trying to go the wrong way in a revolving door and Scott, although undersized, always more than held his own against the flow. At Sugar Ray Leonard's weight, 147 pounds, he played both ways for an unbeaten junior varsity team, including the most dangerous position on defense, nose guard.
Before the final game, each Magruder senior and his parents paraded in front of the stands and Scott Hosman was given an award for leadership. The award was named for a player who had been injured very badly some seasons back; his father presented it.
"You remember it all, from the first time they played till now," another father said.
The child when the adventure began was a man when it ended. Like most players, there will be no more organized football for Scott beyond high school. His emotions a few moments after the last game -- a 6-0 loss -- included sadness and relief, regret that that the 4-5 season had not been better and satisfaction that he'd seen a four-year challenge to its conclusion.
He had carried football as far as he wanted. Life goes on.