The Jeb Stuart football program is as typical as the high school's colors -- red, white and blue. The grass around the practice field is a bit long, the scoreboard a trifle old. Whistles blew at practice Monday and crickets still sang in the sticky air. This might have been any team anywhere in America. Except Stuart's players were in tears.
During special team drills, which John Avila particularly loved, one player began crying. It spread. "Some kids were just bawling," said Coach Tom Arehart.
Perhaps it was the sight, moments before, of co-captain Mark Maldonado leading calisthenics alone. Sometimes he would hesitate, it seemed, hoping for Avila to begin the next set of pushups. But Avila -- the other captain -- was not there. He was in Alexandria Hospital in a coma.
As matters stand, it appears that Avila's life-threatening injury, suffered Friday in the third quarter against Edison High, was the definition of a football fluke. A 190-pound guard and linebacker, he was well conditioned and showed no signs of exhaustion. He had no history of injury and wasn't even hit hard. He was a typical kid having a typical game. He complained of cramps, told teammates he couldn't see properly, walked to the sideline then laid down on the bench. As his father and coach stood over him, he lapsed into a coma.
Avila's father Moises said he thinks Arehart's decision to play his son on both offense and defense was a mistake. But many coaches do the same. "His father is angry," Arehart said. "My heart goes out to him. He has a right to say anything he wants. I don't blame him one bit. It's human nature to want something to point at. I coached my son for three years. If it'd happened to him, I'd have lashed out at something."
So far, there's no faulty helmet, no cruel coach, no dirty foe. We can't even blame "spearing" -- tackling with the helmet. That dangerous and barred, but common, tactic causes most high school deaths. But apparently not this time. What befell Avila was just football. With good rules, equipment, coaching and conditioning, the best player on a team can still be seriously injured or killed. And you can't even find out why from the films.
Every autumn, millions of American parents face the question of whether to let their sons play high school football. And millions of boys, though they might not admit it, wonder if they really want to play. It's a generational issue.
My father played, against his parents' preferences. So did I. My wife is already against our son playing. Strange how mothers, long before they know what their infants will be, are certain they won't be footballers. Even I wouldn't care if he doesn't play.
After all, what value does football possess that makes it worth risks of injury that are greater than other school sports? Last year, two football players in Northern Virginia died after being stricken on the field. Yesterday, the wire services carried reports of deaths of high-school football players in Florida and Texas. Last year, 17 deaths were reported at the high-school level.
My own memories hardly make the case less ambivalent. I never enjoyed the game past the junior varsity level. Everybody has his own fear threshold. Varsity contact worried me from the first and I didn't have the talent or willpower to play above it. I got a letter but my memory is of running to practice wondering why I was there.
Yet, now, I'm glad I played the sport past the point of fun. Even to the point of fear. Because football is not a sport that is about pleasure. That's its paradox. And its power.
Sleepy Thompson at St. Stephen's School is the dean of Northern Virginia football coaches. He's a friend of Arehart's and even coached the doctor, Gerard Engh, who first attended to Avila. High school ball is a small world. "It could have happened in our game or any game," said Thompson. "Our co-captain plays guard and linebacker, too. Goes both ways. And he's a doctor's son.
"Every year I ask myself how to keep parents from saying to their sons, 'You can't play football,' " he added. "It's very hard to express. There's an element of fear that a youngster has to learn to overcome. The contact, the hurting in the game, the soreness afterwards. It's different than any other sport. With the fatigue and the pounding, it's very easy to pack it in. When I see them stay with it and stay with it, I feel something I've never sensed any other place in coaching."
Thompson loved baseball first, then basketball and football last. But he decided to coach football for 20 years after giving up the others.
"It's not a sport for everybody," he said. "But I think it's the best teaching tool of all. You have to be in a locker room after a defeat when the kids have laid out everything they have in a way they may not have done anywhere before. Then they come in Monday and put it back together, preparing to try that hard, risk that much, all over again."
What all football teams face, on a manageable scale, is fear and risk and deeply felt failure. And perhaps even a hint of tragedy, too. Occasionally, a team such as Stuart, through a terrible accident, must face a full dose of those things on an adult level.
It is tempting to buy into some of that ineffable mystique of risk-pain-failure-growth of which Thompson speaks so sincerely, at least for the millions of us who came through high school football with no serious scars.
However, that does not allow us to speak for the few who did not.