Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. His new book, “Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game,” comes out next month.
My father wasn’t what anyone might call an over-involved parent.
He was a Fifties Dad, committed to cigarettes, beer, cards, the ponies and a demanding job that kept the roof tight over our heads and food piled high on our plates. Out driving one evening, he gestured toward a formidable brick building and asked what it was. I told him it was my school. He quickly made up for this parental lapse by asking me what grade I was in.
But on things that really mattered, my father knew what he was doing. When I told him I was going out for the high school football team, he said it might be good for me. Yet he insisted on one thing: He wanted to see my helmet. This was 1968, long before anyone worried about concussions. Still, my father knew that if I planned to bash my head into other guys time after time, I’d better have a solid helmet to protect me.
He also knew — and let me know — that he thought football could do a lot for me. My father was no athlete: He never played on a team of any kind, though he earned the nickname Flash for being a fast runner as a kid. But my father loved football, and he taught me to love the game, too. We began rooting for the New York Giants together when I was 6, watching them on our black-and-white console in 1958.
Through football, my father explained the world to me. Through football, my father began to teach me what he thought I ought to value and why.
My father loved two players above the rest: Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns and Y.A. Tittle, who starred for the Giants late in his career. Brown was born with god-like powers and then honed them until he became incomparable. Tittle, on the other hand, didn’t have the biggest or most accurate arm in the game, but he developed an ability to throw short, soft passes that the likes of Frank Gifford and Del Shofner could scramble off with for spectacular touchdowns. Tittle was singularly resilient: Knock him down and up he got, again and again.
When I went out for high school football, I’m sure I had Tittle in the back of my mind. Tittle had built himself up a brick at a time — and I badly needed some building up back then. My younger sister had died not long before, and my family was in disarray. I was doing badly at school. Socially I was nonexistent, and that’s putting it kindly. Football helped me develop some courage, cultivate loyalty and firm up my character. And it did that by teaching me to get back up after being knocked down. (And in time, it helped me knock others around a little, before they knocked me.)
The best lines I know about a football education come from former Atlanta Falcons star defensive lineman Tim Green. “All our lives we’re getting knocked down,” Green writes in his book “The Dark Side of the Game: My Life in the NFL.” “It happens to the richest, smartest, and most famous people. The difference with a kid that plays football is that for the rest of his life he knows how to get back up. . . . Football teaches kids to get up, over and over again, and that’s why you see so many people in successful positions in life, not who played in the NFL, but who played football at some level as a kid and learned that lesson that stayed with them in everything else they did.”
Don’t other games teach determination, too? Sure they do: You can learn to come back again and again in soccer and tennis and baseball. But in football more than others, the knockdown is physical. There’s nothing abstract about it. You go down, you get a taste of the turf, and then, often aching, often a touch humiliated, you have to get back up.
When people say that football is America’s game, part of what they may mean is that Americans like to think of ourselves as resilient. We admire people who are good at getting back up. Our revolution was a series of defeats and stalemates that ended in victory. Our archetypal politician is Abraham Lincoln, who lost his fair share of elections and endured many personal trials. One of our soldiers’ ideals is Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who, beaten badly in the Pacific, swore to return. The woman who may be our next president, Hillary Rodham Clinton, had to come back from humiliations and other setbacks. These are high-flown examples of the power to get back up. But it’s part of the creed for lots of non-famous Americans, too. Seen from a certain angle, American life is all about second acts.
What Green doesn’t say in that passage is that football is a game that’s dangerous to the body and the spirit. My father was right to check out my helmet before I stepped onto the field. And he was right to point me in the direction of hard-playing, honest and tough guys such as Brown and Tittle as models: You don’t have to be following Ray Rice’s assault allegations to know that there are some bad guys in the game, too.
You can get seriously hurt in football; we all know that now. Concussions are not uncommon, especially for high school kids, who are said to get them twice as often as college players. We need to check the helmets, and we need to check what’s under the helmets, too.
Checking the helmet now means making sure that the coaches and leagues do everything to discourage head-to-head hits. I think three-game suspensions in high school, college and professional leagues would not be too severe for the initiators. Checking the helmet also means never letting a player back on the field after he’s been concussed — or may have been. We don’t know everything about concussions, but doctors now believe that the most serious damage often comes after someone who has suffered a concussion takes another hit to the head. Make sure that players take diagnostic tests before the season, so that after they sustain a head blow, they have a baseline to help determine if they have lost any mental function.
Yes, football courage can become brutality. Football loyalty can become subordination to the pack. Football character can become lock step conformity.
But at this time of year, when moms and dads are thinking about letting their kids play, I’d ask them to consider my father’s approach to the game. Check the helmets, in every sense. Make sure that every precaution is taken to keep your son or daughter safe. Check the character of the program: Figure out who the alpha guys are, the team leaders, and get to know the coaches. These are the people who can draw a strong line between the violence that goes on during the game and the restraint that has to be in place when the game is over. Make sure the players are teammates, not a mob. And make sure the coaches endorse guts, not meanness.
Once you’ve checked these matters out, give your child the green light. (When my son wanted to play in 2006, I did roughly what my father did: saw that the program was fine and gave my okay.) Football really can toughen you, focus you and teach teamwork in a way unlike any other game I’ve encountered. And it can teach a fundamental lesson: We get knocked around and knocked down all the time. The heart of life lies in the power to get back up.