From the first of September through the first of November, our family spent every Saturday afternoon for years at our sons' high school football games. With three boys, each of whom loved and played the game, ours was one of a group of football families who attended every contest, home and away, tailgating with the best of them.
Many of the "team" dads, my husband included, cheered their sons on from the sidelines. From there they might also be drafted into handling the down markers and measuring chains. Most of the "team" mothers sat together in the stands or worked at the concession booth selling the necessary hot dogs and sodas. As the sports editor for a weekly newspaper, I sat high up in the stands where I had an unobstructed view of the game.
Our youngest son, John, loved to prowl the sidelines with his dad while watching his big brother play. Naturally, his dad paid closer attention to the action than to John, who was frequently admonished to stay close and not wander near the players' bench or onto the field.
But John only had eyes for his brother, big defensive tackle No. 77. At the tender age of 3-1/2, John looked up to his 6-foot, 2-inch, 200-pound brother with childlike awe.
One cold, drizzly day at an away game, John was following his father up and down the slippery field in his usual manner. Suddenly, the play action took a turn toward the outside line. The ball carrier streaked for the sideline with three or four potential tacklers in pursuit. When the defenders caught up with their prey, they all sprawled on the muddy surface and rolled like a tidal wave out of bounds - into John.
The sound of helmets and shoulder pads clashing came too late to get John out of the way. The running back in front of the surge pushed John down, and the rest of the pack, slipping and sliding into each other, narrowly avoided piling on top of him.
As the players scrambled up, an alert referee immediately appeared. He took John by the hand and pulled him to his feet. "Did you tackle that big guy?" he said boisterously. "Did you tackle him? You are one big, strong fella to tackle that guy!"
What marvelous insight! At the thought of tackling that big guy, John's expression changed from one of extreme fright, his chin beginning to quiver and his eyes beginning to well up with tears, to one of pride and amazement, as if to say, "Hey, maybe I did tackle him!"
Every hint of fear or hurt disappeared as John relished the suggestion that maybe he had accomplished that Gargantuan feat. Why not?
Just as quickly, his father ran onto the scene, picked up his son, and carried him out of harm's way. The game continued. Not a tear was shed, nor an expectancy of hurt entertained. From my vantage point in the stands, I was relieved and delighted to observe a big, muddy smile from my baby boy after what had appeared to be a tough hit.
WE reviewed the game film the following Sunday, and there was John: knocked off his feet in a tumble of arms and legs, and instantly helped up by the referee. A smattering of applause from coaches, players, and boosters grew to a crescendo of cheers as the film's audience acknowledged John's first live-action experience with football.
John developed a passion for the game. He grew to approximate the size of his older brother, and enjoyed a successful football career, playing offensive tackle for the same high school team.
And oh yes, we won that game.