An ex-pro talks up football

Considering that one pro football player blatantly entitled his biography "Assassin," and that highlight films put vicious tackles to music, is it any wonder people are coming to question the sport's value?

Some concerned parents have taken to shepherding their children into what they think is the saner game of soccer, yet football still has its advocates, and one of the most sensitive and eloquent is John Dockery.

If the name sounds slightly familiar, it's because Dockery was a defensive back and special-teams players for the New York Jets when they won the Super Bowl in 1969 and later for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Before reaching the National Football League, the Brooklyn-born Harvard graduate gave pro baseball a try, choosing to pursue a sports career over one in architecture.

Today, besides his work as a sportscarter, he runs a youth football camp with Joe Namath in Connecticut and teaches the sport to youngsters through Boys Club clinics sponsored by Parker Brothers, manufacturer of the spongy Nerf football.

Considering his background, when John talks about football, people -- especially young ones -- listen.

John's primary concern is that children enjoy a positive experience in whatever sport they pursue.

"I'm not pushing football as the sport every youngster should play," he says. "Actually I'm delighted soccer has emerged as an alternative to football, since some boys were under tremendous pressure from the whole macho thing of achieving manhood through football."

The real value of football, Dockery feels, is in teaching self-reliance, discipline, concentration, cooperation, and team spirit. But the game must be fun, John emphasizes, or these lessons are lost on youngsters, no matter what their backgrounds.

"Some of people don't think Joe and I are tough enough at our camp," John explains. "They can't understand why we don't have the campers running wind sprints after practice or involved in an intense conditioning program.

"But we don't care about producing another Franco Harris or Terry Bradshaw. Those kinds of athletes happen on their own. If we can help them along the way, great. Basically, however, our interest is in teaching youngsters proper and safe techniques, plus some lessons about getting along together. If they have a good time and learn something, we've done our job. The last thing you want is to turn off a boy or girl to sports, because then they quit playing and lose an avenue of enjoyment and expression."

During the camp's nine years, numerous National Football League players have been invited to participate as instructors. Those who don't fit aren't invited back.

The camp shies away from known prima donnas, and instead looks for what Dockery calls "decent guys who can relate to kids."

Though a little-publicized offensive lineman during his career with the Jets, massive Winston Hill has always been a big hit at the camp.

"Winston is not the type who will bring in a lot of kids if you're looking at things simply from a promotional point of view," Dockery says, "but he's a beautiful guy -- one of the most Christian men I've ever met.

"A few years ago we had a homesick kid who was driving us crazy. He was like bubble gum on your shoe. I finally couldn't take it any longer, so Winston took him home one night. The next day he was following Winston around. He quit crying and eventually stayed an extra week."

Asked his opinion of peewee football, Dockery treads cautiously. Youth leagues are all right, he believes, if run correctly -- that is, with a proper respect for the adolescents involved. "The enthusiasm and spontaneity can be drained out of a youngster by something that's so organized he can't breathe," he warns. "It's important, too, that coaches realize that the distance between pro football and teaching a 10-year-old is the Grand Canyon. The coach must keeps things in perspective and not let the players take their self images from winning and losing."

The father of two young daughters, Dockery has been asked the inevitable question about whether girls should play football. They're welcome at the Namath-Dockery football camp, which tells you something, even if few girls have attended.

Though not convinced women "are made to play the game," he thinks young girls can compete in mixed age-group leagues and, when older, in all-female settings.

an important but often overlooked consideration for any parent, whether dealing with the desire of a son or of a daughter to play football, should be the character of the coach.

John explains that too many parents "will do everything to check out their child's school, but turn around and send their eight- year-old down the road to play in a midget football league, not knowing if the coach is a maniac or a sensitive person who will provide a healthy, positive experience.

"Coaches are teachers who should use sports as their classroom," he adds, repeating a favorite theme. "If they lose sight of this, they're not being fair to the athletes as people."

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