This morning my oldest son began two-a-day practices for the 2014 football season.
I dropped him off at school—around back on the lower level closest to the locker rooms—at 7:20 a.m. The sun had barely climbed over the mountains, long shadows covered the freshly dressed field: bright white lines and sporting new orange padded end zone markers. The lot was half-filled with cars, trucks, and SUV’s all bearing some testimony to Titan Pride. There was a short line of vehicles in the drop off zone with baby-faced boys stumbling out, slinging navy colored mesh bags over their shoulders, fumbling with lunch bags and football cleats, hair still bedtime rumpled, eyes wide, and body movements spasmodic from some combination of sleepiness and nerves.
Last year, my baby-faced, hulk of a boy looked like those boys this morning. His entire body, from his deep-brown eyes to his wide slumping shoulders and dragging stride betrayed his certainty that he would never make it out of football camp alive. There was even a moment when I was not positive he would leave the safety of our suburban; He did get out…eventually. I gave him a big smile, encouraging word, then drove away crying.
It wasn’t just the first day of camp that was so hard last year. Every drop-off, every pick-up, became some strange combination of talking him away from the ledge of fear and self-preservation, and over the cliff of all-out effort. There was encouragement, there was tough love, there were strategy sessions, and lots of coined motivational phrases thrown around.
“Go hard, Buddy.”
“Leave it all on the field.”
“You’re choppin’ wood, Bud. Go and do the next thing. No thinking about it.”
“Your big enough, strong enough, fast enough.”
Or my personal favorite:
“Go to work, Boy.”
He ended last season only a little less terrified than he began. There was no amount of clichéd encouragement, or motivational postulating that would magically transform him into the beastly football player we all knew he could be. He would have to overcome in his own way, in his own time—just the same as he did when learning to walk, read, and ride a bicycle.
It has been a most horrible predicament for the rest of us.
Especially some of us.
Every year about this time, Superman becomes wistful for his own football glory days. One of his favorite things to do is walk outside in the early morning and breathe in deep through his nose, filling his lungs with the smell of late summer, evaporating dew, and warm grass. Smells like football, he always says.
My son never seemed to appreciate this waxing nostalgic. Superman would start in with his Ode to the Good ‘Ole Days, and oldest son would shoot him sideways glances, eyebrows instantly furrowed, lips pursed together. Smells like pain, and suffering, and sudden unpredictable death, said the message on his face. Superman always pretended not to notice, and even tried to use it as a way to encourage our son past his fears and inhibitions, and into a shared love for my husband’s second religion.
“Just remember when you’re out there,” he would say, “no matter how scared you are, or how bad you think it sucks; remember to take a deep breath and smell the air. This time in your life is special and it doesn’t last long.”
If there was any conversion, we never noticed.
As this year’s camp approached, our son has been vibrating around the house—bouncing up and down, shaking out his arms, rolling his neck. His nervous chatter has risen to near epic proportions, and he keeps using words like “hype” and “tight”. Yesterday, he declared with vigor that it was his last day of freedom. He said it like a soldier on his birthday before heading off to war. He looked deep into my eyes after church and asked that his Last Supper be pizza. When Superman began his annual wistfulness while walking to our car, I noticed my son also puffed his chest out and tilted his chin toward the sky. Superman breathed in deep and loud. As he exhaled, he extended his arms out, just as I imagine Jesus did when He preached the Sermon on the Mount.
“Aaaaahhh….Smell that? Smells like football.”
Oldest son: “Yup. Sure does.”
P.S. If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been all summer, well, I’ve been living in summer. Soon all my children will be in school–and not the kind with me, which will probably be the topic of some blog posts come September. Until then, I hope you forgive my writing delinquency and look forward to more time together come fall.