The hit was clean. The defensive end came off the line quickly and got around two offensive blockers. He met the running back in the backfield and they crashed together to the turf. The fans cheering the offense fell silent. The defense had held, forcing a fourth down. Time to call, in the words of the announcer, a "$10.00 cab ride" for the offense.
The play was over, but the defensive end and the running back were still down. It was a scene no fan wants to see. Even if your child isn't the one injured, a sobering thought runs through your mind anyway: that it could have been.
The coaches and doctors attended to the players on the field. Fortunately, the defensive end's fall to the turf had been cushioned by the running back ("pillowed" in football parlance), so he soon got up and trotted to the sideline. His teammates greated him with congratulations and helmet slaps, but he kept his head down and went searching for the Gatorade instead. The running back took much longer to get up and walk to the sideline.
When the game resumed, I found myself distracted, more concerned about my kid than what was happening on the gridiron. Every fiber of my being told me to leave my spot in the stands and go check on him myself, but before I could, my husband gave me a sidelong glance, telling me with his eyes to just stay where I was, to leave it up to the coach and the doctors to take care of the injuries, to honor the man code of silence. Friends kept talking to me, but I did not hear a word. I knew my son was hurt, and, like any mom, I was trying to figure out what I could do to help him feel better.
I was lucky that day. My child was not the running back. He was the defensive end who made the tackle. Even though he is in his second year playing tackle football, this was his first time experiencing what can really happen in a contact sport like football, and he had a front row seat for the show.
The game continued, but the running back and his family left early. As they were leaving, I know all of us were saying a silent prayer for them, hoping that everything would turn out right. As a mom, I felt especially miserable knowing that another mom was suffering. My son went back into the game, but I could tell that he was not 100% engaged. His team hung on to win.
Afterwards, Coach treated the team to pizza and wings. My son just wanted to go home. We talked to him the entire trip home in the car about how the injury was not his fault, that his tackle was clean, that it was not a dirty play, but was an accident, and accidents happen. As teams get older, more experienced, and larger, the accidents will continue to be just part of the game. Or will they?
We have all seen football games in which defensive players, after making a big stop, strut around the field like conquering heroes. It is something as football fans we have come to expect. But as a fan and a mom, I now know that an injury can cut short the celebration in a flash. In college and professional games, I see the refs call personal fouls for unnecessary roughness. Maybe they should call more. Maybe, if they did, it would cut down on injuries. Maybe.
My son was unusually subdued and quiet the rest of the weekend. At the start of the week, he told me that he wondered if the running back was okay. I wanted to know, too, so I called the football league's main office and asked for the name and number of the coach of the team we had played the last game. It took a few minutes of pleading, but I was finally able to get the coach's name and number.
When I called the coach and introduced myself as the mother of the large defensive end on the other team, I had a tough time convincing him he was only 12. After all, I told him, "I was there when he was born!" For a while it didn't seem like being sorry for what had happened were getting me anywhere with the coach. The call was clearly not going the way I thought it would at all! I really just wanted to hang up. I eventually got to the point of my call: could he tell me how the running back was doing and when would he be able to play again. He was having such a great game, I said. He must really love football, I said.
Eventually, the coach gave me the family's telephone number and invited me to call to ask myself. He wasn't being mean, he just wasn't being kind or sympathetic. I wondered whether he was put off by my failure to honor the unspoken man code that suffering had to be done in SILENCE!
Making the call
When my son got home from school, I told him I had the running back's telephone number. The expression on his face was one giant question mark. I told him not to ask how I got the number, that moms just have ways of finding stuff like that out. We decided to make the call. I said I would go first, praying that another mom would answer, thinking that she might understand that it was not my intent to break the man code of suffering in silence, but was calling because we genuinely wanted to know how her family was doing.
With nervous fingers I dialed the phone. The voice that answered could have been a mom, or it could have been a 12-year-old boy. (The ‘tween years are tricky that way!) Not sure, I asked if the running back was there. He identified himself. He can speak!!!! Hurray!!!!
I briefly told him why we had called. He was a little flustered. I gave the phone to my son. Now it was his turn to panic! I coached him to say his name, not just number 30 on the defensive line. The boy told my son that he had hurt some muscles in his neck (probably, I thought, as a result of being "pillowed" by my son). He said that his mom had "overreacted" and thought it was a concussion, which prompted both boys to laugh - at least this time!
The conversation was short and to the point. They wished each other well and hoped their teams would meet again in the playoffs. The young man said something about switching to the other side of the line. I saw a devilish grin come across my son's face. He said he played on the left side of the line, too. I think the fun had just gone back into the game and all order had been returned to the world.
As my son hung up the phone, I was left to wonder: did DeMarcus Ware and Ndamukong Suh's mothers have days like this, too?
Postscript: At our Sunday school class of one hundred 6th grade boys and girls, there were five prayer requests for kids who had suffered concussions during the previous week, one in football, one in girl's soccer, two in skateboarding accidents, and one involving a plate glass window (ouch!). Clearly, just being a 12-year-old is a contact sport! Be careful out there, people!