Back in 2013, I created a spreadsheet of different topics that I might write about on this blog. One of the categories was called “Second Thoughts” and the idea was to capture some of my “hindsight being 20/20” style thoughts on different elements in life. For example, today I am going to write about playing football in high school and how I wound up not playing football in college. It would have been hard for me to write about those two things objectively when I was still so close to them (and I am sure that what I write below is not objective anyway), but with so much time between my playing days and today I think that I am able to look back and offer a reasonable, only marginally-biased opinion.
My first comments about playing football in high school is that I am glad for the experience, I am thankful for the lifelong friendships that being on my football team provided, and… I would never, ever want my nephews or young cousins to play football. That perspective might seem counterintuitive or hypocritical – it is not, I assure you. I began playing football during my freshman year of high school, which was 1995. Back in 1995, the research and science around the lasting impact of the intense head trauma that one experiences when playing football was not mature yet. That research had not evolved to where we are today, which is the firm understanding that the repeated head trauma that football players endure leads to diminished mental capacities over the course of their lives.
To football’s credit, they have worked to improve the equipment that is used and to enforce new rules to protect players’ heads. I appreciate those improvements and hope that they are the first in many more changes to the game to protect its players. However, I cannot imagine a world where I would endorse the young ones in my family actively engaging in that type of brutality when the function of their brains is what is at risk. No thank you. By the way, both of my brothers were football players (one was a championship football player and the other was the captain of his team) and my cousin was on my football team (we were championship players then and, now, hall of fame players at our high school) and we all completely agree on this point. We all also agree that if one of the next generation of the family wants to play football, then we would talk to them about it and let them make their own decision, but we would discourage them from joining the team.
As for my experience playing high school football, I loved it. I was able to play for one year with my older brother as a senior on the team when I was a sophomore and I got to play all four years with my cousin. In my hometown, I came from a smaller, feeder grade school that fed into a larger high school, so being on the football team was a way for me to meet new friends, integrate into the larger high school, and build a feeling of attachment to the larger community. All of that worked out very well for me and I think it worked out well because I was a good football player (not a great player, but good enough to start on a championship team my senior year). I can never speak ill of the amazing connections that I built from playing football and, ultimately, from wrestling and being on the spring track team (the weight throwing team, not the runners!).
The one area where I have a constructive criticism for high school football and all high school sports is the constant pressing for more reps, practicing longer hours, and doing something “one more time.” In hindsight and across all of the sports that I played, I do not think that there was much benefit to the “one more rep” mentality. In fact, there is a growing chorus of folks who are saying that the “one more rep” mentality is dangerous. I leave that contemporary argument to those who are making it today. In my experience, though, staying a little bit later, pushing to press up a little bit more weight, and spending additional time preparing for an opponent seems like it was a bit much – at least for the high school level of competition.
At some point during my senior year, I started receiving letters from local, small colleges (Division III) to play football for them. I received a few letters about wrestling, too. I did not pursue any of them in a significant way. One day, one of my buddies who was a running back on the team and I were called into a special meeting to meet with a recruiter from a local university that played in what was then-known as Division IAA (today called Division I FCS). To make what could be a long story short, both my buddy and I opted not to play for that college, but both wound up going to school there anyway. I talked to the football coaches at the university at the time and told them that I wanted to get acclimated to college before playing football. They weren’t interested in that, but said if I wanted to, then I could attempt to walk-on to the team after my freshman year and to come and talk to them after the spring semester ended.
As it turned out, I became friends with several of the football players at my college and I even shared a dorm suite with two of them who I became good friends with that year. I also became friends with some of the college freshmen football players that lived in other parts of the campus and they were all really nice guys. At some point, I started lifting weights while in college and at that time the weight room for the students was shared with the athletes. Without gassing myself up too much, I lifted as much or more than the guys who would have been my contemporaries on the college football team. I’m not so arrogant to think that this was purely because I was stronger than some of those guys, but rather I recognized that they were engaged in a specific type of weightlifting where I was just lifting weights for fun. When you become more specific in your training routine, you can naturally reduce the amount of weight that you might lift in certain standard lifts. I think that is what was going on.
After my freshman year, I went and talked to the football coaches and told them I was ready to walk on to the team. I remember talking to one of the coaches and the look of complete disinterest that he had in me and my story (the same guy who was excited about me potentially joining his team 18 months earlier). I think the conversation turned when I mentioned that during my freshman year, I did really well (a 3.9 GPA after my second semester, which he liked) and that I met a bunch of new friends when I joined my fraternity – that went over like a lead balloon. That coach somewhat reluctantly gave me the paperwork that I needed to get filled out from my doctor and told me that once I got him the completed paperwork, he would get me the dates of the walk-on practices.
Well, I got a physical, had the paperwork completed, and sent it in to the coach… and that’s the end of the story. The coach never got back in touch with me, never let me know about when I could try to walk-on, and never initiated contact again. I did not follow-up with him because I believed then, as now, that some things are not worth chasing. After seeing the utter look of disdain on that coach’s face when I mentioned that I lived a great freshman year and a big part of that was joining my fraternity, I knew that this was not going to be a good interaction and that I probably would not want to pursue a long-term connection with that guy. This is another marked difference between the high school and college settings, for me at least – I genuinely liked each of my high school coaches no matter how hard or aggressive they got with me and my teammates. For the college coach to be jumping up and down enthusiastic about me and my buddy joining his team while we were in high school and then completely uninterested 18 months later, it just did not sit right with me.
Overall, I am glad that I did not play football in college. A few months after that awkward interaction with the football coach, a friend and former teammate of mine from high school began playing football at the college. An old injury of his was aggravated during one of the early practices and he may have been encouraged to play through it (common in both high school and college sports). He opted not to play through it and, instead, protect his body (smart move). And I have heard similar stories like that not just locally, but all over the country and not just with football, but all sports.
What I gained by playing football in high school was provided to me by my fraternity. While I have several friends who had excellent college football experiences, I do not think that I would have had a similar experience playing football at my college. And that’s completely okay for me, especially when considering the brain trauma research I mentioned earlier and the wonderful experience provided to me by joining my fraternity and growing a new group of lifelong friends.