My youngest son, Joseph, is 11 years old. And he wants to be a football player.
My boy takes me back in time. I was exactly his age when I joined a Pop Warner football team in Arizona. I remember serenading cicadas and the ache of humid, three-digit Sonoran summer nights. I remember running. And running and running and running. The grass was itchy.
I remember being reduced to blubbery, humiliating tears at the very first practice.
I ask Joseph if he’s serious about this. He is. I ask a second and third time. Joseph is resolute. I try to explain to him what’s about to happen. I remind him that, while he’s a normally healthy kid, he’s never played competitive team sports before. He’s never trained in earnest. Finally, I just say it: “You understand, son, they are going to beat the crap out of you?”
Joseph is undaunted.
I discover the Nevada Youth Football League and sign him up. Joseph’s mother takes him to buy pants, cleats, pads and a helmet. Yikes — this is really happening. I vaguely recognize the face peering out of the huge helmet. Any minute now puberty is going to run him over, chew him up and spit him back out into the world as an adolescent. But, for the moment, I still see shadows of the little boy who giggled every time I read “The Emperor’s New Clothes” for a bedtime story.
Joseph’s “new clothes” are armor paradoxically protecting him yet inviting him to a new, naked vulnerability. He is about to step into an arena he couldn’t possibly imagine. And that’s just as well. If he knew what was about to happen, maybe he’d balk. Lose heart. Change his mind.
The Nevada Youth Football League sends me an email containing the “Parent Expectations,” which I am supposed to read and sign. I shake my head and giggle as I read it, because I’m always astonished to remember I live in a world where parents — actual living, breathing adults who have successfully made babies — need to be reminded not to: 1) smoke while attending practices and games, 2) bring alcoholic beverages to practices and games, 3) pump loud music from your car in the parking lot during practices and games, and 4) use any form of profanity.
That’s what it says: “any form.” Not a lot of wiggle room there. I guess that nixes my idea of calligraphy placard profanity.
Furthermore, the letter says “Please do not publicly demean participants in an athletic contest, including players, coaches, officials and other parents or spectators.”
Wow. So, who is there left to demean? Politicians, I guess.
Ah, but here’s a piece of real wisdom: “Do not support ‘quitting’ as the best way to solve problems, but rather perseverance and how to deal with adversity. This will teach them life lessons that extend way beyond youth athletics.”
The wisdom turned out to be a harbinger.
Twenty-two minutes into the first practice, Joseph waved me over. The little face in the helmet is pale, sweat soaked, pained, lip trembling: “I don’t want to do this.”
“Why?” I say.
“I knew it was going to be hard. But this is more than I expected.”
There are moments as a parent that you just reach. You guess. Like a billiards shot when you just shrug, hit and hope.
See, I don’t care if Joseph plays football. Or if he joins Competitive Embroidery. What I care about is this “quitting” thing. That Joseph might spend the rest of his life being surprised by discomfort and rigor. Competent, happy adults befriend discomfort. In some ways they are drawn to discomfort. They seek it, even relish it. They expect discomfort to be a regular companion on the path of any meaningful endeavor.
So, I take my shot. I reach out and grab his face mask. I pull his face to mine. “Joseph,” I say, fiercely. “Every day, for the rest of your life, life will always be more than you expect.”
“ OK,” he says, and trots back to the living hell of the Oklahoma Drill.
On the way home, he chatters. He discusses sore muscles, a noble bruise and some abrasions. He has a swagger. A new self-respect. Maybe I should add this to my curriculum for couples in premarital counseling: “Every day, for the rest of your life, marriage will always be more than you expect!”
Yeah. I like it. We can’t be surprised by discomfort.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or skalas@ reviewjournal.com.