Stunned I was when my daughter informed me that my twin grandsons had their first Junior Pee Wee (10-11 year olds) football game on Sunday, August 28, here in Portsmouth, RI. College football did not begin until the following weekend, and professional football a week later.
As last year, they began summer practice five nights per week, beginning August 1, pretty intense for boys that age. (This switched to three nights per week once school began.) This has impacted substantially on my ability to spend quality time with them in the afternoons and evenings.
Very early in my youth I can remember playing football with my friends, tackle as well as touch. We donned some ragged, pathetic football gear, rode our bikes to the nearest field, and got down and dirty. At twelve, I played Pop Warner youth football the very first year it was organized in my northern New Jersey hometown of Hasbrouck Heights. I continued to play through high school and also freshman football in college. In hindsight I can say that it helped me in my character formation, not so much the year we were state champs, but more so the year we lost most of our games. It was also on the football field where I first met the man who would become my primary mentor, teacher, coach, and eventually close friend. Even after he passed in 2004, his words and advice continue to resonate in my ears.
Earlier that Sunday I had attended mass at St. Barnabas Church. It was a decent crowd for a sunny Sunday morning in late August. However this crowd paled in comparison to the masses at Portsmouth High School football field. It was a happening place. The first thing which struck me was the over-crowded parking lot. Second was the number of entire young families in attendance. This was clearly not just a dad-son affair; this was an activity for the whole family. Indeed, there was organized activity for both genders. The boys were on the football field; on the sidelines were the young girls, 24 by my count, fully outfitted in their cheerleader costumes, including polka-dot bows in their hair.
As I walked the several hundred yards from the lot to the field, I passed the other teams and coaches who had just finished playing or were prepping for their games later in the day. The younger teams had already played and were now receiving their post-game talks from their coaches and departing with their families. Such a sight are these Mighty-Mites (7-8 years), looking hardly human. They are walking shoulder pads surmounted with helmets. I passed one young family which was trying to deal with a bedraggled and overheated son. As he complained, Mom said: “You can take that off in the car.” Dad, offering little solace, joined in with: “See, no one else is complaining.” Two generations ago, this football extravaganza would have been perfectly normal on a Saturday morning or afternoon. Now it has migrated to Sunday.
Under development on this gridiron altar are such things as teamwork, work ethic, discipline, physical courage, and football skills, all laudable traits which the ancient Greeks would admire. The Spartans especially would have high praise for those attributes which would relate to the battlefield. Generally at seven years, boys were taken from their families, placed under the supervision of the city-state, made to live in small groups, and subject to strict discipline and very demanding training. Plato himself would have praised the development of what he would call technical virtues.
Still, I cannot help wonder about the opportunity costs, in the first instance to the children and the families, but also to our society at large. Positioning football on Sundays makes it very challenging for a Christian family, whose children wish to play football and cheerlead, to attend faith-based, communal worship together. The ancient Greeks, who gave us the Olympics, would shudder at this; religion was embedded in their Olympic Games. Societies require individuals, rich in faith, to sustain them, and communal religious worship has been an effective, traditional way to nurture faith.
Fred Zilian played intercollegiate football and baseball and coached baseball and basketball at Portsmouth Abbey School for fifteen years. He lives in Portsmouth and teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University.