Writings by Cole Huffman

The Boys of Fall

Parenting is a reaction sport. Our children are not automatons. They will think for themselves, some sooner than others, and as they do we need agility, like a running back in football, and resilience. The back knows he's going to get tackled eventually. Not every play is a touchdown. If he gets past the defensive line tacklers he's still got the linebackers. If he gets past them too there is the secondary to navigate. Free safeties hit hard.


My oldest son, a rising sophomore just shy of 16, was a free safety. He hit me hard one night this summer when he announced he no longer wants to play football. As a guy who likes football, I took pride in his playing and looked forward to watching him compete on the varsity at his school for the next three years of autumn Friday nights. But I also knew my son just doesn't enjoy the sport of football. He doesn't like to watch it or attend games, and didn't even really enjoy the games he played in heretofore. That disappointed me, a disappointment I’ve been ashamed of and am repenting of. This post is part of repentance’s work.


I thought maybe it would grow on him if he stayed at it. Football is a romanticized culture and I'm a sucker for its seduction. (Cue Kenny Chesney's "Boys of Fall" here.) You don't want to miss running out with the team on Friday nights, do you? I'd say to my oldest when he expressed ambivalence. He didn't, he'd say (but for my sake, not his, he didn't say). He knew his dad wanted to see #17 run out with the team, and he didn't want to disappoint his dad.


I've known this, seen it in him. But still I strongly encouraged him to play. The difference between forcing and “strong encouragement” is thin. I told myself I wasn’t making him, but we're more subtle than our kids. I pitched it to him as a work ethic issue—that he needed growth in that, and what better means is there to grow than make yourself work at something difficult? Call it the Tom Landry Effect: The renowned coach of the Dallas Cowboys (and board member of my seminary) used to say his job was to get men to do what they didn't want to do in order for them to achieve what they'd always wanted to achieve. That works well as a football rationale if you want to achieve football glory. My son did not want that. I wanted that for him—because I deprived myself of it.


Twenty-eight years ago, at the start of my sophomore year, I quit my high school football team. We were two weeks into August two-a-days, full pads. (My son did not quit on a season underway as I did. If his team had been practicing he knew he would have been committed to the season. That’s the deal with each of our kids: If you join a team you must finish out the season once practices begin in earnest.)


Even as I share my 28-years-in-the-past decision with you, I wince. It’s silly, right, some of the stuff that sticks in the lining of man's heart after lo these many years? A minor regret as regrets go, my quitting football. Very minor. Hardly qualifies as a regret compared to broken marriages, arrest records, job opportunities missed, things left unsaid until too late. But the pain of quitting flares up in me a little every autumn like an old rheumatism. My son's playing eased it some.


If I'd kept playing in high school I doubt I could have been a college player, even at a small school. I wouldn't have seen much actual playing time until my senior year. That’s partly why I quit as a new sophomore. My love for the game—I followed football avidly growing up, residing in an NFL-decor bedroom—could not overcome my fear of older, stronger players hurtling themselves at me and my resentment toward coaches I believed unfairly favored other guys at my position.


The day I quit, I returned home and cried in my room. Since boyhood I'd looked forward to being on my hometown's team. I reproached myself and reassured myself, both. I knew I was right and wrong at the same time. I wanted to go back to practice the next day and I wanted to stay home forever. I wanted my football friends to respect me and I also didn't care what they thought. I yearned to run out with the team on Friday nights and I swore I’d never watch another game.


Adding to our sophomore coincidence, what my son believes he wants to do, athletically, is run—which is what I turned to in high school after football and, surprisingly, got to do for my college too. He has good potential in it if he works at it. This summer he ran a couple of 5K road races on a lark and did better than I would have at his age. He's also interested in his drums and guitar, having turned his room into a small music studio, and wants to give good time to both.


Still, I wanted a football player. I liked being a football dad, partly for the enjoyment of him, partly for the compensation for me. Without overtly coming out and saying so directly—It would please me for you to play football—I nevertheless said so in hundreds of other ways for the last few years. I think it is a measure of his maturing that he finally took courage to tell me what he wanted, respectfully and without the angst that accompanied my decision years ago. He just wasn't that emotionally invested in the game.


Two weeks elapsed between his telling me and telling Coach yesterday. I wondered if he'd reconsider. What was he hearing from his friends on the team? Would coaches try to talk him out of it? The family watched our next movie from Netflix the other night. It happened to be a football movie called The Fifth Quarter, a true story about a Wake Forest linebacker playing a season in memory of his younger brother killed in a car wreck. Was the portrayal of glorious gridiron camaraderie stoking any rethinking perhaps?


It didn't. That was my hope, and wrongly placed. He kept his appointment with his coach, who handled him graciously, keeping the door open to him if he decides he wants to play again next year. And he may. Sixteen-year-olds still have the luxury of fickleness. Regardless, I've left that up to him entirely, communicating to him my full support either way. I still give him direction as his dad of course, but fewer are the decisions I make for him anymore. He's as close to adulthood as he's ever been, and it's time for him to own his decisions—and for me to be adult about it when he does.


I don't know what his much younger brother, now 5, will be into later. I won’t push him toward football. The lot falls to the oldest child to be the learning curve for his parents. We hope to be the wiser from these experiences when the youngest grows into his interests. (But Lord, please, I hope he doesn't like boringball, aka baseball!) Whatever he likes, let me endeavor to encourage him in the way that respects his "bent" (Prov. 22:6), not mine.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 4:57 PM
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