Football & The Culture of Athletics
“But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking on the road; the perspective to say the very least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with an absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place.”
- James Baldwin
If someone were to ever look back at a previous time in their lives, a time that was once regarded as the norm or, at the very least, acceptable for your own benefit—perhaps an environment, a relationship, or practiced philosophy— discerned through time and hindsight as a deviation of what it once was thought to be, then that person has simply engaged in the natural process of change. If the inevitable, arduous task has prepared me for anything, it is to have the level of emotional security required for its next passing, that there is nothing wrong with a shift in perspective, and that the learning lesson will always be a contradiction to the journey itself.
Had I known this earlier, I could have saved myself a lot of guilt and shame from my thoughts towards a sport that has given me— at one point in my life— everything, and this article would have come sooner. But it is exactly this sport and the world that is consumed by it whose environment, relationships and practiced philosophies that produce those same feelings, on a psychological level, to its participants.
From that seed of despair blooms discipline, responsibility, a meticulous work ethic, and complacency: all things required for the makings of a successful person within a capitalist-run society, one that puts the greater success of “the team” over the individual. And so, in the best case, the rut never has to cease. The concealed burden all athletes carry is that the longer we’ve been immersed within a setting that demands this process and subsequent outcomes from us, the more difficult it is to see any other version of ourselves. The truth of the matter is that it becomes a part of who we are.
I have yet to meet a single athlete, former or current, whose personalities did not contain at least one of these traits, if not all, and certainly some more than others, but for the sake of my own expectations for credibility, I will stick to my own relationship with the sport that has put me through quite literally everything a man can endure in seventeen years of playing football— for what has been outlined above—some may refer to as ‘culture’. It is not a system that actively encourages the dismantling of a person’s individualism, but tacitly promotes codependency through its primitive, nationally celebrated mantras, proven time and time again—for over a century now— of its positive results. And everyday, I try my best to utilize what I was taught to make it so with my own life.
What is then veiled under the publicized glory and third-party perspectives, the hot takes, think pieces and unsolicited fan opinion, is the private relationship every athlete has with this culture. It should come as no surprise that each experience differs from the other; attempting to factor in every varying circumstance would be impossible, and that’s typically the excuse presented after consolidating adolescent sensibility goes wrong.
And when that dreadful time comes for us all, the undetermined, inevitable departure from the only world we’ve known, the relationship persists, except this time in the dark. It’s only been through dissecting my own that I was able to clearly see the toxicity in my shallow glory; the one I owe much thanks and condemnation towards, finally above it all.
At the age of five, well before a child’s development in abstract, logical or even concrete thinking, among other milestones the average cognitive development here has reached being able to grasp the concept of three things: following rules, wanting to be liked, and wanting to please. There are also claims that a person reaches their creative peak here, a time where our dreams and rampant imaginations are most susceptible to our own realities. It also happens to be the age most parents introduce their children to tackle football, just one year before my own introduction to the Naperville Youth Football League.
Everything from this time is more of a feeling, bits and pieces of memories that elicit certain nostalgia, both good and bad. I recall already being under the influence Space Jam had on my generation, its opening sequence of a young Black boy with a face like mine, quite literally jumping at his dream, landing, and becoming Michael Jordan. For others I’m sure there were an abundance of White protagonists whose journeys imprinted—or, served as a foundation to their own aspirations, but ‘variety’ in this context was not a privilege that was accessible to me; if I were to shoot for my dreams—if I were to even have dreams, they would be accomplished by playing a sport.
It would be easy for me to say that I was forced into playing football when I was six years old, but I don’t recall actually ever wanting to do anything but to sit around and to consume. I was a very quiet child and would have more than likely told you that my anthropomorphic toys, or my mother, was my best friend at the time. We had just barely moved to the suburbs of Chicago, the only Black family on Milkweed Drive, when it came time for me to make friends, and like every right-minded parent, my own involved me in as many extracurricular activities as possible. As much as I could possibly believe what burden I carried at the time, I recognized the effort both of my parents invested in me being comfortable.
Barely an adult now, I cherish the memory of my 35 year-old father getting up, driving, bonding, and participating in our 8 AM, piercing cold, Chicago Winter games. I have glimpses of my mother frantically running down the sideline with me towards the end zone, unaware of the secret pact between my father and I that involved exchanging touchdowns for McDonalds chicken nuggets. I remember the excitement on her face, how happy she was to see me succeed, and I keep that memory close by.
Along with other sports, I played football within the same community for the next five years, all the while organically establishing and strengthening relationships that are still to this day some of the most endearing and cherished ones I hold. The coaches became like father figures, their families became our own; I cannot stress how thankful I am to have seen the proper archetype in the very beginning of it all. To these people, what I brought to their lives was a joy completely detached from what I had to offer on the field, which was usually utter destruction to the small, intimidated, opposing team. No; somewhere off the field I must have been myself, and that was discernible to everyone involved but me: the child whose dreams were in conjunction with pleasing those around him.
My families departure from Naperville would in turn be my own arrival to a better semblance of a harsher reality. What I mean is to say that the environment within the suburbs in general encouraged a certain, whimsical repression. The cracking, cheshire grins that veiled the thoughts and emotions of its inhabitants were far more withstanding than to those candid livelihoods I came in to contact with in northern, New Jersey. The adjustment for my family caused several, independent relationships to be altered within the first year of us being there, none less so apparent than the one I had with myself.
Every child had distinct personalities of their own and were infatuated to discovering the one of the only Black student in their class. I knew nothing, and so I said nothing, but the preconceptions made from my ridiculous stature as a fifth grader made my association to being an athlete almost compulsory; my own self-refinement would have to be found in the midst, through genuine connection from any one who would see me otherwise. Until then, my identity was whatever anyone thought it to be.
From thereon my life was pretty much centered around sports, football particularly being the one that drew the more poignant sentiments from its day to day. The first year was typical of any that fell before it: a massive influx of pubescent children, too underdeveloped for their unwieldy helmets and shoulder pads, only now all tended to and governed by the few, self-proclaimed coaches, being the father’s of said children whose weekday schedules did not call for anything else in the late afternoon. The criteria called for nothing else— a puffed out chest, perhaps— and I make a point in saying so because there were plenty of virulent, middle-aged men who brought more to the table that, had they been in charge of anyone but a group of eleven year-olds, would in all probability be forced into therapy or, more likely, a lawsuit.
My biased perspective of the men who are put in charge of children this age come from the untold accounts of physical and emotional harm done on some random, patchy, forgotten field; a lesson on toughness, a lesson on discipline, on what it is to be a man was exacted through nothing that was not seen out of the ordinary, even today. This sparked wisdom that I would not fully learn or come to appreciate until I got to high school, and even more so in college, but fighting for the respect of someone will always blind you from their character. These men were not coaches, but the exact type of hard-nosed, suppressed convalescents the overall environment attracts. The ones without a voice could see that they were hurting, but nothing mattered so long as our record was imposing, and a mother did not show up to one of our practices.
The Hackettstown football league, I will say, was extremely organized. Every subdivision had regulation put in place with the intention of best protecting the players who met the said requirement. This meant that if I were to be able to line up against 90 lb. little Billy from across the way, then I would have to lose a substantial amount of weight; about fifteen pounds worth of whatever I could afford to give. Perhaps the odds stacked against me should have caused my aspirations to shift course, and I wouldn’t even allow anyone to take credit for the measures I personally took or, whatever it was inside of me that allowed that amount of perseverance to flourish, but I was not a quitter.
If eating 7-11 salads and boiled eggs after practice, sometimes not eating for days on end, and pushing my body to its absolute, physical limit meant not starting over and continuing to make other’s happy—having that meek blanket of approval draped over me in school or seeing my mother smile on the sidelines— then it was to be done.
No one asked me to do what I did; In fact, there were plenty of times my father and I considered it to be too big of a mountain to climb. Had he known of the initiative I took behind closed doors, maybe this article wouldn’t even exist. But like I said, I was a quiet child and was angry that something I had done my “whole life” could be taken away from me, at an instant. Eventually I lost that weight and ended up playing every game for my last two years before high school. In hindsight, I had just barely skimmed the surface on the extent to how far I was willing to push myself for the sake of a false dream.