I will be going to a high school football game on Thanksgiving morning again this year. Nothing particularly unusual about that. Over the years, since moving back to Massachusetts with my wife and three children, I have often bundled up against the elements to watch our regional high school do battle on the gridiron against their arch-rivals from the adjacent town, in a scene repeated at half of the high schools in the Commonwealth.
What will be unusual will be that it will be the final high school game, and, for all but a few, the last tackle football game ever, for a group of seniors at the high school where my son goes.
I thought I would be there to watch him play his last high school football game. But, although slated for significant playing time for the varsity as a junior, Adam didn't go out for the team. After a sophomore year in the JV coach's doghouse (he apparently didn't like Adam's intuitive, freelancing defensive style, despite his nose for the ball and knack for the big play), Adam simply decided, like so many, that football wasn't fun anymore, and there was precious little I could do to change his mind.
As hard as it was for me to see my son give up a sport he was good at, the fact that I loved watching him play, loved following his team, and thought the structure, discipline and chance to teamwork that high school football provided were good for Adam, didn't matter. I didn't want him to playing for the wrong reasons. I had to resist putting my interests ahead of his. What was good for him was all that matters.
I talked to two of Adam's former teammates the other day. Both stuck it out and are finally starters on the varsity in this, their senior year. They missed Adam, and knew that he could have contributed to the team's success. But they also knew, like I, that football is a sport with the longest season of all high school sports, from the heat and humidity of two-a-day practices in August to the cold, raw, dampness of a late November morning. They knew that football, perhaps more than any other sport, requires dedication, a willingness to play through bumps and bruises and nagging injuries and an intensity that not everyone can or willing to sustain. They knew that a coach can arbitrarily bench a talented athlete just because he or she won't play by his or her rules and prompt a kid, struggling with his self-esteem, to quit. They knew that it isn't worth it unless it is fun.
And, so, when Thanksgiving Day dawns, gray or with a weak sun presaging the snow and ice of another New England winter, I won't be watching Adam run between the goalposts and out to midfield while his name, and that of the other seniors, is announced before the game. I won't be seeing him make a tackle, sack the quarterback, recover a fumble, or pull out on a sweep and spring a teammate for a 80 yard touchdown run with a devastating block on the last defender. I won't be coming up to him after the game and taking his picture, before he takes off a dirty, grass-stained gold and crimson jersey for the last time, or giving him a hug and telling him how proud I am of him before he heads up the hill to the locker room.
No. I will be watching someone else's sons do that. Will I be sad? A little. But I will also smile inside knowing that I did the right thing, by not pushing Adam, by not putting myself first. I'll smile thinking of the times I did see him make a jarring tackle, throw the quarterback for a 10-yard loss, recover a fumble on the goal line to preserve a win, and pull out from his guard position and make the lead block on a long touchdown run by a teammate, and cherish the memories far more than remembering wistfully what might have been, but was not meant to be.