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Are You Ready for Some Football???

Are you? Well, I sure wasn’t.
For the past two years, J has been asking us if he could play football. And for two years we said no. Let’s face it, he is not the most athletic kid. He has very little stamina. His attention span is limited.
We signed him up for Tae Kwon Do instead. In two and a half years, he made it all the way to brown belt.
But, every fall, he would ask to play football.
Finally, this spring, when he informed us he wanted to play football and be “an all state running back”, we had no choice but to let him try.
Sign ups were at the end of the school year. In the space for “other”, I wrote that he was on the autism spectrum and waited for someone to get in touch with me about him. Never happened.
All summer long, on my to do list was “email football”. Also, never happened.
Then, sometime in July, we received an email from his head coach. Fortunately, it was someone who has known J since he was two. Unfortunately, his advice was that J should not be on the team with his peers, but, rather, on the team below, with kids younger than him, on the team who was in their first year of full pads–therefore, full contact.
After doing some research, we decided this was probably a good idea. We told J, and he was okay with it. As it turned out, due to league regulations, he does not meet the age requirement to “play down”.
So, here come the butterflies. Here I am, feeling as though I am sending my kid into the lion’s den. I am told that some kids on other teams get really rough. That after they tackle someone, they start throwing punches!!! What? We are talking kids that were 8 years old last year when this occurred. Ugh!!!
We were concerned J wouldn’t tolerate all the gear: padding, shoulder pads, cleats, mouthguard, helmet!! It was recommended that he practice wearing his helmet at home. We tried that a few times. He hated it. The cleats were too narrow and his feet really hurt him. We got wide cleats.
At practice, the coaches seemed kind, but clueless as to how to handle him. We offered suggestions. Some were heard, others seemed to fall on deaf ears. We worried each practice. He would complain that he was tired (well, practices ARE two hours long, at night!). He would complain that his feet hurt (aargh, those darn narrow cleats!). But we insisted that he hang in there.
We decided we needed to talk to the coach about OUR expectations for J. We expected him to do what everyone else was doing. Maybe not to the same ability, but to do it nonetheless. We explained that it was NOT acceptable in our eyes for J to sit out for 30 minutes of practice. The coach asked if he should pull him back up. I said yes. This may seem rough but we have learned over the years, that J will always look for a way out, but that he wants to be like the other kids he is surrounded by.
We explained that we will always be at practices, scrimmages or games and we will always jump in, if the coaches feel they need us to.
We were told that the major concern was safety.
Okay, well, you can not argue that. I do not want my child getting hurt. Of course I don’t. But, to be completely honest, that was not on my short list of “Reasons J Should Not Play Football”. That list was saved for reasons like 1. He will get teased; 2. He will not be treated fairly by the coaches because a, they don’t know him, or how to properly train him and b, they are the dads of kids on the team, and they won’t want to invest in the kid who may not be the one winning games for them, and 3. The kids on the opposing teams will think he is an easy target. My fears were based on the competitive nature of intramural sports. My concerns were with whether or not anyone would be compassionate enough, patient enough, kind enough to actually want to TEACH him how to play football.
We did not expect J to play very much in actual games. But, after witnessing practice after practice with very little activity coming J’s way, we realized that he had a right to be taught HOW to play no matter if he played or not.
It was disappointing, to say the least.
So, last Thursday was the team’s first scrimmage. I sat on the sidelines and watched him wander off into his own thoughts, not even facing the field, while his team played down after down, quarter after quarter. I said to my friend, another mom whose child is on J’s team, that if he told me tonight that he didn’t want to play football anymore, I would be okay with that. Isn’t that awful?
Then, at one point, I look over, and I don’t see him. Crap! Where did he go?? To the bathroom? To the porta-potty? Ugh, gross!
Because both teams had the same color jerseys on, our team was wearing sort of smocks (I’m sure that is the technical term, by the way!) over their jerseys, so you couldn’t see their numbers. I scan the sidelines. I don’t see him. So, I look on the field.
And there he is.
There is MY boy, in as a linebacker.
And he was playing. Like, really playing the game! I began to notice the coaches stepping in and giving him instruction in between plays. I noticed other kids on the line psyching him up–getting his head in the game! Before each play, he would still flap his hands and hop up and down but when they snapped the ball, he was looking for someone to block. And he did this for ten downs. And he never got tackled. He stayed on his feet, at one point blocking not one, but TWO players from the opposing team. It was miraculous!
He came off the field walking tall. Other team mates came over and bumped shoulder pads with him, commending him on his play. Coaches came over and patted him on the head saying “nice job”.
In that moment everything changed. My entire perspective changed. J WAS a part of something. He was supported and encouraged, which, let’s be honest, is the basis of what we want for our children in any learning environment.
I still think that the league (and probably most rec sports or intramural sports) need to make some changes. Although I am thrilled that this one night went smashingly well, I worry about the rest of the season. I worry about every other kid who is a little (or a lot) different and how they will be treated should they decide to try something so outside their comfort zone, out of their ability level.
Our children’s generation is the first “inclusive” generation but the parents and teachers of past generations do not necessarily possess the skills to teach these children. Not without proper training. If these leagues are going to accept children of all abilities, then they need to know HOW to train them, teach them, INCLUDE them. And that may mean that the dads or moms of players are not the sole leaders of these teams. It may mean that others with experience will need to be brought in to make it a productive experience for all.
The definition of inclusion is “the action or state of including or of being included within a group or structure”. To include means to be a part of something. Not to simply be present but to participate in the thing that is occurring. It is not enough to say that you are trying, but adults may actually need to seek out how to try harder. For these kids, for every kid who puts himself out there. The only way to make it “safe” is to gain the skills needed to understand how to do so. It’s great that parents want to be involved, but it may be a little too close to home. It may prove too difficult to incorporate the knowledge of the sport, with the knowledge of children and their individual needs. And for those who feel that it would be too much to get that training, or that coaches wouldn’t go for it, or the league wouldn’t pay for it, I ask, what if it was your kid? Then would you still find excuses? I won’t let J opt out of trying his best to fit in this world, doesn’t he deserve the same? Shouldn’t we stop opting out because it is too hard? I don’t think this is the lesson we want to teach our children. I know it is not the one I preach.
Who knows, maybe we’ll all be surprised by what these kids are capable of. I know I was.
I think that seems fair, don’t you?

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