Jenny Knaak: Friday night life
May 25, 2018
I allow my 14-year old son to play football.
He played little-league for the past two years, and is currently training with other incoming freshmen for the high school junior varsity team.
I know there are many of you who are, right now, questioning my decision. I understand — because I've questioned this decision many times myself. I have seen the articles and interviews on concussions. The long-term effects of traumatic brain injury. And that's not to mention the obvious injuries that occur All The Time. He just sprained his hand in practice, by the way. And put a big gash in his shin doing "box jumps."
I didn't want to let him play. He lobbied long and hard for the opportunity to try, and I eventually conceded. With a few caveats about injuries and grades, and the consequences he would face should either one become an issue.
I know this sport is dangerous, on multiple levels. But here’s the thing. Next year, every weekday, I will be dropping him off at the most dangerous place in the world for an American teenager. A public high school.”
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And you see, here's the thing. He loves it. Actually, he breathes it. He loves the comradery, the brotherhood of the team. And I can't deny that, as he's an only child, it's something that is otherwise missing from his life. And he currently spends six to eight hours a week in practice and weight training, and this is the off-season. That is six to eight hours of exercise, and not sitting on a couch or a chair, glued to whichever blue-screen device he's chosen.
And my sweet, thoughtful, compassionate son turns into a beast on the field. He is fierce, and determined. Focused and ferocious. For him, there is absolutely nothing better than to tackle an opponent. And sacking the quarterback? Heaven. The sense of triumph he has after helping his team is palpable. It is hard to imagine denying him those emotional, memorable moments.
Oh, and he looks like he was genetically engineered to play this sport. I have heard the jokes since the day he was born. Tipping the scales at 10 pounds, 5 ounces, he was the biggest baby in the nursery. And he has been the biggest kid in nearly every grade at school. At 14, he hovers somewhere around 250, and he stands nearly 6 feet, 2 inches tall. He's a tank, and his doctor told us recently, according to his "wide open" growth plates, he has inches more to grow.
I know this sport is dangerous, on multiple levels. But here's the thing. Next year, every weekday, I will be dropping him off at the most dangerous place in the world for an American teenager. A public high school. So, as much as I worry what will happen to him when he's in his 30s or 40s or even 60s, should he continue to play this hard-hitting game through college and beyond, I worry more about him making it to high school graduation alive.
Of course, I worry about the alarming rise in teenage suicides in conjunction with the unbelievable pressures of the social media bombardment they face 24/7. The fact their young brains are literally being rewired from the constant use of technology. The potential, in this state, of experiencing a catastrophic earthquake. The looming threat of inter-continental nuclear ballistic missiles. But the fact they have in-school active-shooter drills? The daily tasks the kids face — trained to watch their classmates for anti-social, reclusive behaviors, to be on the lookout for anyone wearing trench coats or carrying duffel bags … that is what truly terrifies me.
And I literally cannot fathom the mental stress it must put on him. On all his classmates. Having to look at each of their fellow students every single day as potential killers. Having to walk into every room at school and look for both the best exit and the most effective way to barricade the door. It is cruel and unfair that our kids have to accept this as their daily reality. The worst thing that happened to me in school was some mean-girl social BS — but I never, not once, feared for my life.
And I am so sorry — deeply anguished — at having given him this world to grow up in.
I am reminded of the phrase: We don't inherit this earth from our parents, we borrow it from our grandchildren. I don't think it just applies to the environment — it goes for the societal infrastructure as well. I know my parents would never have chosen to gift this to my son … but here we are.
We are faced with a toxic combination of volatile factors: a violence-loving-and-desensitized youth culture, immediate news sensationalism of tragedies, parents afraid of not-being-their-child's-friend and therefore not actually parenting, politicians posturing between the gun advocates and the anti-gun lobbies but not doing anything constructive, intense social pressure on the youth — because they are always on someone's camera phone and always being watched and recorded, a decrease of physical but increase in mental bullying with anonymous cyber-bullying topping the list, skyrocketing drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues being publicly discussed but privately ignored. … The list goes on and on.
I don't have the answer. If I did, I would be on Capital Hill right now. But I am determined to work for a better future. For my son. For my grandchildren. For everyone.
I hope against hope he's not living on borrowed time. That he has the opportunity to experience the amazing adventures this world has to offer him. That he will have the luxury of regretting the transgressions of his youth. That he will think about the world he is borrowing from his grandchildren when he has a child of his own.
And in the meantime, I will continue to let him play football. Because in a world of frightening uncertainty, finding one's tribe is invaluable. And feeling part of something greater than one's self is essential to the success of a forward-moving human race. And doing something fun and physical, outdoors and with other people, almost always has to be a good decision, especially on Sunday in the Park.
Jenny Knaak, guest columnist, is the daughter of Teri Orr, the customary author of "Sunday in The Park."