Part of the Team
by Kristin Armstrong
Illustration by Heather Sundquist
FOR AS MUCH AS I LOVE IT HERE IN Texas, and like to pretend I am a native, there are times when I know I’m not.
There are still things about Texas that mystify me. Like chewing tobacco and dip spit cups. Like the number of gas pumps at Buc-ee’s. Or the obsession with football rivalries. Or deer blinds, weekend camo, and gun safety. Or how I managed to live so long before I knew about queso.
I grew up living different places, never more than two years at a stretch. I was always the new kid, always a bit of a nerd. Or a big nerd, if my brother is reading this and fact-checking. I naturally imagined that one day I would have kids that followed in my footsteps of nerddom. I pictured myself cheering at Certamen competitions, wringing my sweaty palms at spelling bees, attending band concerts (I played the flute), and beaming with pride at National Honor Society banquets. My kids turned out much cooler than their mom.
They are also very much from Texas, particularly my son. I’m not sure how my scrawny, nerdy genes ever produced an offensive lineman who outweighed me by third grade, who drives a pickup truck and knows how to shoot a gun. If I were to be perfectly honest, I can admit now that I never wanted my son to play football. I never wanted to cut my California summers short to return for Pop Warner practices on August 1, the apex of the summer furnace. I never wanted him to have bad knees or concussions. I never wanted him to love something that I didn’t totally understand or appreciate.
But it happened.
And thank God it did. So right now I’m going on the record to say that I’ve changed my mind about football.
We live in cushy, comfy times. Boys don’t take off on horseback at age 15, with their 13-year-old brides in tow, to forge a homestead out on the plains. They aren’t (or at least we aren’t) working the plow, helping with the harvest, and rounding up cattle. Mostly they are hanging out indoors, Favor-ing food, watching other people have adventures on Netflix, and playing Xbox. Somehow, this doesn’t have the same effect in the making of a man.
I never wanted him to have bad knees or concussions. I never wanted him to love something that I didn’t totally understand or appreciate.
But waking up at 4:30 a.m. to go to practice, staying at school some days until 8 p.m., having a lift third period, playing games on Fridays, and watching film on Saturdays — this creates an environment typically reserved for boys in the military. They are out sweating and suffering in the extreme heat and humidity, then later in the cold, wind, or rain. They are penalized as a team for anyone’s hangovers, shenanigans, or tardiness by angry coaches who make them run gassers. They don’t complain even when they ache, or are so tired they nod off at the dinner table and go to bed by 7 p.m. They take ice baths and tape sore knees and ankles and get back out there. They don’t want to let their coaches down. They don’t want to let one another down. By the end of senior year, they truly are a team, a brotherhood, a tribe.
And I only have an outside perspective. I just cook food for an army, wash reeking practice clothes, rub sore muscles, make appointments at the physical therapist, try to learn as much about football as I can, and scream on the sidelines until my voice is scratchy, then gone. My kitchen is filled with enormous boy-men who would have scared me not that many years ago. I go to games with their moms; we all wear red jerseys with our sons’ numbers on them and carry giant “fat heads,” oversize photos of our sons’ faces. We are those people. We go to pep rallies and serve at team dinners. We go to coaches’ breakfasts and decorate team buses. We have photo pins and yard signs and car stickers. I never thought I would be a football mom, but here I am — loud and proud. I’ve watched every episode of “Friday Night Lights” (and loved it). Now I live it.
And like my son, I have a community.
I witnessed his tribe in raw form recently. We had to put our beloved dog, Mercy, down; she was almost 12 years old and could no longer walk. There was never a good time to do this sad deed, but it finally could be put off no longer. I asked our vet to come over early one evening so we could say our goodbyes at home. That afternoon I pulled into our driveway and could barely get to the garage because there were so many pickup trucks parked on the street, on the driveway, and pulled up on the grass. I wondered what was going on. I walked in the house, and it was oddly silent.
I found my son, all 265 pounds of him, curled around Mercy on her dog bed in my office. And surrounding him were his teammates, his brotherhood, standing in silence, standing in strength, standing in solidarity, simply bearing witness to his pain. I know 50-year-old men who do not have friendships like these.
So, yes, I have changed my mind about football.
Read more from the Community Issue | February 2018