I let my son play football

My son is a "grassasaurus." He's been this way since he was 4 years old. When he was born, we named him Caleb, but he turned into a dinosaur during his first soccer game. It's now been seven years, but I remember it like it was yesterday.

It was our first preschool soccer game. All the moms and dads piled out of their minivans and SUVs, orange slices and juice boxes in hand for after the game. Everyone was gearing up for what would become a lifetime of running kids to and from sporting events.

Courtesy Anna McDonald

Caleb McDonald played tackle football for the first time this season.

The kids were having a good time, but halfway through the soccer game my son was lying in the middle of the field pulling grass up from the ground and throwing it all over his body. My husband and I weren't exactly sure what to do, but the coach left him in and all the other kids played the game around him.

Afterward, Caleb told us he was being a "grassasaurus," a dinosaur that eats low-growing plants and covers himself with grass to stay cool like an elephant. At this point, we knew soccer would not be his sport.

As the years went by, we tried other sports but never pushed him into anything. We read dinosaur books, built towers with Legos, played in the back yard and started running and swimming for exercise. We let him become comfortable in his unique dinosaur skin.

This May, 48 hours after Junior Seau put a gun to his chest, I was sitting in my office when Caleb came running in holding a piece of paper. "Mom," he said out of breath from running. "Can you sign me up for tackle football? I want to play."

He's 11 now and he has never before asked to play a sport. In the middle of the firestorm of reporting on the dangers of football, we had to decide whether we would pay $300 for a sport that scared us to death. Many parents in his class would not let their sons play tackle football this fall.

The parents who said "yes" to the sixth-grade team (which is the feeder program for our local high school) and their kids are the future in a new age of football. While the risks associated with playing any sport have always been on the minds of parents, head injuries in football are under a microscope like never before.

We are the parents who for the first time considered the implications of concussions and let our kids play anyway.

We are the parents who watched our kids try to keep their heads upright under the unfamiliar weight when they put on their helmets for the first time and said prayers that those helmets would protect their brains.

We are the parents who watched our quarterback get hit in the first game of the season on the fourth play in the first series and sat quietly as he was carried off the field. He would need season-ending knee surgery.

We are the parents who watched the trainer call 911 for an ambulance twice this season.

We are the parents who watched the coaches teach the kids how to take a knee when someone gets hurt.

We are the parents who watched our sensitive boys as they struggled to cope with the strange feeling that when they hit someone and he gets hurt, it's OK.

Yet, we are the parents who kept driving our kids back day after day, week after week, to practices and games because we believed there is something beautiful football teaches our children.

That was hard to imagine at the first practice in August. As I sat on the hill overlooking the field, I was pretty sure it would be our first and last. It was 102 degrees. They were doing a mini-training camp, heavy on conditioning and light on fun. As the kids did jumping jacks and ran hills, a coach kept yelling, "Work hard, ladies! You are becoming football players."

I asked Caleb on the ride home what he thought of practice.

"Awesome!" he said.

I was shocked.

"Mom," Caleb said. "After the first lap we ran, I said to myself, 'I'm never coming back here again,' but then coach, he told us we all have to run together. He told us no one can come in first and if anyone comes in last we all have to run another lap. We had to be a team."

Courtesy Anna McDonald

The Ladue Rams, a team in suburban St. Louis, made the playoffs.

From that moment on, football clicked for Caleb.

There are certain kids who need football. They need the roughness. They need a safe and appropriate place to hit each other.

The head coach for our program, Howard Tash, says he rarely, if ever, finds a good athlete among the big kids on the line. If youth football goes away, the quarterback and wide receivers can find a different sport, but football is the perfect place for kids with varying skills and body types.

There is also the camaraderie. This year as an offensive lineman, Caleb learned the fluid motion of teamwork: Players have to execute their synchronized assignments in addition to winning one-on-one battles testing physical and mental strength.

A few months into the season, I asked him why he thought football connected with him more than other sports we've tried.

"Mom," he said in with that preteen tone of "duh." "You have to play together as a team. If you don't get along and don't work well together, the whole play falls apart."

NFL franchises have built dynasties around that philosophy.

Most importantly, he learned a football player should act a certain way off the field.

Coach told the kids that if they see any kid being bullied in the halls at school to grab teammates and stand up for the kid being bullied. They learned when they are off the football field they still must act like a team, to stick up for each other everywhere.

Other parents might not agree with our decision to let Caleb play football. We all see the NFL headlines. Our kids watch, too. They know Jay Cutler, Alex Smith and Michael Vick (among others) were concussed this year.

When Caleb was a baby, I bought, steamed and pureed organic carrots and then froze them in ice cube trays for healthy baby food. I protected him so much he hardly ever got a skinned knee, and now he's playing football? Yes, because as a parent, my goal is to give him the best foundation for him to use his own wings and fly.

We are the new generation of football, the parents who watched our children become football players while the battle in the NFL over how to keep players safe raged on. Our kids are the future of football.

Now our grassasaurus, eyes peering through his facemask, motionless in his stance on the line, loves when he gets to do the same thing he did when he was 4: lie on the field, covered in grass and mud. Only now, he has a defensive lineman pinned beneath him.

As a mom who said a prayer for my son's safety every time I put his pads back in his uniform after washing the grass stains and mud away, I can say, thanks to football, our grassasaurus has never been happier. I only hope the game he loves never becomes extinct.

Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.

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