If you pay attention to the news, it is easy to get discouraged. You don’t see a lot of good news.
Recently racial issues have been a hot button topic across the news and social media. I have paid attention to issues and followed them rather closely. There are fewer topics that will divide people in this country quicker or more completely than social justice issues generally and racial divides specifically.
I wouldn’t exactly call myself a standard-bearer, but I advocate for my sons and that has led me to become active in the discussion on racial equality and relations. I have actively sought out definitions to words and concepts such as racism, bigotry and white privilege. This journey has opened my eyes. It has made me confront some hard personal realities. It has also made new friends for me . . . and cost me some friendships as well. There is always a price for enlightenment. If that is the cost of being a better father to my boys and a better person, then so be it.
Like I said. It is easy to get discouraged in light of recent events. Just when I thought there wasn’t much to be happy about in these regards, Charlie and a group of little boys showed me there is hope.
We are a sports family. Charlie likes lots of sports, but football is different to him.
“Football makes sense to me,” Charlie answered from the back seat after a recent game. “Just follow the rules and try hard,” he said. “The rest just happens.” For my son, football is a refuge and, ironically, a safe place. He knows what’s expected of him. School is a struggle. He is winning that struggle, but it is grueling for him. On the football field there is no “i before e except after c”, there is no capital of South Dakota or times tables. There is hard work and teammates.
We are constantly looking for a ways to put our boys in contact with diverse groups of people. Sports, especially because of the large numbers of people involved, provide that. The Fairbanks Youth Football Association draws a very diverse group from across the community and the club he is assigned to, the Wolfpack, reflects that diversity.
From the first day of practice Charlie’s team seemed to click. From players to coaching staff to parents, everybody was on the same page. I’ve had good youth sports experiences and I have had less than good youth sports experiences. This season has turned out to be one of the best.
There was a small hiccup at the first scrimmage when Charlie was sent off the field by the head coach for committing a holding penalty. The coach didn’t see the entire play, especially the part where Charlie got spit on. Charlie tried to explain to his coach and the officials, but nobody was listening. He ran to the sideline in tears. Two coaches sensed something was wrong and took him aside and calmed him down. One coach, a young black man, brought up a video of Charlie’s favorite player making tackles. The sight of the Baltimore Raven’s Linebacker Ray Lewis making tackles cheered him right up. It was one of the coolest mentoring moves I’ve every seen. Charlie went back in and played with a vengeance. The assistant coach gave Charlie the nickname “Baby Ray” and it stuck.
Charlie’s head coach was devastated to find out that Charlie had reacted that way and that he had a part to play in it. Right then and there, in front of everybody, the coach apologized to Charlie. He talked to me later to find out how he could better communicate with Charlie. He made it right.
There were wins and losses during the season, but they got better each week. Regardless of the result, the effort was always there. Charlie blossomed as a football player. All of the kids improved. Not just as athletes, but as teammates. It is standard football practice procedure to run a lap if you aren’t paying attention or commit some other offense. At one practice a young man jumped offside. He was instructed to “take a lap.” Spontaneously, all of the kids joined him in his run. “If one runs, we all run,” explained one of Charlie’s teammates.
Over the season I got a sense of camaraderie and kinship within this extremely diverse group of 7-9 year old kids (not just boys, there is a girl on his team) and their coaches that was special. There was a sense of family that all teams strive for, but few actually achieve. The level of family they achieved would help me have faith in the future.
Charlie’s last game of the season was last Saturday. Family commitments are calling us out of state for the playoffs. Charlie and the team were disappointed, but they understand. Charlie’s team finished in second place. Last Saturday was their last game against the Malemutes, the first place team. Charlie’s Wolfpack just couldn’t seem to beat the Malemutes this season. His entire team was fired up to have one last regular season shot at them.
The game was incredible. Both teams played very well. I won’t bore you with Charlie’s stats, but they were glowing. But from top to bottom is was an incredible effort. The game went to overtime, but the Wolfpack came up short 26-20.
The team made a big deal over the fact that this was Charlie’s last game. A coach told Charlie how proud he was to have been his coach this year and presented him with a game ball. A barbecue was scheduled for after the game. Once the p0st-game huddle broke up the boys scrambled for hot dogs and hamburgers.
After they had done considerable damage to a case of burgers and a case of hot dogs, the kids ran and played and watched the older kids play their game. I took phone numbers from parents interested in keeping the kids together during the off season while Charlie and his buddies threw a football around with their coaches.
I looked at my watch. I wasn’t eager to bring his fun to an end, but we had things to do. I told Charlie it was time to go. Charlie approached his head coach to say goodbye. His coach gathered Charlie in a giant hug. “I’m so proud of you, Charlie,” he said. “You take care of yourself and we’ll see you when you get back.” Charlie smiled up at him. Coach gave him one last hug. He look up and called the remaining players around to say goodbye.
Slowly about 15 boys gathered around Charlie. The hugged him and said goodbye. I looked at the multicolored group of boys gathered around him. It was impressive to see kids this age expressing this type of emotion. I started to take a picture, but lowered my camera. It didn’t seem right. This type of thing should be witnessed and remembered, not necessarily recorded.
One boy wrapped his arms around Charlie. “I’m gonna miss you, man,” he said. “I love you, Charlie.”
Another boy put his arms around Charlie’s shoulders. “Me too, Charlie. I love you.” The other boys crowded around. Charlie used his man-size arms to pull them closer to his little boy’s heart. They stood there with their arms entwined for a long time. They seemed oblivious to the fact that anybody was watching. In the fading light it was hard to make out one from the other. Brown blended into black and black melted into white.
I looked at a group of kids who appreciated, even loved, each other for who they were and what they offered to the group. I wondered what it would take for the sentiments displayed by this group of 7-9 to be more widely appreciated and accepted. I know it’s a naïve thought, but maybe . . . just maybe.
I heard Charlie’s voice from the middle of the circle.
“Who are we?” Charlie called from the middle of the circle. His voice was clear, with no emotional crack at all. The emotion of the moment wasn’t lost on him, I realized. He just wasn’t surprised by it. These were his people and he loved them too.
“Wolfpack!” answered his friends.
“WHO ARE WE?!”
The raised their hands to the center of the group. Charlie counted down “One, Two, Three . . .”
We have a long way to go in our country. There are a lot of questions to be answered and issues to be discussed by adults. As we strive for justice for all of us I will always look back on a group of boys who loved each other for the sake of each other and the team that brought them together. It’s a naïve thought, I know, but maybe taking our cues from our kids could lead us in the right direction.
Thanks for reading. We’ll see you again on This Side of the Diaper.