They’re Just Kids

I coached my first youth football game in over 30 years this past weekend.  It was great until we had to call an ambulance.

I semi-reluctantly volunteered to be a coach on Charlie’s youth football team this past year.  I have coached quite a bit in my life, but not much football.  That is ironic seeing as football played an important role in my early life.

My reluctance melted away quickly as the practices progressed.  It was rejuvenating to be around kids and football.  It was even better to spend time with Charlie close and Eli across the field with his team.

Our first game started auspiciously with our offense working smoothly and efficiently and our defense smothering the other team.  I watched with pride and satisfaction as our boys executed their plays and responsibilities smoothly.  As a youth coach I have never been overly concerned with wins and losses.  They are meaningful, of course, but I measure progress on how much our teams learns and how well it is applied.

Our first challenge came when our quarterback came off the field holding his shoulder.  He was in tears.  A quick look told us that it wasn’t serious, but he was going to be out for awhile.  As coaches, we try to get players to understand the difference between ‘hurt’ and ‘injured’.  ‘Hurt’ is something that will stop hurting soon.  Football is full of hurts.  ‘Injured’ is something that won’t stop hurting without medical attention.  The problem with this idea of ‘hurt’ and ‘injured’ is that even full grown men sometimes don’t know the difference or will lie to you.  Eleven-year-olds can’t tell the difference most of the time and it simply isn’t their job to decide.  Our quarterback sat until he could demonstrate to the coaches, and more importantly his mother, that he was not injured.  I told her that I didn’t think it was serious, but it was her call as to whether he reentered the game.

I coach the defense specifically and as the half wore on I moved kids around and changed schemes like a chess master.  I moved pieces around the board and we were wildly successful.  Then one of our players didn’t get up.

I knew it was bad when I saw it.  We were on offense.  We had struggled a little after our quarterback went out, but our backup got settled and things were going our way.  He handed it off to our running back and he burst through the line.  This particular young man runs hard.  He does everything hard.  You can’t ‘kind of’ tackle this kid.  He has to be completely tackled.  He broke tackles in the secondary and had tacklers hanging on him as he went down.  He was fighting for yards and made a last step with his left foot on his way down.  His leg folded under him awkwardly.

I was on my way out to him before the pile got up.  His father, who is also a coach, got there first.  Remember earlier what I was saying about ‘hurt’ and ‘injured’?  There was no question that something was very wrong.  He was laying kind of on his back and kind of on his right side.  His left hip bulged unnaturally and he was telling his Dad that “it popped.” He screamed when any effort at all was made to move him or examine the injury.  My wife said they could clearly hear him in the stands.

In an instant he stopped being a football player and became a terrified kid.  I looked up. The field was full of them.  I looked around and they were all scared kids. They were used to players getting hurt.  This was different and they knew it.

All of our coaches and many parents have some level of first aid training . . . but this was way out of our league.  In the military I learned to treat a sucking chest wound with my ID card, but that wasn’t going to help.  I also learned in first aid training to immediately call for help when necessary.  I looked at the kid’s Dad.  “We’re going to need help on this ,” I said as low as I could.  I didn’t want to scare the boy anymore than was necessary.  “Let me call an ambulance.”  He looked at me for a few moments.  He was holding his son’s hand.  “Absolutely,” he said.  “Call an ambulance.”

Another coach grabbed his phone and dialed.  I stood up and looked around.  The kids on our bench were wide eyed.  Some were in tears, though now they would never admit it.  Charlie took a few steps away from the team toward the huddle on the field.  “Hang in there man!” he yelled.  “We got you buddy!”  He is a team captain and he acted like one.   “Everybody on the sideline,” he ordered.  “Take a knee.”  Just one more reason to be proud of Charlie.

The field isn’t far from our hospital and soon sirens sounded in the distance.  The effect of the sirens on a youth sports field is sobering.  The sound confirms that something that started very, very good took a bad turn.  It’s sad any time, but it is especially sad when kids are involved.

I walked back and knelt beside the young man.  “Hey, I need to talk to you,” I said with seriousness.  He looked up and me through his tears and nodded.  “What kind of music do you like?” I asked.  He looked at me like I had two heads.

“Huh?”

I didn’t crack a smile.  “The ambulance driver called back and they wanted to know what music you like so they can play it on the ride to the hospital . . . I don’t know . . . I think it’s some kind of customer service thing . . . but whatever . . . . what music do you like?”

He blinked at me.

“Well, I didn’t know so I guessed,” I told him while still staying serious.  “I figured since you and I are so tight . . . you know . . . you’re my boy and all . . . that you probably liked the same music as me.”

He blinked again.

“So I told him to go with Classic Country  . . . George Strait . . . George Jones . . .”

“Who?”

“Country singers”

Finally a small smile worked its way through the pain and tears.  “Country? . . . I don’t like country music.”

“Impossible . . . everybody loves country music.”  I smiled down at him.  “You get better, buddy . . . hang in there.”

He smiled again and I left him to his Dad and the small group that was comforting him.  We had more kids who needed help.

The paramedics arrived and took charge.  They assessed the situation and asked permission to give the child something for the pain.  The pain killer required that an intravenous line be started.  Our boy screamed louder when they started the IV than when he got hurt.  I shook my head . . . I’ve seen this before.  Work through a serious injure like a champ and lose it when the IV is started.  This phenomenon is not restricted to children by the way.  There was lots of applause and yelled support as he was loaded in the ambulance.

I watched the ambulance pull away and I thought about the time my son was inside.  Parker collapsed after taking a blow to the chest during a game when he was a Junior in high school.  The immediate feeling is helplessness.  The next feeling it so forbid the child to even say the word football for the rest of his life.  But that logic doesn’t really work.  If I forbid any mention of activities that have caused my kids harm then the words ‘bicycle’, ‘soccer’, ‘hockey’,’running’, ‘golf’,’slides’, ‘swings’, ‘Nerf’, ‘laundry baskets and stairs’ and ‘jumping rope’ would not be in our vocabulary.  I would probably not allow my kids to mention any kitchen utensils just out of the fear of potential injury.  For me personally the list of forbidden words would include ‘matches’ (or any mention of fire, actually) and an all inclusive list of alcoholic beverages.

My point is that being a kid is hazardous and results in emergency room visits.  It is easy to just blame a game or certain activity, but I am not sure it is always logical. Charlie has broken two bones in his body . . . once in a bicycle wreck and once in a soccer game.  Eli has had stitches in his head from getting hit with a golf club.  We still let Charlie ride his bike and soccer is held up by many parents as a ‘safer’ alternative to football as a team sport.  We don’t let Charlie randomly swing golf clubs  . . . not usually anyway  . . . but I wouldn’t tell Eli he can’t play golf.

As parents we are in a quandary.  Do we protect our children by keeping them away from activities that we deem ‘unsafe’ even if they want to participate?   I don’t think it is that easy.  I choose to let my sons choose their sport and then help promote safe participation.  When I played we tackled with our faces on the ball and  concussion protocol was ‘How Many Fingers am I Holding Up With an Allowable Error of Two Fingers”. Today we teach shoulder tackling and I can sit a kid if I even suspect he has a concussion.  Honestly, many parents have a problem with the overly-masculine, adrenaline filled, profanity-laced  coaching stereotypes.  Common sense and parental oversight have combined to slowly phase that style out.

I am a team sports guy . . . it just so happens that I connect culturally and emotionally with football.  I see the qualities that team sports like football promote.  I see them in my own sons. One mom on our team told my wife that she has seen a marked improvement in her son’s behavior since he started playing football.  She credits the discipline and guidance involved in the game.

The prognosis is good for our player.  No permanent damage and his activity level is governed only by the pain he feels. Right now that pain is probably considerable, but he is already itching to get back to his friends and his game.  I have always believed that life is a series of learning experiences.  We are obligated to look at what happens around us and learn.  Our boys learned that a game you love can turn on you.  Every player on the field grew up a little.

Coaches can learn as well.  I have never been ‘that’ coach.  I have never been a ‘win first’ or ‘my way’ coach.  My favorite part of coaching kids is relating to them and building relationships.  I love seeing kids smile and have fun with other kids.  Sometimes however, in the heat of the game I forget about individuals and think strategy.  I won’t ever again lose sight, even for a moment, that they are just kids.

Thanks for reading and sharing.  We’ll talk again soon on This Side of the Diaper.

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