I did not grow up a football fan.
In our family, baseball was where the love was.
Not that my father didn't love a good football game. Frankly, I'm not sure they've invented a sport he wouldn't watch. But I didn't develop much of an affinity for football until I married an Ohio State alum.
Now that's commitment to a sport. Living with him, or more accurately, living with his obsession for college football, convinced me that football wasn't, as I had once thought, just a sport for the big, dumb and violent.
Instead, I learned to appreciate the complexities of the game, and once I started roaming the sidelines of high school games, that appreciation grew to genuine affection. I have been converted completely watching teenagers play one of the most grueling sports around.
Playing football down after down, day after day, requires the kind of aggressive commitment that boxers or wrestlers display. Only in those sports, you don't have to worry about protecting or disappointing your teammates.
When the game is on the line, and you're on the field, you can't think about fatigue. You can't worry about pain. As Jessie Ventura said in "Predator," you certainly "don't have time to bleed."
In fact, someone once told me it is a metaphor for war. And while I think it is a very superficial metaphor, I see some similar concepts displayed from the safety of the sideline. Watching teenagers deliver or take a hit so their friends can earn a little glory has made me much more appreciative of that comparison. Their lives are not at stake, but certainly their bodies are.
The football field is not the place you go looking for compassion.
But it is the place, once in a while, where you will actually find the most compelling examples of brotherly love. Last Friday night, I watched senior Kaden Carli fly around the football field as part of the suffocating Alta defense. I was impressed with his speed and skill, but when the game ended, I saw something that impressed me even more than his ability to break up a pass.
Two Bingham players fell to their knees when the game ended. Their dreams of another 5A championship gone. They put their heads in their hands and wept just a few feet from each other. Carli left his teammates, who were celebrating, and knelt down beside them. He whispered something to them and then embraced them. He helped them to their feet, and then they went to their sideline and he to his.
It was a moment so moving, it almost felt like it didn't belong on this battlefield. But then again, it also seemed like the perfect place to offer a gesture of respect and comfort to the guys who just made you work so hard for something you've dreamed about all of your life.
I asked Alta coach Les Hamilton about Carli and he wasn't surprised. This senior was a 1,000-yard rusher before life as an Alta Hawk. He, and probably everyone who'd watched him play little league football, thought he'd be starting for the Hawks.
But that's the thing about high school kids come together from all over to represent a community. And in Carli's case, he met a boy the same age named Sausan Shakerin, who would earn himself the Mr. Football title as a junior.
"It was tough, after being in the spotlight, to being put in the background," said the senior defensive back. But his love for football kept him on the playing field. "Football is definitely No. 1. I love the game, the camaraderie. Nothing brings you as close as football."
So Carli played backup to one of the best running backs in the state for two years. Then this summer, his coaches persuaded him to move to the other side of the ball.
"I figured I could help my team more playing defense," he said. "Defense is a lot of fun. You get to run around and show more intensity. Offense is more finesse. You hit more on defense."
Carli became one of the Hawks' "best cover guys," according to Hamilton. His efforts helped the team earn another chance at a 5A state title, but they also showed he hasn't forgotten the lessons the game has taught him.
"I just told them, 'I know how this feels. You're great football players; keep your heads up,"' Carli said. "I've been where they're at, and it helps to have someone from the team say something to you."Because only another guy who has suffered through two-a-days, gotten up early on Saturdays to watch films, committed to workouts long after the season's end or stood on a field and continued to get battered when the game was out of reach, could offer that kind of comfort in such a brutal, unforgiving moment.
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