I watch the glow of my son's eyes in the computer screen and slowly, a realization has come over him — has come over me — and it is this: Before this season is over, my kid is going to kick your kid's ass.
It's difficult to describe exactly what emotions run through a father's head the first time his son straps on shoulder pads and a helmet, chomps down on a rubber mouthpiece, jogs out onto a football field and subsequently gets the crap knocked out of him by another kid he never saw coming.
Truth be told, if I'd acted on my basest animal instincts when this happened at my son's first football practice last week, I would have run out onto the field, pushed everyone away from my child, poked the other kid in the eyes and then gathered my son — my sweet baby James! — up in my arms, told the coach this has all been a terrible mistake and then filled the back seat and trunk of my car with Happy Meals and Topps football cards on the way home as my atonement for sending him into battle so unprepared.
Tackle football is a lot different from flag. I guess I forgot to tell him that part.
I don't reckon that's what my son would've wanted me to do, though. And I don't suppose that would have been the best response as far as his self-esteem and playground cred would go. It's just that I had never personally witnessed somebody hitting my child before, knocking him silly all over a ballfield and stepping on his head.
Truth be told, James is having the time of his life. He is 7, and his cuts and bruises are marks of distinction and pride, the initial carvings of alpha-maledom into his skin and psyche. To me, they are savage assaults against his soft, beautiful skin. He's my youngest, my precious, my baby. He is beautiful. And he really does't like it when I say that.
I have discovered that most 7-year-old boys in shoulder pads and helmets don't, in fact, like to be called beautiful. And it just feels like it's going to be a long, unendurable season, particularly with the painful, mortifying, damn-near-crippling realization of what has become of me: I'm a soccer mom.
I hover. I fret. Here, I brought you some fruit. Are you sure you've got enough water? I swear to God, if I show up at practice with a folding chair, a latte and the latest issue of Town & Country, somebody, please: Just shoot me.
When I was younger, I didn't really have a great deal of official football instruction. Let's just say I had issues with authority figures and leave it at that.
So I just went with what felt natural. At home, I told him to put on his pads and we went outside and I started throwing a football at him as hard as I could, over and over. It started with the ball bounching off his face mask and off his shoulder pads and after a few sessions like this, he started catching them. All of them.
Once we'd accomplished this lesson, I told James to put on his pads and told his older brother and sister to come outside. Then I sat down on the stoop and told them to knock their little brother off his feet and every time he tried to get up, to knock him over again.
His older brother and sister, they really like how this football season has worked out so far.
But then they began having trouble knocking him down and keeping him down, so I said what the hell and got off the stoop and started knocking him over myself. Over and over, for a couple of days, until all that was left of this game was him standing.
Every time I monitor what he's doing online, he's on YouTube, typing in various phrases like "nfl" and "hardest hits ever." So I wrote down a name from my past and told him to look it up — then I got all Karate Kid on him and said: This is all you will ever need to know.
And he laughed so hard he had tears in his eyes and I thought about telling him to have some respect — until I remembered that the first time I ever heard the name Dick Butkus, I nearly peed myself.
I watch the glow of my son's eyes in the computer screen and slowly, ever so slowly, a realization has come over him — has come over me — and it is this: Before this season is over, my kid is going to kick your kid's ass.
Ya hear me? He's going to knock him down, stomp him into the mud, maybe even kick him in the head — but not on purpose.
And then he'll reach his hand out to help up your son before doing it to him all over again.
Because Dick Butkus was a gentleman about things like that.