For the Love of the Game
Lewisburg- The choking August humidity, combined with the unrelenting sun beating down made it almost impossible to be outside, let alone in full football gear. Yet we pushed on and ran our drills with uniform precision and obedience. After a grueling 2hour practice full of one on one battles, sweat, blood and tears we all took the goal line in what would cap off our first practice of the year.
My lungs burned and veins pumped acid as I kept reassuring myself that it would be over soon. As cries of encouragement rang in my ears I crossed the finish line with relief washing over me as only a marathon runner must feel when they are done with a race. That was my first football practice ever. I was 12-years-old and just about to start the 6th grade. Football has dominated my fall months and life ever since then.
Football is one of the most unique sports in the world. It demands so much out of its players, not only on the field, but in the time spent preparing for the battle that occurs every weekend on crisp perfect fall days and nights. There are unparalleled highs that no drug or substance can offer and devastating lows that make you feel as though you can never recover. That is the game of football though. It is a game of love and hate, blood, sweat and tears.
What happens though when this game, one that has defined me for nearly 12 years is suddenly and abruptly over? This is the question that I face as my last week of football ever comes to a close. I have given so much to the sport that I love and cherish. At times there has been the overwhelming feeling that I did not want to, could not, go on and other times, like now, that I would give anything to be back on that field in the August heat.
The best way to describe my feelings about football is that it is a pure love-hate relationship. It is possible to surmise that this is a common and almost universal feeling of all those that have strapped on the pads and taken to the gridiron. I have witnessed countless teammates complain about practice and even pray that they would get injured to seeing 22-year-old men cry as there last game comes to an end.
â€œI do think I will miss the sport once I have finally stopped playing. But I am exited to spend my new free time doing other things.â€? Said Alex Molina, a former Uconn walk on who earned a scholarship his senior year and is now playing professionally in Europe.
For some this odyssey ends their senior year in high school. For a lucky few they get to endure four or five more years of playing the sport that elicits such a wide range of emotions. Finally even a smaller number get to play at the pinnacle of the game in the ranks of professionalism.
These are some quick numbers and facts to illustrate just how difficult it actually is to continue playing football past high school. According to the NCAA approximately 6.0 percent, or less than one in 16 of all high school senior boys playing interscholastic football will go on to play football at a NCAA member institution. Approximately one in 50, or 1.7 percent of NCAA senior football players will get drafted by a National Football League (NFL) team. Eight in 10,000, or approximately 0.08 percent of high school senior boys playing interscholastic football will eventually be drafted by an NFL team.
This means that out of 16 seniors on a football team only one will go on to play college football at either the division I, II, or III level. To make a division I football team is even more difficult. There are approximately 254,000 seniors who play high school football. There are only 5,042 athletic scholarships awarded at the division I level. Your odds are 1-50 that you get a scholarship, the same odds that a college senior will make the NFL.
Playing division I football is a great honor and privilege. So why is it that even though such a lucky few get to in college, we still complain and fanaticize about the day its over? Further more why is it that when its finally over all we wish is that we could play one more snap on our home field in front of thousands of screaming and adoring fans? The answer to this question is both simple and very complex. It is because football players devote so
much time, emotion and energy to the sport, we give our souls to the game and at times resent it, but at the end of the day, we would not be the 6 percent if we did not truly love the sport.
Joe Susan’s face was full of emotion, torn between memories of glory and longing for one more chance to “impose his will,” as he often tells his players during practice, as I asked if he would go back and play his college years over again. He paused and with a yearning tone succinctly replied, “I would.”
Joe Susan is the head football coach at Bucknell University and played his college days at the University of Delaware from 1973-1976. He was a highly recruited offense tackle from northern New Jersey with multiple offers from larger schools, but in just the third game of his senior year dislocated his knee. “It changed the landscape of the schools I was dealing with,” said Susan. He eventually took a scholarship offer from the University of Delaware and started his junior and senior seasons, playing in a national title game and the national semi-finals.
Susan’s corner office is clad with memorabilia from his former coaching posts, signed balls by NFL players with personal thank you notes, countless pictures, a book case filled with game plans and coaching manuals and then the center piece, a giant wooden desk spattered
with papers, note books and even more pictures. Coach Susan’s deep booming voice instantly puts those listing to him in a trance. His voice and speeches are so inspirational that it is not outside of the realm of reality that he could convince a pacifist to passionately go to war.
“The unique memories were when we were freshman, we actually played a freshman schedule and we played at Penn State and it was funny because there were about 500 people in the stands and at that time Penn State sat somewhere around 90,000 and I played against two defensive lineman, one was named Brad Benson who ultimately was an all pro for the New York Giants as an offensive lineman,” Susan fondly recounted with the same passion and longing in his eyes.
This is what football does to those that are fortunate enough to play at any level. It leaves an imprint on our souls and hearts that will never fade. As Coach Susan says to us in team meetings, “football will never leave you, you are always a football player. When you wake up in the morning and there is pain in your knees, back and shoulders, you will remember you’re a football player.” This is the hardest truth about the game. Even when the game leaves you behind to makes its indelible mark on another young man, you are still left with the memories that are stronger than any others.
My senior year of high school we played at one of our biggest rivals schools. It was a perfect October day, the smell of fall that lingers in your memory and tells you its football season, the brilliant fall colors painting the rolling landscape and the cool crisp air kissing your face as sweat runs down your cheeks. We entered half time down 22-0, our team on the brink of surrender. With a calm unmatched by the wisest of wise men, our coach simply said, “Men we have an opportunity here. We can fight back and win this game for our seniors. If we do, I promise you that it will be a game that you will never forget.”
With the determination of a starving man trying to feed his family we clawed and fought our way back to win 29-22. When I close my eyes I still see the opposing players faces, I can smell the grass, feel the impacts as I fight off blocks and bring down their running back. Most of all I still can feel the pure ecstasy and jubilation of making the greatest comeback I have ever experienced, feeling like I could not stand, like I had been beaten up by a mob of angry men, being so exhausted that words were difficult to formulate all of which made me feel more alive and elated than I have ever felt.
Shifting my weight in the comfortable padded wooden chair I cleared my throat and asked Coach Susan what its like going out onto the field as a coach and watch your players play the game you love, he replied before the last words had left my mouth “It’s hard.”
I continued to ask what he misses most about playing. “Hitting people and competing… I’ve always played competitive softball…you have to find a way to keep score in your life otherwise your keeping score against yourself,” said Susan. He went on to add that nothing after college football compares to the competitiveness you feel while playing.
Football does not only give those that play it memories and fill physical needs to hit people, it also teaches its players so much about life. To play and finish a college career you need to not only be physically tough, but mentally tough. You have to learn to work with other people, take coaching and most of all learn how to compete.
College football is a ruthless sport, not only for the sheer violence that you experience on the field, but also in the sense that you are always fighting to keep your spot as a starter. You have to go out every single day whether it’s in the weight room, meeting room or on the field and give everything you have. The day that you stop competing is the day that you loose your spot. But competition is not only reserved for the practice field. Every athlete will tell you that after their done with their sport, competition is the thing that they miss most with the camaraderie you feel as a close second.
“One of the major things I am going to miss is the competition. I am a very competitive person and football is a great game to play. I will also miss the camaraderie. The
relationships you create with your teammates is special because of everything you have to go through and all the time you spend with them. I also think the game of football is great and there is no other sport like it.â€? Said Molina as he enters his last season playing professionally in Europe.
As I enter my last week of competitive football I will ever play, I reflect on the vast and amazing experiences that I have been so fortunate to have. I have given so much to the game, countless hours of practice, 6am summer workouts, running and lifting until you have no more energy to give, hours upon hours spent studying film and your opponent until you know what shoe size the man is and of course the culmination of all your hard work over months and years just for the 60 minutes that you are allowed to play the game you love.
Football is like no other sport, if one man makes a mistake it does not matter if you have an all-pro running back, the play is going to be stopped for a loss. The one constant that every coach preaches is that it takes all 11. In basketball or hockey you can have one all star who dribbles or skates through the entire team with no help to win the game, but with football, it takes every man in perfect unison to achieve that one over ridding goal, leave the field with nothing left to give and that amazing feeling of victory, unsurpassed by any other.
When I take my last snap and the last second ticks off the clock this Saturday I will leave the game, but it will never leave me. It is something that has haunted me all season, something I have dreaded, but now I realize I am leaving the sport and with that allowing one of the lucky few high school seniors a chance to play the game I love, the game that will never leave me.