A Special Note to Future Football Moms
By Vanessa Mejia | USA Football
Dear Mama on the Fence,
I understand your concern. I understand your fear.
It seems like everywhere we turn these days, football is getting a bad rep.
My son "will never play football. No, no." - Justin Timberlake, days before he was set to take the field at halftime of this year’s Super Bowl.
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier suffering a spinal injury on national TV.
Maryland state delegate Terri Hill drafting a bill to ban tackle football for children under the age of 14, and similar legislation cropping up in California, Illinois and New York.
I get you.
In fact, I was you.
But that was because I was allowing the thoughts and opinions of others to influence what was ultimately my sports parenting decision.
What the media doesn't tell you is that almost no sport is free of concussion hazard. Lacrosse, ice hockey, wrestling, and soccer are risky as well.
They don't tell you that most youth football organizations, as well as high school programs, practice Heads Up Football. Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Schools, the 10th largest school district in the country, has reported a 43.3 percent decline in concussions since employing the technique in 2013.
"What sports do your children play?"
"They play football, basketball, and soccer."
More often than not, I already know their response to my answer before they even open their mouths.
"You mean they play flag football?"
"No, they play tackle."
The look on each person’s face usually talks before they do. How on earth do I let them play tackle?
Aren't I afraid they'll get hurt? Aren't I afraid of concussions? My children will never play football!
And you know what? I get it. I really do. I was that mom about six years ago. My oldest was in second grade and wanted to play football. I immediately shut him down. I thought there was no way this scrawny, little toothpick is a football player. Luckily, he didn't push. He went on about second grade playing soccer and basketball.
That winter, during basketball season, we met an amazing family whose youngest son played on the same team as my son. They were some of the friendliest, most supportive people I had ever met. Dad was a PE teacher and mom was a group fitness instructor. Dad played the drums at church and mom helped teach Sunday School. And guess what? Both of their sons played football. Real, tackle football.
Dad reached out to my husband and I, inquiring as to whether or not our son would be interested in playing in the fall. I immediately said he was not. But after a few more conversations with them, as well as with my husband, I began to change my mind. He explained to us how he coached, and all the safety precautions they took. Winter basketball ended (their team did great!) and we went about our regularly scheduled program.
As summer began, I received a Facebook message from none other than "Football Dad" asking whether or not my boy was signed up yet. I explained to him that he wasn't just yet, but that he definitely would be. I'm not even going to lie, reading the waiver scared the living daylights out of me, but I signed it. Everything in life has risks, right? He was signed up to play, and my husband was signed up to coach.
About a month or so later, he got his helmet and equipment and practice began. I honestly wasn't sure what to expect. I actually ended up with TWO kids playing tackle. My original plan was to have my middle child play a year of flag as he was only 7 years old. (Tackle football in our area begins at age 7, as long as the child weighs at least 40 pounds). He attended the non-contact minicamp alongside his older brother and decided that he, too, wanted to play tackle.
Before I knew it, both my big boys were "hitting,” my husband was coaching, and I was the team mom. And it has been that way ever since.
Entering our seventh season as a football family, I want to share with you all that I have gained and learned thanks to the amazing sport that is tackle football.
- 1. A newfound respect for coaches. All of the coaches in our club are volunteers, from the head coach to assistants. They spend countless months, days, and hours on the field and off, helping our children to become the best they can be. Many begin so young and haven't the slightest idea how to even get into a three-point stance. The coaches don't make a penny, but they invest lifelong lessons into our players that cannot be bought.
- 2. Not all football leagues are created equal. My boys play in a league that definitely puts its players’ safety first. All of our coaches are USA Football Heads Up certified. They spend hours obtaining this certification to be able to teach the proper tackling technique to our players. I have received several inquiries in my position as registrar specifically questioning this. Parents get a sense of relief when I tell them, "yes.” As a result, we have had ZERO concussions in the four seasons that I have been a part of the league. I take that back. One little boy got one at school and had to sit out several games. You see? It didn’t even happen on the football field. Concussions can happen anywhere.
- 3. Hard-working boys. Come August, my boys practice five days a week, two hours a day. Rain or shine. As a result, they have learned that if you want something in life, you have to work hard to get it. Wins don't come easy. You have to shed sweat and tears.
- 4. There is definitely no I in team. Every single position in football is important. Every single one, from the center, to the kicker, to the offensive line. If the ball is not snapped correctly, the quarterback will not get it. If the offensive line doesn't hold its blocks, our quarterback will be sacked, which means he can't hand the ball to the running back or pass it to the wide receiver for the touchdown. No one player is more special than the other. I like that. I really do.
- 5. Lifelong friends. I've said it once and I'll say it again. There are no mamas like football mamas. They are the realest group of women I have ever met. Of course, I think it takes a special type of mama to let your child play tackle football anyway. None of them try to portray that picture perfect life. They all have issues, just like the rest of us. And they aren't afraid to say it. I have formed closer, stronger relationships with them than some of my friends that I have known for 10-plus years.
- 6. Football is family. Period. We all look out for one another. Can't get your child to practice? Don't worry, we'll pick him up. Didn't take anything out for dinner? Let's order post-practice pizza. Forget to send your child with a check on picture day? No worries. I have my checkbook with me. Unable to get your child to a game that is 40 minutes away due to a conflict in your schedule? I'll get him. I'll be on that side of town anyway picking up Bobby and Joe. Your child outgrow his cleats in the blink of an eye? He can have Billy's. We just got him a new pair. These are all true scenarios that I have witnessed with my own two eyes. I have never seen anything quite as amazing. The boys on the team are more than teammates. They're brothers.
These are just a few of the things that I have both gained and learned from my six seasons as a football mama. I could go on for days. For these reasons and so many more, I am forever thankful for giving organized tackle football the chance. And I would encourage all of you who may be on the fence to give it a try as well. I promise you won't regret it.
Vanessa Mejia is the mother of three football-playing boys, ages 14, 12 and 9, and lives in northern Virginia. Her boys also play basketball, soccer and track and field. Her husband coaches football in the Fairfax County Youth Football League. She shares Team Mom ideas, tips and tricks along with other facets of her family’s life away from the football field. For this blog, she asked her sons and their teammates why they're most thankful for their mothers within the context of football.