A four hour drive north brought us to Camden, New York last weekend and only three games away from playing in Pop Warner’s Super Bowl at Disney’s ESPN Sports Arena during the first week of December. The Hudson Valley Knights Midgets’ team had won their division and up until this game, were undefeated.
Excited would be an understatement.
Ready. Down. Set. Hut!
Sometime not long into the first half of the game, the ball was snapped and handed off from the quarterback to my 14-year old halfback.
Three seconds later my heart was lodged in my throat.
Two seconds before the throat lodging, a massive tank wearing the other team’s jersey lunged toward my son. The crowd literally gasped. My jaw dropped and the pupils in my eyes dilated as I watched in horror and failed to breathe. It was in that second, that one second at the point of contact, that I thought to myself:
Oh, God, this is why so many parents don’t let their kids play football.
In moments such as this, for one split second, all of the decisions you’ve made as a parent become clouded in doubt. Fear rears its manipulative head and begins to churn in yours immediately eating away at your confidence. And it was in that particular moment I prayed without realizing I was praying that the equipment my precious boy was wearing was all that it was supposed to be: SAFE.
In that one second I remembered that I never checked his helmet to make sure it had the sticker showing that it meets the standards of the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.
I meant to.
For it was in the moment that my heart lodged itself in my throat, that the giant from the other team had swooped down, seized my son’s thighs and in one-continuous-effortless-gliding-motion did his due diligence. Nearly as graceful as a male ballet dancer lifts a ballerina above his head, the opposing ogre raised 165 lbs. of my boy, gear and all, and seamlessly flipped him over his head causing him to land CRACK—SMACK, down on his back!
Only when he popped up like a spring from a board a few seconds later, did I begin to breathe again. Oh, I could tell my boy was a little shaken but he survived the throw-back and bounced back into the game almost as seamlessly as he was flipped over the other boy’s head. Luckily, Pop Warner’s equipment safety meets the highest standards.
Even though Pop Warner has clearly defined weight and age guidelines, before the second half of the game began, it was clear the other team had a physical advantage over our boys. Even the coach remarked that although it’s not unusual to come across one or two opposing players who are physically dominant on the field, our boys faced twenty and we lost to Chili (pronounced cheyeleye) which took us out of the championship. Naturally our boys walked away disappointed.
Me, I kept thinking about that moment, that one second in the game that caused my heart to lodge itself in my throat and I, walked away grateful.
In 1929, the owner of a new factory in Northeast Philadelphia enlisted the help of a young friend, Joseph J. Tomlin with a recurring problem. Over 100 of the factories’ ground-to-floor windows were shattered in one month’s time by teenagers hurling stones from a nearby vacant lot. Since other factories in the area were also being affected by the same type of vandalism, Tomlin, a sports enthusiast, recommended the building owners join together to fund an athletics program for the city’s youth. Although it wouldn’t be officially titled Pop Warner until the 1934 football season, that was indeed the beginnings of this long-standing organization.
Today Pop Warner is the largest and oldest non-profit, youth football organization in the world with over 400,000 participants ranging in age from 5 to 15. It is also the only youth organization with an academic requirement. The program is divided into four separate age/weight categories referred to as Jr. Pee Wee, Pee Wee, Jr. Midget and Midget.
My boy is a Midget.
His team, The HudsonValley Knights just won the Eastern Region Mid Hudson Conference. They are the League Champions and are now in the Regional Championship. They are undefeated and three games away from playing in the Pop Warner Super Bowl in Walt Disney World this December at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
For 83-years Pop Warner Football has been keeping its participants out of vacant lots, off the streets, off the couch, off the internet and on the playing fields. Over the years its basic philosophy that athletics and academics go hand-in-hand has remained the same, propelling its success. Kids are taught the value of dedication, hard work, practice and teamwork. They are given countless, hands-on opportunities to learn what it means to be responsible, have respect, integrity and loyalty.
These are the character traits of champions.