“You don’t like football,” my son says.
I disagree and cite evidence to prove my support: team apparel for myself and the family, hundreds of dollars of groceries from Costco for ‘football food’, picking him up from practice, spending hours online trying to upload and organize the multitude of lists and forms, and a general rearranging of life to meet the demands of afternoon practices and upcoming games. We’re in a deep argument by now and frankly, I’ve had it. It’s only later I realize, he’s right. I don’t like it.
I had not allowed him to play for years for all of the usual reasons: concussions and more concussions. When he was small, there wasn’t as much of a concern about the machismo and general discussion that surrounds the sport. While I had played football in my neighborhood growing up, I had never played a team sport other than one dismal season of softball at age 9, and I am the only person I know (other than my sister) who has never watched an entire Superbowl game. I did watch the Bruno Mars performance. I also watched the commercials one year for work (2001?) when I was assigned to do so. But other than that, football was one of those sports that had failed to engage me. I had enjoyed movies about football, but my live game time was limited.
In 3rd grade, my father took me to see the University of Iowa football team play a game on my birthday—the year that they lost every game. Dad bought me a pom-pom and we stayed until half time so I could watch the cheerleaders and then we went home. At boarding school there were co-ed cheerleaders who wore old wool sweaters from a vault of prepwear from days of yore who led cheers at the homecoming game. Since I was part of an advisory senior group, I too led cheers and wore a creamy white sweater emblazoned with a navy blue ‘A.’ I led a cheer where I misspelled our school’s name. I liked the yelling through the megaphone. Details like who was playing, the game itself, and spelling were another matter.
Fast forward another ten years and my mother won a raffle and I got four tickets to a live Raiders game. I went with a sister and my friend from acting class—he had previously studied and danced with the Houston Ballet, and another friend, a writer whose day job was high school football coach. The three of us stayed for the writer/football coach, but as I recall, I spent most of the time going back and forth for snacks. Ballet dancer had initially suggested selling the tickets and going out to brunch, but it was too late to do that. I had no idea football moved so slowly. I believe the team lost that game. I can’t remember.
As a teacher, I had come to accept football season as the time of year when students left class early and learned that to be a teenage football player was to enter an American myth, a boyhood dream. My student athletes of the football variety were always polite in class. And there was always the exceptional football player, the one who engaged deeply with reading and stories, who asked questions and pondered the material. But mostly, the players were exhausted, suffered from lack of sleep and obligations, having been recruited to these high fee schools for their athletic prowess. I understood what it meant. They were, at such a young age, professionals. The majority were students of color. Their families dreams and their community’s hopes were on their shoulders and they knew it. They were there to serve the elite school with their bodies. I understood what was at stake for them. College. Mentorship. A ticket out. Yet, truthfully, part of me chafed under this idea too. Poets and musicians are rarely granted such privileges and absences. Football players are exclusively boys. What I found even more trying was that the boys with interesting academic or creative abilities were often dismissed and slotted into spots because they were football players. Imposed limits on a young person. I look back on the kids I know who were athletes–what poetry they held was often buried by the school’s belief in how they served the institution. Homecoming at all schools revolves around this single sport that supposedly defines the social culture of the fall semester. None of it sat comfortably with me.
As a parent, I had been easily able to ignore the football stuff. Overseas there was rugby (nope, didn’t allow him to play that either) and soccer (yes, he played it).
The Kid had played soccer in Hong Kong. It had been the chosen sport of his father. Upon relocation to Hawai’i he continued to play, but it was just us two here. The first year could only be described as a heteronormative extreme. While all parents had to contribute, the team parent who took the reigns was extremely disgruntled when I explained my nearly 1.5 hour one way commute, and then said condescendingly, I was more or less like a single mom, (an entirely negative state from her assessment), so let me off of some duties and gruffly assigned me others.
Families are pressed. Modern family life is supposed to be a joyful time, but the sporting activities seem to take a toll on families, and yet there is a strong cultural expectation of participation in these activities. Coaches were the dads who had not played much, or so it seemed. There were a lot of boring drills, not much playing time. There was well-intentioned yelling “Get your head out of your butt, XXXX” and parents’ dreams of a soccer star dying at every practice. A very heavy kid lost 25 pounds that season, the entire team cheering him on as he ran across the field and scored a single goal.
Yet without a male figure by my side The Kid rarely had playing time. Fatherly interest assured time on the field, and while I raced home for practice, showed up for every game, brought the required snacks, and enthusiastically cheered, my presence as a mom didn’t hold much sway. The Kid’s athletic, but his short attention span became shorter as he played defense. He liked the camaraderie, was distracted by his hair falling in his eyes, and amiably followed the rest of the team. I decided then that I had to become more involved the next go around.
When time for soccer came up the following year, I volunteered for team parent, assigned snacks, sent out regular emails, and became the uber soccer mom to blow out all soccer moms. There were assigned snacks with specific rules. Get well cards. Car pool coordination. I refused to be trifled with. It was also a team that had several single moms and this time women, more than men, were the ones present at practice and games. The paradigm shifted. The coach had minimal drills and the kids played. “Kids like playing,” was his response. “Not so much drills.” Everyone played. The coach had no ambitions of anyone becoming a serious soccer player. The point was exercise and fun. The philosophy worked. The team did well. We’re still in contact with a few of the boys from that time. The Kid says that was his best year of playing soccer ever. It was that mythic time before boys’ playing abilities were about potential and the goal was fun.
The following year, several members of the soccer team decided to try basketball. Indoor games ran late–up to 9PM for an elementary school kid. Parents were friendly, but the vibe was different. Competitive. By now, students were 10 years old. From what I could see, no one was heading to a professional team, but the intensity at which they played and the parental involvement was clear: they were gunning for private school spots, and to do this, they had to show that they excelled at a sport. Parents were not messing around. I heard a parent brag that her child’s ambition was to play basketball at Yale. He was 10. The tiresome vibe had started: What school is your child applying to? An admissions officer encouraged me to keep my child on a team, to have him play at a high level as that might influence his private school acceptance. My child liked basketball as much as soccer, but it was mostly about the camaraderie. Why I was supposed to do this instead of art class to get him into a private school was beyond me. It was, in fact, the most ridiculous thing I had ever heard–unless the child was keen to do the sport. I suppose if I was dealing with a professional level figure skater this would be one thing. But I’m not big on sacrificing time to the altar of sport for a school spot when the kid is 10!
The next soccer season happened when my marriage headed to extinction. The difference for this team was that the the involved parents were fathers, unlike the previous season of mothers. They were a nice bunch–the fathers were friendly. It was hard for me to focus on being the uber soccer mom given what was happening personally, but again, I coordinated the snacks. I sent out schedules. I tried. The tent was in my car. One dad gave me weights to hold it in place. But the names remain a blur and while The Kid enjoyed the time on the field, the chemistry was just OK, though this wasn’t the fault of anyone in particular as all were generally jovial and nice people. It was me: I was preoccupied. I wasn’t quite divorced, but I was feeling my existence as a single parent and trying to decide how I felt about it.
The following year, my divorce was final. A few weeks after signing the paperwork, The Kid made the cut at a competitive soccer club in town, before we moved off-island. The soccer coach gathered the parents and announced in a firm voice that certain behavior would not be tolerated. No brawling parents, no bad attitudes, no sideline refereeing, and everyone had to get over the idea that their child was going to win a college soccer scholarship. This was supposed to be about fun! Fine by me, though I am sure some parents were disappointed, and if they were brawlers, likely to be pissed off about that. I would like to say that this is because they were really concerned about tuition, but from what I could see, much of this scholarship desire was influenced by parental ego and bragging rights as opposed to genuine abilities.
No matter, we were off to a different island. By now I was in the throes of the fallout of a high conflict divorce. Given The Kid’s entry into club soccer, and my feeling that continuity was important, I agreed to drive upcountry over an hour one way for club practices, but a teacher’s salary meant several hundred dollars a month for fees and gas. Did The Kid even like soccer that much? What was I trying to do, anyway? When his father refused to pay soccer fees that changed the direction of my son’s soccer trajectory. In retrospect, this soccer playing was never The Kid’s fantasy, but his father’s. The Kid had always gone along. It was then that I realized that he was one of those parents that the coach had said he was tired of. I felt some satisfaction in this. There was me, one of the normal parents, and then there was him, the parent who harbored delusional fantasies. So, The Kid ended up playing more casually a short drive from home with other kids from the neighborhood and school. The coaches were neighbors and knew The Kid lost interest unless he was directly chasing the ball. Everyone had a shot. The parents harbored no scholarship ambitions. People meant well. I began to question whether or not The Kid really liked soccer all that much when I saw a photo I took of him gazing in the opposite direction of the ball while everyone on his team was intensely focused on the ball. He looked bored. Soccer was fun, but I realized, not that serious for him. It was recreation.
Then came basketball season which showed me what team sports could be: A good coach, the best on the island, took over the team and magic happened, as it does when a good teacher or coach leads. Everyone had playing time, no matter their playing ability. There was camaraderie and friendship and laughter as the boys tumbled into the backseat. The Kid had a ball. My fondest memories of that year of turbulence and change where I was signing papers and going in and out of court finalizing the divorce revolved around The Kid’s basketball practice and games. An old friend, E, from decades prior stepped off the plane the day after my divorce was final, and for the first time ever, myself and The Kid enjoyed a family life that we had always wanted to have, but had never experienced. We laughed together and E cooked dinner every night and we became during those brief months, a little unit of our own. A former student athlete himself, E told The Kid he had to have protein the night before the game and the morning of, diligently prepared him meals, and together we shuttled The Kid and sometimes other boys in the back of the car to late afternoon practices and morning games. E chatted to parents and the coach. We cheered from the sides and in our own way, were part of the crowd and suddenly I was experiencing with joy and celebration all aspects of heteronormative youth sporting event participation and such involvement was fun. The Kid and I have fond memories of that time. E showed The Kid what it meant to have man be kind to his mother and take interest in his activities. It was also where I saw the fallout from the divorce begin to manifest through sports.
“That guy I played with today called me a rich kid, because I’m going to XXX school,” The Kid said defiantly. As a teacher, my child received tuition exemption. There was no other way he would be attending.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I asked him where he lived. He lives on XXX where those big houses are. I asked him how many bedrooms he had in his house. He said four. I said I live in a one-bedroom cottage,” said The Kid.
“Then I beat him on the court,” said The Kid defiantly. “Screw him. But he’s OK. Now we’re friends.” The jockeying for dominance. The have and the have-nots. Loss had become more acute in his mind. He did not have a house anymore. He had a lost a family. There was upheaval, envy, anger, and confusion. The divorce, as far as The Kid was concerned, was not only a split up, it was a new way of socially framing himself in every arena of his life.
“Mom, am I a poor kid now? I think I was kind of a richer kid before.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I don’t have my own bedroom. I sleep in the living room.”
“You’ll get a bedroom. Don’t worry. You’re not poor.”
Circumstances shifted upon return to Honolulu. The Kid got a bedroom, but basketball at a big public middle school was no longer a friendly well-organized sport. The Kid left the first day of middle school tryouts. He had loved the coach and playing on his team before, but now he was intimidated: “I’m not doing this.”
I was disappointed as I remembered how much he had enjoyed it. I explained the point was to play for fun, not to do anything else, but he even refused to join the intramural team. Fearful. Ego. Acceptance. Shut down. He was in 7th grade and sports were no longer only about fun. It was a private school calling card. It was parents trying to justify a family’s weekend activity. It was where and how your masculinity and mettle were tested. It was all the stuff that drove me away from participating in organized sports my entire life. The old coach had said that The Kid would be a good player, that he would have the height, and that he would keep improving. But without the guidance of kind coach who saw potential and who didn’t yell, who encouraged fairness, and prioritized playing time for all, who didn’t expect everyone to perform and opened the floor to beginners, The Kid would not play. The days of basketball ended. I was disappointed. But I saw too, that it wasn’t the game. It was what the game meant.
And so during COVID, the football campaign began in earnest. I had kept hoping it would go away. The Kid had briefly waged one in elementary school, but even then, I had not allowed him to play Pop Warner. He had made football rosters for his friends in elementary school and played every recess, but there was a desperate urgency in his voice and something had shifted.
“Football is important in Hawai’i” he said to me. “It’s THE sport here, Mom.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I have wanted to play it since 3rd grade. I’m good at it.”
“You never play it. You hardly watch it!”
“I’m good at it.”
“OK, but you’re good at a lot of stuff. Tennis. You’re good at tennis too. Maybe join the tennis team.”
“No. Dad wanted me to play soccer. You wanted me to play basketball. I want to play football. Football is my choice. I have always wanted to play it and you NEVER let me play it.”
“I never wanted you to play basketball. You liked basketball. I don’t care which sport you play, I care about injury.”
“Sandy’s is dangerous, Mom. You let me go there.”
“It’s the ocean.”
“That doesn’t matter. It’s dangerous.”
“The water’s different.”
“It’s the natural world. It’s something else. It’s the ocean.”
How to explain rocks and gods and water? The meaning of ocean as life, as who we are as part of this earth to a teenager hell-bent on acceptance? Football translates into mainstream popularity. Campus stardom. Friends who travel in a pack. A position. Belonging.
“I want a family. I don’t have one anymore,” The Kid declared.
COVID had offered a respite from the politics of middle school social life and adjustment from divorce. The fallout of divorce and the instability of a family underscored by strife had come tumbling out. The Kid had clicked on Instagram only to find out that his father had gotten married without informing him prior. Memories of bottles of alcohol in the morning reeking on a kitchen counter, yelling, and fear creeped in. A longing for a family that never was. Escape. Confrontation. The dissolution.
And then, there was the ocean, specifically, Uncle N, the surf instructor, and the ocean. The Kid had begun to surf when we had lived on another island, but he was hesitant in many ways. While he had started to go out with Uncle N on his board prior to COVID, the water took on another dimension once he started going to Sandy’s. Three or four days a week, Uncle N would swing by and pick him up. Time schedules shifted. After a late nite gaming and yelling over a discord call, The Kid would eat breakfast and amble out the door to hop in Uncle N’s car and spend a few hours at Sandy’s, under the tutelage of Uncle N and all the uncles out there in the early morning, sharing tips and guidance and in this, he found, if only a space through Uncle N, a place to belong.
Growing up on the Mainland, I knew about Sandy’s as it was the beach my uncle refused to let us go to when we arrived for the summer. No. Too rough. That was it. We never went. The shore break is dangerous. The current is strong. Yet it was here that The Kid began to find himself in the water, losing himself in the blue, charging and challenging the blue, and eating big plate lunches with Uncle N or downing a half a dozen grilled hot dogs on the beach. His hair turned light, his skin browned, and he developed confidence. His back got cuts and scars from the rocks and shoreline, he battled a current, and still, he went out every AM. My parents and I went to see him. A boy in the blue. Light. Strength. Joy. Calm. A slow transformation, if only a few hours a day. Healing had begun.
A teacher, Uncle N said with pride: “He’s looking good.”
My heart swelled. It is something else to see a child who has suffered feel free in the water. I wanted to cry. I laughed and smiled. The Kid looked awesome. Grandma smiled. Aunty said, “Those are big waves.” Grandpa looked for a few minutes too, said, “Is that wave too big?” then walked away and found petting a friendly pet pig lying under the shade to be of greater interest than seeing his sole grandson in the ocean.
One day The Kid was sprawled out on the bed, his body now stretched from one end of the bed to the other. He looked up the ceiling and said to me: “Mom, I thought I was going to die today on a wave.”
“I prayed. Then, I committed,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Good job,” I said. “I’m proud of you.”
The ocean heals. The water eases. The sea. A boy and the elements.
All during COVID I watched my FB feed. Mothers with sons who cheerfully played puzzles and made pizza. Families that made crafts and read piles of books. The only way we got through COVID and through the school year intact was that I installed a punching bag outside the front door. The Kid grew 5 inches, his voice changed, he worked out like a religion, and he entered the water. He came in from the ocean to do a few hours of schoolwork. COVID was discord and gaming. Two gallons of milk a week. Piles of toast. He changed his diet, grilled meat, and scrambled over a dozen eggs a week. He swore off sugar, and just plain ole swore. Defiant. Rage. It was the kick-off of what I am well aware will be long period of rebellion that is likely to intensify. I think I am prepared. I know I am not. The last several years were hard.
The football campaign had begun the late summer of 2020, but ebbed, and then started to amp up as the prospect of school opened. I had hoped it would go away.
“I’m going to play football. Mom, this is the one thing I have always wanted to do. My whole life. You say no, you always say no. To everything. You’re such a negative thinker.”
“No, I don’t.”
“When you say maybe, maybe is a NO. You are a Debbie Downer.”
“I’m not a Debbie Downer.”
“Yes, you are! Moms say no.”
“Moms do not say no.”
“Well YOU as a mom say no. ALL THE TIME.”
“Listen, football is…it’s a complicated thing. It’s really…we saw that movie together about concussions.”
“I want to play. Not everyone gets one. This is for me. It’s my choice. This is my life. This is me. I’m going to play.”
This is my life, Mom. So when does it become this, exactly? My uncle played it. My students played it. But I resisted. Horror stories abounded. My mother’s doctor’s friend’s son: paralyzed. Brain damage of a former student. I never liked the sport. It was violent. Tennis? Cross country? Hiking? Wilderness sports? Biking? Why did it have to be football?
“Why do you always think something bad will happen? What is wrong with you?” said The Kid. “You always think the worst will happen.”
Friends and family weighed in. No! Absolutely not. I will not let my child do it. Yes. Let him do it a few weeks. See what happens. Once he gets sacked it will be different. Those are men on the field. Some of those kids, they are full grown. No. It’s not a good idea. No, there are other sports. He likes football? He never watches it! The anxiety increased (me). The anger mounted (him).
I researched the coaches and team. Somehow the interview and stories reassured me. From what I read, the point seemed to play.
To my surprise and to everyone else’s, I capitulated:
“OK. You can try it. You have to get to bed early and eat right. You have to take ballet class too. You have to maintain a 3.5 GPA. You have to do your chores. You’re basically just a machine during season. Understand? And if you get one injury, I don’t care what it is, you are out. Got it?”
He’s running with a pack now. School is about to start. Practice is on. Scrimmages. I haven’t watched. He got bigger after a week of hearty eating and play. But when I drove to pick him up at the following week it looked like every other player had also gotten bigger! Every family must have been doing the same! Feeding the kid to protect him. The last time I thought about him eating like this was when he was a baby.
“You don’t like it. I can tell. I can tell you don’t like it,” said The Kid, angrily.
And then I had to examine: why didn’t I like it? Was he right? I’m doing all that I can. But after another late night of arguments I began to remember and had to agree: he was right. Unlike any other sport in which I had only a mild passing interest in, I really mostly found myself bored with football. But was it really avoidance? And then I dug deeper.
Growing up in Iowa, football became the symbol to me of not belonging. Of bullying and whiteness. Of mockery of my father, of my Asian self, my Korean family. We were not a football family and never would be. There were three girls and a father who didn’t care about football who never saw it until he came to the US. We had no reference for this game.
There was a neighborhood and school filled with boys and girls who lived for football, talked about football, whose families followed it religiously. If you didn’t you were isolated and made fun of. Briefly there was inclusion: A young neighborhood boy, Bill, with no football, who was on the 7th grade team and who was dying to play and who corralled my sisters and I and another neighborhood girl into playing. We played football with a red rubber ball with Bill commanding the plays and direction, and those were, in honesty, my only fond memories of the sport. Once when we expanded the play and other kids joined in with a real football my younger sister wound up flat on her back. The wind was knocked out of her. We stood over her looking at her carefully.
“She’s the running back,” said Bill. There was some question. Do we tell Mom? Stop playing? Was she breathing OK? My sister nodded. We needed the running back. Mom didn’t have to know. Game on!
Yes, there was fun. But football was also whiteness, big people, and gatherings where, from what I could see, you ate a lot of potato chips and there was no rice. As I lay awake thinking about The Kid and all of the misery that football culture caused me growing up, I realized that my reaction to write, to embrace art, to willfully leave Iowa at the age of 13 for boarding school was deeply connected for my utter distaste and dislike for organized sports, for all the feelings and ways it isolated and belittled, and at the center of this, was the sport of football. Proms. Homecoming. The Game.
I had to let go. It was coming to bite me back.
I thought of The Kid’s very first word: “ball”. He runs, moves, and takes to almost any sport with a basic level of competence due to coordination and speed. He’s athletic and the way he moves through the world is at times very foreign to me. I’m physical, but it is something else when this is what defines someone. This year, my capitulation has meant that his dream has finally come true: He’s playing football. Day 4 he broke his finger. There was a moment where he wondered if I would pull him out, he lashed out and said, “You’re going to take me out.”
“No, I’m not.”
I rationalized it by noting his changes. There are friends. He’s catching balls. Kicking goals. He’s doing well. He’s happier. The angst and feelings are always underneath, but football takes up a lot of space. I could use the break. We both could.
“I missed a few. I missed,” he said ruefully. “It sucks.”
“It does not suck. You’re doing great. You’re having fun, right?”
He memorizes plays. He texts his friends. He’s in for the season. The Kid’s a football player and me, I’m the mom who worries, the one who hated football, and now the person who is trying to understand. This is the last stage before The Kid goes out into the world. He has his own goals and dreams for the season, and for his own life. How long will football be a part of this? A season? A game? Four years? It’s hard to say, now. Adolescence is a time of constant dramatic change. My football season goals are more modest, but involve a lifetime of unraveling perceptions and feeling. I’m doing what I can to resist voicing my concerns and doing what I can to have faith that it will all work out. I got my T-shirt. I’ll be sitting in the stands, apprehensive, letting myself sink into it, happiness, that is, watching my son live his dream.