By Matt Walker | October 24, 2011 | 0 Comment
It has now been almost 24 hours since the greatest feeling I have ever had in my life, and every few minutes I think about it again and I am as proud and happy now as when it happened live. I am talking about watching my 7 year old Matty play in his last game of the season in youth football for the Canton-Burlington Warriors.
My son Matty is one the (if not THE) smallest and slowest players in the entire football league. I had more than my fair share of doubts about whether he should ever even have played tackle football this year. He is one of the kindest, gentlest and most thoughtful kids I have ever met. He is so innocent and wide-eyed and probably the last person you would ever think of when you think of youth football. Matty is a very motivated young man when he zeroes in on something, but even though he kept saying how much he wanted to play tackle this year when flag ended, I never thought he cared enough to really put a lot of effort into it. I also feel very strongly that football is something you really have to want to put the work in to or you (or even worse a teammate) will get really hurt. So after his last year in flag ended, I made a series of things for Matty to do to prove to us that he really was willing to work hard at football this year. It was basic things like we have to have a catch everyday after I got home from work, cleaning the kids room, doing his homework, etc. To be honest, I didn’t think he would do any of them. He said he liked football, but I always felt it was a distant second to WWE wrestling and Star Wars. Surprisingly enough though, he did all of the things we asked of him. It was pretty unexpected to be honest of you. I struggled signing him up, but I am a big believer in letting the kids know that if they put in the work, I will help them achieve anything. I didn’t want to do it and was conflicted that he would get hurt, but I rolled the dice and prayed for the best.
Matty has this thing about always wanting to be older. He loves hanging out with older kids or talking about when he is a fourth grader (which is the oldest class at his Elementary school). I think he looked at playing tackle football, as something older kids do and flag football was something for the little kids. He had played flag for 2 years already and to be honest he wasn’t really learning anything anymore. Flag football in our town is sort of everything that is ridiculous about youth sports in this country. You tell these poor kids to work hard, listen, do what they’re told all so they could score a touchdown even though you aren’t allowed to keep score and according to them whether you score or not is completely meaningless. It’s moronic. “Hey guys, lets work as hard as we possibly can to achieve the exact same thing as everyone else that just messes around and pays no attention… YAY!” We teach them to do these completely foreign tasks like getting into a stance, learning to take a hand off, making a tackle, but if they work hard and do everything they are told to and score a touchdown, we have to ignore the touchdown and act like it doesn’t mean anything. I don’t think there is any more of a condescending way to treat kids than to take away their motivation for fear of some kids being better than others. Think of the amount of kids who learn to reach down deep inside to learn something about themselves when challenged and we the adults are telling them that they are all the same regardless of effort.
For a kid like Matty, I think he wanted to be challenged. I think he knew that flag wasn’t really something to be taken seriously. He plays video games; he has races with his brother and sister so he has stated many times he wants to win. I think he looked at tackle as a challenge. I also think though that he thought that just singing up was going to be enough. Because when we gave in and signed him up for tackle, he wasn’t really taking it as seriously as the other kids. It might sound overbearing to ask of a 6 year old to take sports more seriously, but when he first started I thought he was really going to get hurt. He wouldn’t get in the right stance, he wouldn’t get up fast enough because he wasn’t really trying, and some of the kids were really hitting him when his body wasn’t ready to be hit. It wasn’t their fault; it was his because he was just going through the motions. In flag, Matty could stand in the back and just make jokes all day and the kids loved him. In tackle it wasn’t like that. These kids were really busting their butts, so if they saw a kid just messing around, they weren’t going to want to talk to him. Matty was just happy to get to put on the pads and the helmet, but football is too dangerous if you’re not their to work hard.
On practice in particular I had finally had it. It will sound crazy, but it was so embarrassing that I flipped out in the car ride home. Matty did one or two decent things in the start of practice and then basically just quit after that. Matt is a smarty, so I think he thought that if he could do one good thing in practice, then mail it in for the rest of the day. In this particular case, it was so apparent how far behind he was the other kids it was so embarrassing. He was so bad that he was holding up drills. They were doing relay type challenges, and he was walking, crawling, not even trying at all. It was throwing off all of practice. The kids were all cheering his name in encouragement, and he was barely trying. Youth sports these days are so much different than when I was a kid. They ask a LOT of the parents. In my day, the parents dropped you off, maybe another kid’s parents would drive you home and you didn’t see them until practice was over. Nowadays the parents are there the whole time. It takes a lot of sacrifice to get out of work super early and sit for a 2-hour practice 2-3 times a week. So when you are killing yourself to be there, the other kids are killing themselves to keep up and your guy is the guy who is just walking around it’s embarrassing and more importantly, they are going to get seriously hurt half-assing it like that. I think it was the combination of embarrassment and fear that had me explode. As a parent, you aren’t proud of moments like that when you are a raving lunatic, but in hindsight I think it’s important sometimes so then kids can see the gravity of the situation. That’s not to say as a parent we shouldn’t try to avoid acting like that, but I think it is human natures way of letting people know our true feelings whether right or wrong.
When I got home and told my wife she was unhappy too. We had just gotten a call from school at the same time that Matty was one of the smartest boys in the class (his grades we always at the top of the class), but his focus was so bad, that he was disrupting class. I think this moment in practice was a breaking point for our frustration for almost a year at a truly smart kid who was smart enough to get by, but not living up to outstanding potential. It’s scary as a parent because you are a co-pilot in these kid’s lives and you are so worried about failing them. You’re always worried that your actions in key moments like this will always either be too much or not nearly enough and they will end up not being the person they could be because you failed (at least I do anyways). We decided that we needed to be tough. We took away the only thing that really mattered to him unless he worked hard like he promised, we took away all of his WWE and X Box, which if you know Matthew, you know is like taking away water from a fish.
This was a good move on our part, because Matty was way too wrapped up in WWE anyway. It was affecting his schoolwork, his sleep, and his focus. We were going to take him out of football all together, but we both decided it sent the wrong message to just take it from him. We spent a lot of money on football and we didn’t want him to think that he was going to decide whether or not he was going to finish what he started. I was always taught you have to finish what you started and this was the perfect time for him to learn. “We work hard in this house” has become our motto with the kids and the results so far have been pretty good.
After dropping the hammer we worried how he would respond, but thankfully he got the message. He would run over to us after making good plays in practice. We are big believers are going over the top with praise, since we tend to be tough on them when they aren’t working hard. After that incident in the car, Matty took pride in playing every play. He started to understand that football is a tough sport and you can’t just run around out there. If you don’t do your job, it affects everyone and unlike other sports, they other kids don’t just lose, they can get hurt if you’re not really doing your job.
Once he started doing better we gave him back the video games and WWE, but we limited it to the weekends and made him realize that you earn those things by taking care of your responsibilities. It made him appreciate it more and then something even better happened as he worked harder at football; his schoolwork drastically improved. No more calls from school about a bright kid who didn’t focus, but instead we got letters and emails saying how great he was doing this year and how much more focused he was on his schoolwork. It was amazing.
Also, the kids on the team started to take notice. “Matty” the little guy, who just screwed around, was being replaced by “Matt”, the small guy who never quits and works his tail off even though he was the smallest. Also, everyone started to notice that Matt was one of the few kids that never cried. Here is this tiny guy with the physique of a string bean and he never cried. It was amazing. I would watch week in and week out as he lined up against the biggest guys in the league and he would get completely destroyed, and he just kept getting up and never complained. His teammates started slapping him on the helmet, cheering him on and looking after him like a kid brother. And Matty loved all of it. He loved the team atmosphere, the “locker room” mentality. The thing that always got Matt into wrestling was the fighting, it was theatrics. the presentation. With football, he felt the same way. When the opposing teams announced his name on the PA, he would run on the field as if he was the “The Rock” or something. He asked me just yesterday if I thought his football play was “electrifying”.
All of this brings me to yesterday and how I was and still today completely blown away by the heart of a 49-pound boy who takes on kids that weigh over 100 pounds. It was Matt’s last game of the season. Little by little he was improving, but he still is not a great runner and even though he is super tough, he still wasn’t really making any plays out there. The great story of Matty is that he was learning how tough the game was and he loved it. What makes yesterday different, was that the little guy who was just trying to be apart of the team, turned into the tough little guy who tried to contribute. Week in and week out I was teaching him moves he could use to beat bigger guys, but something clicked yesterday and he started to use them! He got a swagger about him. The 49-pound boy in a league that averages 70 pounds started not just playing with heart, but he started to play with intensity. This little man started standing on the defensive line and defiantly yelling out at the other team “bring it here!” and “lets do this!” and was dying to take on the world. He flied around the field trying desperately to make a play (even though physically he was probably not ready to yet). He made wrestling gestures to the sky when he was back for kicks, he screamed triumphantly at every big play. He was as much of an animal as any 49-pound kid could be. Parents were asking me what he was yelling out there and I had no idea. Everyone loved it. After a group tackle where he was able to actually touch the pile as they fell to the ground (making it the closest he got to a tackle all year) he jumped up running over to me on the side of the field screaming about making a play. I still have no idea was he was saying 🙂 .
All he wanted to do was “make history” as his coach said by being the first team in their relatively young youth football league to win 2 games in a season. After coming up one foot and 1 point short of winning an outstanding and exciting game Matty, the boy who did not cry all year after getting pounded on by much bigger players, finally broke down and cried. He looked at me with tears in his eyes as I stood there with an over pouring amount of joy and respect for this 49-pound miracle and said “I didn’t get to make history”.
I looked right at him, gave him a huge hug and a kiss and said “son, you already did”.
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