Mom takes accurate aim at dark side of high school football

Phil Jackman

October 23, 1991|By Phil Jackman

The high school football game was called off when a melee erupted in the area of one of the benches. A coach's wife, trooping the sideline, was involved.

Fans, at another game, converged on midfield to taunt one another. A shot sent everyone scurrying as a 17-year-old dropped to the ground with a bullet in his back.

A coach was given a year's suspension for conducting illegal practices, but it was cut to five months when the original penalty was judged to be "excessive."

A national survey shows that while the steroid scare has had some effect on high school athletes, use of alcohol remains alarmingly high. The macho image, y'know.

And then there's the never-ending string of stories regarding violence against officials. One guy ended up with a fractured skull and he was only the head linesman; the referee probably would have been lynched.

Meanwhile, every Monday, USA Today runs its inaptly named "High school honor roll," a monument to man's inhumanity to man. Weekly, with coaches apparently in total compliance, kids rush for 300 yards or pass for eight touchdowns in 60-point shellackings, the sole purpose being national publicity.

Of course there's a lot of good out there: kids learning what sacrifice is and hard work and (hopefully) developing character, discipline and confidence, not to mention the physical benefits. And all that rah-rah school spirit noise has some merit, too. At the same time, though, there's cruelty, deceit, disillusionment and serious injury. A study shows that nearly 40 percent of all high school football players can expect to be injured during a season.

Both sides of the situation are there in a book entitled "Dreams of Glory," an effort turned out by free-lance writer Judy Oppenheimer, subtitled "A mother's season with her son's high school football team." The setting is Bethesda-Chevy Chase.

This isn't one of those numbers about bake-sale banter and washing little Jimmy's soiled duds. Mom pulls no punches as she reveals just how crass a basically fun game at the teen-age level becomes when the people involved work at doing it just

like the big boys do.

In the big game, for instance, so much "talking trash" is going on, officials give firm warning that if it doesn't stop the game will be canceled.

Then there's the assistant coach who lectured his troops, "It's a mean game, so you have to play it like a mean [expletive deleted]. You gotta walk around like you're arrogant, like no one can touch you. If you don't have that mentality, you're not really there. Football's a controlled street fight. When somebody hits you, hurt him . . . that's the point of the game . . . Cripple him. Cripple him for life."

It is assumed the guy wasn't serious about these words, but how's a kid hearing such nonsense to know? Especially when, if he doesn't live by this ludicrous code, he finds himself spectating.

In another passage, the coach commands his players, "get in their [opponents'] face. Say things that [expletive] him off. Whenever he's on the field I want you to make some remark. I don't care if it's racial. Do what you can, but don't get caught. If VTC you get caught by a ref, I'm going to deny everything."

This is all part and parcel of building character, we have always been told, when in actuality it's probably half the reason for the many ills that beset society these days.

As the season drags on, we get to know the kids as they live the weeks leading up to games against schools author Oppenheimer characterizes sumptuously. Churchill High in well-to-do Potomac, for example, is said to have a booster club so dedicated it provides catered breakfasts for the team before every game and huge steak dinners after. Naturally, this legion of studs is successful.

Then there's Gaithersburg: ". . . the toughest team on the schedule -- far enough up-county to have that dangerous aura of farm boy about it." Bethesda-Chevy Chase gets a big victory and, perhaps as a result of the overall experience, as the final game approaches, "no one was doing anything, everyone coming in late for practice."

The team gets creamed, but all is not lost. The head coach confides, "Black, white, all those barriers, all those stereotypes, it's all garbage. At the end of a game you'll see a Hungarian guy, a black guy, a Chinese guy and they're all crying; they care so much."

And, we are led to believe, everything is all right, the end justifying the means. But there is a better way and previous generations of high school players proved it. Fond to memory are the days when the firing of a pistol signaled the end of a hotly contested game fraught with good sportsmanship, not a reason to scramble as some nut commences target practice.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.