The Dark Side of Football

I started this entry 11 months ago, at the end of the middle school football season. I ran to 1,300 words and was still plunking along when I set it aside, and now that we’re at another football season, here it is, relevant again.

Gunnison’s stadium doesn’t look a thing like like this. Illustrative purposes only.

I don’t know most of the kids at Gunnison Middle School. When I get to a sporting event I’m working, I almost never recognize any kid on the court or field — not even when the kid is from my old neighborhood. It’s especially hard to recognize football players under their helmets, even any of the nine boys from two nearby families, all of them now through their middle-school years.

I also rarely pay much attention to the outcome of the games, especially on a volleyball game day where the matches all run into one another. I’m sure it matters to the kids and their coaches —

[While it wasn’t the best eighth-grade volleyball I’ve seen over the years, I thought the final match of last season was exciting, with lots of lengthy volleys where you hated for anyone to have to lose the point. I said as much to the Hotchkiss coach, a woman I’d never met. Her reply was rather withering. “We didn’t play well at all. They [Gunnison] probably played their best, and we played horribly.” In other words, Gunnison had no business at all winning the match against this golden team. It was a very disappointing thing for an educator to say.]

— but I have to confess, officials frequently root for the outcome that will lead to an early departure. Two-game volleyball matches, and no one complains if we move to a running clock on the football field because one team is 24 points ahead of the other.

Which is what I anticipated for the final seventh-grade football game last season, as Delta jumped ahead 22-0 shortly after our 4 p.m. start. Instead, Gunnison Middle School ended up playing its first game under lights.

Just a few years ago, no football team in Gunnison played under lights. Mountaineer Bowl, home of the college, I mean university, team, has none, and the high school used to play its games Friday afternoons up in the bowl.

But in one of the many, many school bonds put before the voters, provisions were made for lights, bleachers, a press box and a real field at the high school, also used by the school’s soccer team. Now games are played like most high schools, under the Friday night lights.

The middle school doesn’t have any lights, although I have been at October games where discussion is had about having people shine their headlights on the field (we generally speed up the clock and shortchange the eighth graders). But those final games last season got played at the high school, perhaps to get the boys excited about the years ahead.

With the lighting capability, no one was in a rush, but it looked like Delta was cruising toward a very short game with all those early points. However, Gunnison staved off the running clock by scoring. Inspired, the Mustangs got to within four points and hoped to score again. Which meant coaches used time-outs and long pass attempts and all kinds of things to stretch the game past 5:30.

Gunnison still lost, 28-24, but one boy gave the crowd quite a thrill. He scored from about 40 yards out, but he must have put in about 80 as he ran from one side of the field to the other, improbably shaking and slipping through every would-be tackler for a magnificent touchdown.

The eighth-grade game started off with promise too, as Gunnison, with the first actual placekicker I’ve ever seen at the middle school level, went up 7-0. Delta answered with a score, moving it to 8-7 (no placekicker) and things were going well — until they weren’t.

Well behind the line of scrimmage, a Gunnison player went down. When he did get up and was escorted off the field, he looked a bit wobbly. Busy as I was with the unfamiliar scoreboard and trying to look around the glass of the pressbox that was so filthy it was almost opaque, I did not pay any attention to this player.

With seconds left in the first half and the score tied at 14, the player, who must have been back in the game, collapsed on the sideline, screaming and kicking his legs. The game came to a halt as we all waited for the ambulance to come, listening to this boy’s screams, which continued into the ambulance.

The worst part was watching the stalwart of the seventh-grade game — this boy’s brother, it turned out — in anguish on the sideline. He was hugged by numerous teammates and even one Delta player who ran across the field. The game eventually continued with the second half, now in the dark. Delta scored and Gunnison didn’t, and the season finally came to a close sometime after 8 p.m.

I anticipated that the boy was in for some long hospital stay with a terrible neck or head injury, but it turned out to be a cracked rib. The agony of this boy and the anguish of his brother, the lateness of the hour, the coaches screaming at college-age officials and me . . . Every year I say I’m ready to retire from middle school sports, and every year I mean it just a little more.

So as September has rolled around once again, I was feeling great relief that no one had called about middle school sports. Then Mary, the athletic director, sent a volleyball schedule — but not the one for football.

I should have known I was celebrating too early when I opened my e-mail on Monday: “Hi TL, I want to leave you alone, but something still makes me send this…😬” Mary needed someone for the clock for two football games last Thursday, although she pledged to find someone I could train.

And she did. I met Sara, the middle school counselor, and she did great, catching on really quickly and only letting the clock run one time when no one but me noticed. But — you knew there’d be one, right? — she has two sons who are just starting to come of sporting age themselves, and she had to leave early to pick one up from soccer.

She should have been able to be there for the entirety, except that Alamosa, which requested an earlier start time of 3 p.m., didn’t show up until nearly 4. And then there was an injury.

The superstar seventh-grader of last season is now the superstar eighth-grader. (Sara knows all the kids, which is the only way I now know this.) He was having a great game, until one play when he was tackled by two of the Mean Moose (a name that kept making Sara laugh) and then a third piled onto his head.

In a scene eerily reminiscent of last year, this boy started kicking his legs and screaming and the game ground to a halt. I don’t think they called an ambulance, and he eventually made it off the field under his own power (I think the principal might have taken him for medical attention), but there we were, finishing up more than four hours after I got to the field — even with the running clock after Alamosa moved ahead 24 points.

And here I am again, bumping up against 1,300 words writing about long football games with boys from the same family injured during them. I would be glad to hand my timing duties over to Sara, but I’m afraid her schedule means I’m likely to get more e-mails from Mary.

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