Lessons at Donegal Elementary

It was a beautiful September afternoon in 1988 when I stepped onto the field behind Donegal Elementary.

About once per week, toward the end of practice, the Donegal Browns football coaches lined up the 5th/6th grade team to scrimmage the 7th/8th graders. The idea was to practice with a full team of 11, as each team alone held insufficient players to field a full offensive and defensive side of the ball. Of course this mostly meant 11- and 12 year-old children getting pummeled by raily and mustached 13- and 14 year-olds.

Parents and cheerleaders often gathered at the edge of our field to watch the action. I was the starting quarterback and defensive safety of the 5th/6th grade team, football obsessed, and loved the challenge. 

On offense, our line caved under the weight and speed of the older players. As usual. I remember one offensive series where after being sacked on three or four consecutive plays, I shirked a few defenders to gain some yards and view open field, only to be dragged down from behind by the collar of my shoulder pads. The actual tackle strained my neck. The idea of being caught from behind inflamed my ego.

Still, we gained a few yards against the big guys before our turn on defense.

I remember the play when Kevin Keslar took a hand-off straight up the middle through a gaping hole in our defensive line. I read the play unblocked, accelerated directly forward, fully committed to shutting him down. We both ran in low and  


There was a bright white light. Then dark orange. I found myself in the defensive huddle not knowing how I got there. I had a mild headache and drifted around for a few plays before practice ended. That was the first time I experienced damaging, educating - you are neither an exception nor invincible in this world - pain.

Nobody told me to prove something against the older players or to take scrimmages so personal. Nobody taught me to tackle by leading with my helmet. Nobody taught me about concussions. If they did I sure wasn't paying attention.

That's how concussions happen. Sure, they also occur accidentally. But this was no accident. You can advocate for rules and equipment and player education. But coaching oversight and a naive kid on center stage in a contact sport is far more than enough to create problems.

Relative risk and reward.
Glory and pain.
Not everyone wins.

This is the nature of life. It's plenty to learn for a young boy.

I still think football and other contact sports are worth it, to some extent, but that's based mostly on personal tradition. I really don't have any good answers.

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