Gut check on the pipsqueak gridiron

IT IS A GLORIOUS Saturday afternoon in Vermont, the sky the blue of Wedgwood china and the temperature in the high 60s. I have just sat down in the dry grass to watch a friend’s son play linebacker in a county football league for middle-school students. Though the two teams are battling on a field surrounded by hay bales with lawn chairs for bleachers, the game is full contact, full pads. The works. The coaches are pacing the sidelines, barking out inspiration and exhortation. The players are huddling up, one team nearing the goal line and a go-ahead score.

All of a sudden, an attractive woman sitting near me in capri pants and a fashionable hoodie stands up and bellows, “Gut check, boys, gut check! Now’s when you have to stick it to ’em!” She is, apparently, a mother of one of the young warriors. Had I been a yard closer, I suspect I would have experienced a noise-induced hearing loss.

Over the next 20 minutes I discovered that this woman’s enthusiasm wasn’t unique: Other parents were screaming at their children to “hit ’em” or “stand tall” or “show ’em what you’re made of.” One grandfatherly looking gentleman in a windbreaker barked, “Take it to ’em, boys, take it to ’em! Pop ’em! Pop ’em hard!”

I don’t watch a lot of pee-wee or high school football. OK, I watch none. I have a teenage daughter and she is about as interested in any sport that involves a ball as I am in curling. She is seriously orb-challenged, which has always meant that I have been spared parental entanglement in children’s team sports. This recent Saturday morning encounter between a couple dozen sixth- and seventh-graders was the first time in a quarter century that I have been present at a football game in which the players weren’t grown men.

But there is a Little League baseball field about 100 yards from my house, and I have strolled there many a June evening over the years to watch the real boys of summer play ball. The games are leisurely, the parents gossip, and only once in a while does someone actually gaze at the field to see how the home team is doing. In all the Little League games I’ve attended, never once have I heard a grown woman scream “Gut check!” or a grown man urge the boys to “Pop ’em! Pop ’em hard!”

Obviously baseball and football are very different animals. The late comedian George Carlin famously pointed out the differences in the two, a distillation of which is this: Baseball is caps and football is helmets. Baseball is a gentle game played in a park, the whole object of which is to be safe at home; football is a titanic struggle filled with bombs and blitzes and shotguns.

Moreover, I know that while watching children play any organized sport, a parent can morph in a heartbeat from a serene mom into Chucky the ax-wielding psycho doll. Parents scream at umpires and referees, they physically threaten other parents. It’s not just football.

But that Saturday morning I was still unprepared for the absolute loss of perspective. Did this nice guy in the windbreaker really want his grandson to cripple some 12-year-old because the kid was in a red uniform instead of green? Of course not. And yet whatever it is in football that appeals to our usually dormant atavistic core had him holding a pitchfork and a torch and calling for the head of Marie Antoinette.

In “End Zone,” a Don DeLillo novel, a character argues, “I reject the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don’t need substitutes because we’ve got the real thing.” Maybe that character is right. But violence is violence, and I still left the field that Saturday morning feeling a little bit bloodied.

(This column originally appeared in the Boston Globe on October 6, 2008.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.