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When Football Isn’t About Football

Just like thousands of other venues in America on a Friday night, September 5 was a great setting for high school football at Raptor Stadium in Brentwood, Tennessee. Our team had just come off a huge win the week before, knocking off powerhouse Brentwood Academy, which was ranked #10 in the country by USA Today at game time. We were the first team in Williamson County to do so in 31 years. Ever. My son, Bo, caught the winning score with 12 seconds to go. He had 12 tackles, an acrobatic interception, and a couple of huge receptions. Football recruiting letters had been flowing in all year, but that next week they had overflowed the mailbox with requests for BA game film.

You could just feel it in the air. The Raptors were poised to post another upset against undefeated Franklin High and reassert our status as one of the top teams in the state.

When football isn't just about football

Bo had the biggest game of his career against BA, but one week later …

We tailgated with our RHS Quarterback Club friends. We got to our seats early and watched he band march in. Right before the National Anthem, Bo strode to the middle of the field with three teammates for the coin flip. The game got underway. We groaned when Franklin took an early lead on a long touchdown run but we weren’t worried. No big biggie. The Raptor team and coaches had sky-high confidence and so did the fans.

It was our second drive. A simple bubble screen. QB Alex Williams pivoted and threw a pass to Bo who set up just a few yards behind the line of scrimmage out wide. He went up in the air to snag the catch and the instant he landed, the cornerback who had read the play instantly and was running full speed hit him. Now this is my ninth year to watch Bo play football – might have missed one game in all those years but not more than one – and I know this about him. Bo isn’t into personal drama out in public … and he’s never stayed down after a play in football. But he stayed down.

I do like a bit of drama but I knew he would hate it if we made a scene and rushed down to the sideline so Amy and I just stayed in our seats. I knew he was hurt but didn’t want to speculate how bad. When they stood him up about a minute later and helped him to the sideline and he could put zero weight on his right leg I still kept saying to myself it was all going to be okay and he’d be back in the game soon. When the trainer got word up to me that I needed to get my butt down there, I finally started the internal negotiation process that the injury might be real bad. I reached him on the sideline where the team doctor and trainer let me know that Bo might have a torn ACL and MCL. Pretty horrific news for an athlete with the desire to play college football or continue his track career. They got him on the cart as an ambulance was backed up to the front gate. The raucous stadium got eerily quiet. I gave Bo’s hand a quick squeeze and he held on. That’s when I knew he was really hurt. Holding hands with his dad in front of a couple thousand friends isn’t his style.

He and I cried our guts out on an ambulance ride to Williamson County Medical Center. The staff from the front desk to nurses and doctors were wonderful. We were still operating under the assumption that his knee was torn up and the first relatively good news was that the MRI technician was still in the hospital and we could get the damage assessed that night rather than having to wait until Monday. It was two hours after the accident that we began to move him from his bed in the ER to another that would take him back to the MRI room for tests. Halfway from one bed to another his upper leg went a couple different directions at once and started spasming. He had been in a bit of a stupor but he was suddenly wide awake and in intense pain – no pain killers had been administered yet. Morgan, his girlfriend, had left the game and was holding his hand when this happened and he gave her a hard enough squeeze that between that and the sight of his leg moving in ways a leg should not move she about passed out. The nurse looked at the doctor right then and said quite definitively that Bo hadn’t torn his ACL but had a broken femur. Staff rushed a portable X-Ray machine into the room and within 15 minutes she was proven right. We’ve adopted her as part of Raptor Nation for that and all the other kindnesses she showed.

When football isn't about football.

A couple days and nights together in Williamson County Medical Center.

You know it’s a rough night when a broken leg is good news but it was a rough night and so the news was good. A clean break. A rod would be inserted the next morning. Full recovery – stronger than ever – the prognosis.

Ravenwood students and players had begun gathering in the waiting room and with a mercifully slow night in the ER they were allowed to come back and be with Bo. I think we had at least fifty or sixty kids gathered around him at one point. Steven, one of his best friends, just couldn’t bear to be close. He hung back with head and eyes downcast. But Ricky, ever emotional, started sobbing. He was joined by Will, a 270-pound right tackle. Will and Ryan never stopped crying. I had but couldn’t not start back up. Then it was mom and grandparents and the cheerleaders. Then it was the coaching staff. We started and stopped crying too many times to count over the next three or four hours. Franklin’s coach stayed in touch with Coach Rector to let him know his boys felt terrible for Bo and had gathered to pray for him after the game. My blackberry never stopped vibrating with texts and calls flying in from all over the country as word got out.

The Saturday surgery went smoothly and was deemed a success. Ravenwood High School set up residence at WCMC. At one point we learned he had been admitted as “anonymous” so we went down to let them know that it was okay to identify him by name and allow people to come up and see him. “Don’t worry, every body’s found him” was the reply. Bo didn’t go to school the next week. His hospital room and then our living room, his new convalescent center, looked like Christmas in September with a slew of presents and cards. College coaches called to let him know he was still being recruited. Neighbors, teachers, friends, Young Life leaders … all came by to wish him well and many to say a prayer with him.

When football isn't about football.

Another visitor to the hospital!

Last night was four weeks from the accident. He drove to school for the first time earlier that day. He got rid of his crutches completely two days earlier. He’s doing his therapy and lifting upper body weights five days a week. Subsequent X-Rays show the unmistakable image of a knee-to-hip rod, but you have to look hard to find the line where the complete break occurred.

I already knew that high school football wasn’t really about football. At least not just about football. But if I’ve ever forgotten that while caught up in the spirit of competition, I’ll not forget it again.

Student council isn’t about running schools but teaching leadership. Scouting isn’t about camp outs but learning responsibility. And football isn’t about touchdowns and tackles but discipline, teamwork, loyalty, overcoming adversity, and being there to cry with a friend who is down.

I’d still rather Bo be playing on the field his senior season but I’m grateful to watch him on the sidelines with his teammates, as big a part of his team as ever. Because football isn’t just about football.

Time for a College Football Playoff? Only If …

Is it time for a college football playoff?

College Football Postseason Is Not Fair to Northern Teams

Utah knocked off Alabama in the Sugar Bowl a couple of days ago, lifting their record to 13-0. Shouldn’t that give them a claim as college football’s national champions? Or how about Texas who beat Oklahoma who is playing for the title against Florida?

I’m somewhat of a traditionalist – okay, a little mix of iconoclast and traditionalist – so I’ve never had a dog in the we-must-have-a-playoff-for-Division-I-college-football fight. I can see both sides of the debate.

The arguments against a D-I college football (CFB) playoff include –

  • the bowl system generates more income for schools and communities than a playoff would
  • a little controversy keeps interest level high
  • the bowl system is a reward to the kids – and allows many schools to claim some form of a championship
  • college football is healthy so why mess with something that’s already working
  • college football is about tradition and the bowls with their parades and pageantry are definitely traditional
  • extra games associated with a playoff would cut into student-athletes’ academic studies

There is an answer for and to every point above. I’m oversimplifying but here’s the quick responses in corresponding order: playoffs would generate NFL type of dollars; controversy is not good when the ‘best team’ gets ripped off due to system rules; you can still keep some form of the bowl system but some of the bowls would go away (and need to go away); sure CFB is healthy but so is basketball and people absolutely love March Madness and filling in their brackets; again, you can keep some of the bowls as part of the playoff system; hey, if athletes from the lower divisions of CFB can do a playoffs and handle the academic work load at some rigorous universities, why can’t the D-I kids?

Like I said, I have no dog in this fight – something Michael Vick wishes he could have said – so you pick the answers you like best and you won’t get me worked up. As you can tell with the associated arguments above, most solutions try to incorporate traditional bowls into the playoff equation. And this is where I have a problem. In fact, I would go so far as to say, dump the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) completely and return to stand-alone bowls with a vote at the end of the year or go strictly with a playoff for the top eight teams. But don’t mix the two.

Why?

Bowls were never set up to determine a national champion. Bowls were about rewarding kids with travel, gifts, and a televised game and giving alums and fans a warm weather place to go for a vacation. As a result the bowls have always favored warm weather schools and penalized cold weather schools.

Warm weather schools can recruit and play a style of football that doesn’t have to change as the leaves fall off of trees. (Texas Tech needs to bring their passing attack to Madison, Wisconsin, in late November to test my theory.) Warm weather schools often travel less distance (and many times stay in-state) for a near home field advantage in bowl season. (USC’s last home game every year is the Rose Bowl! Of course, if the mighty Trojans would stop getting upset by 30-point underdogs they would have to play for a championship instead of relying on ESPN to crown them as best-ever each year.) The pundits discuss and explore home field issues, including weather conditions, in-depth and ad nauseum in the NFL – no one wants to go to Green Bay in December I’ve heard – but college analysts conveniently ignore that reality.

Oh, you’re a Buckeye fan and are just making excuses. Let’s face it, the best football is played in the SEC and Big 12 South! Weather is a non-issue.

Uh oh. The topic of discussion just changed! And yes, I confess, I am defending my much-maligned Buckeyes and the Big 10 and its quality of football as evidenced by the last few bowl seasons. Realistically, I can accept that the Big 10 is down the past two or three years and the SEC is up based on year-end results – but there’s an even more telling statistic that argues against the kind of disparity being argued. It’s number of players in the NFL. The score card reads:

SEC – 263 players / 137 starters
ACC – 238 players / 121 starters
Big Ten – 234 players / 105 starters
Pac-10 – 183 players / 70 starters
Big 12 – 176 players / 72 starters
Big East – 84 players / 33 starters

So admittedly there is a power shift toward the southeast USA, but not to the degree it’s been propagated by fans who claim if you ain’t cheating you ain’t really trying.

But back to the question: Is it time for a college football playoff? I’m all for the top eight teams forming a bracket to set up a Super Bowl type climax to the CFB season – because we all know how great SB games are most years! (Sarcasm font on.) But not if all games are played in warm weather sites.

After all, since weather is just an excuse, shouldn’t Gator, Trojan, Sooner, Tiger, and Seminole fans get to experience football the way it was meant to be played … outdoors in December in Ann Arbor, Columbus, Happy Valley or other northern climes?

That’s a thought that warms my heart!

Note to College Football: Get Rid of the Bowls and Improve the Playoff Model

It's time for college football to kill the bowls and improve the playoff model.

I have always loved the traditions of college football, but many, including the bowl system, are dead anyway!

Note to college football: it is time to get rid of the bowls and improve the playoff model.

My first memory of watching an entire college football game was January 1, 1969, when Rex Kern and a group of “Super Sophs” led the Ohio State Buckeyes to a 27-16 win over the USC Trojans and their Heisman star, O.J. Simpson.

The Rose Bowl was the epitome of tradition. A great parade, followed by a matchup between the Big Ten and Pac-10 champions. Sure, there was 1942, when the game was moved to the campus of Duke University due to fears of a Japanese West Coast invasion (or terrorist attack) during World War II. But for more than half a century it was synonymous with the Big Ten and Pac-10. That ship sailed a long time ago with the coming of the BCS Era. I’ve gotten over it.

When it comes to college football I’ve been a traditionalist and have dragged my feet on most changes, including the BCS and the rampant conference realignments. In terms of declaring a national champion, I’ve never felt like we had to have a perfect system, free from any controversy. It never bothered me that many years there were multiple champions crowned. It was never more than two and it wasn’t like boxing where there might be three welterweight champions at one time. But now that we’ve made the first move to a four-team playoff  for the NCAA Division I Bowl Subdivision – the only division in college football without a playoff – I want to finish the transition.

Here is how I would to it: [Read more…]