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My Daughter, the Football Player

By Phillip Schmandt

NOVEMBER 22, 1999:  My Daughter, Dani, is trying out for the middle school football team. The stud. No girl has ever made "the cut" at her school. I've encouraged her to write a journal of the events. Hopefully she will. Here's the journal of her dad.


Day 1: Saturday

Two days until the beginning of school. We decide to throw the football around to "loosen up." With tryouts for the Cougars team imminent, what we used to spend hours doing with no particular thought takes on new meaning. I throw the ball with a bit more zip, thinking she'll be tested by the boys. I remember being red-faced when I could not catch bullet passes. Even being a boy, it seemed that the quarterback took particular pleasure in adding some sting to the ball during practice if you were not in the "in" crowd. Just to see if you were "man" enough to catch his passes. But Dani steps right in there and catches my zingers. One time she falters a bit. "Use your hands more and don't step back from the ball," I point out. She never steps back the rest of the day.


Day 2: Sunday

Besides one season of YMCA flag football in fourth grade, Dani has never played organized football before. We have talked about the rules, the positions, tackling, blocking, but I fear she still misses the subtleties that come with years of playing sandlot ball. A "post pattern," "go out to the flat," "buttonhook" -- all these terms will be second nature to some, but Greek to her. So we go to Barnes & Noble and buy a book on football rules. Then off to Barton Springs to relax on the day before school. We lounge. Nic brings his book, I bring my work and Dani brings "the football book." As I plow through my 40-page lease to review by Monday, Dani peppers me with questions. What happens if the ball goes into the endzone after a punt? A kickoff? If a runner goes backward from the end zone into the out of bounds, is it a safety or is it out of bounds? I am no football fan. She has quickly surpassed my knowledge and delved into technical niceties that only Chuck Madden could appreciate. "Don't sweat the small stuff," I say -- the boys won't know that detail either. But she persists. Soon we are drawing diagrams of Xs and Os on the back of the lease.


Day 3: First Day of School

The real thing. I pack her off. New outfit, new backpack, big smile, she the happiest child walking into that school. Life is good. "There won't be a practice today, Dad. It's the first day of school, and they will tell us what to do." Fast forward. It's 5:30pm. I've just returned from an emergency hearing in court. My mobile rings. It's Dani's mom, Janine. "Where's Dani?" I ask. "She walked home to your house," she explains. My heart cringes. "There was a football practice after school" she explains, and Dani did not go. Nic has searched the whole house, and Dani is nowhere to be found. I call our neighbor. No sign of Dani. There can be no more heart-wrenching feeling than a missing child -- and one who no doubt is emotionally now in fits. If she abandoned football practice and walked home, rather than waiting for her mom, something must be horribly wrong. What could have happened? What if something even worse happened? Don't go there I say. She must have gone to be alone. She is fine, just upset. Her mom says she will drive back to the school and will call me ASAP. I distract myself with work. Finally, I race to the car. No word from Janine yet. This is bad. Real bad. I get to the car and the mobile rings. Dani is okay, Janine says, "Here she is."

Dani can muster to say hi, before it all begins to tumble out. Tears, words, sobs, explanations all mixed together. Finally it comes out -- there was an after-school practice; she was supposed to have cleats; she had not known; she was embarrassed so she ran home and went to be alone. My heart aches while self-righteousness rings inside me. They must have told all the boys about this -- they must have sent a notice, but since Dani had to officially register for "volleyball" in order to make her schedule work for football, she must not have gotten the notice. I revert to the male me and we quickly go from "what did you feel" to "what's our plan now?"

Dani asks me to call the coach and find out what she missed and see if she can still play. In retrospect, maybe I should have had Dani call the coach, but I agree to do it. I call. I explain about the cleats. The coach listens. He sighs. In true Texas drawl, he explains "most of them boys don't have cleats. If your girl wants to play on the team then she needs to look for excuses to play rather than excuses not to play. There's gonna be lots of difficulties she's gonna face and she needs to overcome those kind of difficulties if she is gonna make the team." My hair raises on end. Suddenly I am transplanted to my last experiences talking to a junior high school coach. Coaches seem to always come up with some salt of the earth truism that at once hurts but is also penetratingly insightful. But I decide that now is not the time to debate all this. Down deep, I figure, he is ultimately right. I call Dani back. I try to pass on the same coach philosophy about overcoming adversity. I fail miserably. I think I don't have the drawl down. Then I say, "Dani, you have to relax. You are a great athlete, a great person, and what you are doing is awesome. None of that will be changed by whether or not you make the team. Remember that you are checking out football; football is not checking out you. Have fun and see if you like it." That one clicks. I hear some pep in her voice again. "Okay, Dad," she reassures me. Most importantly, we have connected. It did not work to talk from the "coach" inside of me. It did work to talk from the soul.

Amazing.


Day 4

"Daddy! I ran the 40-yard dash faster than all the boys but two!" Dani can't talk fast enough to run down everything that they did in their first two-a-day day. "The weird thing," she observes when she slows down, "is that the coach makes you yell like a monster whenever you run or do anything." She gives me a sample yell. Now my daughter is Mean Joe Green. But hey. That's cool. This is Texas. "The helmets are really hot, and I need a tooth guard by Friday." You mean a mouth guard I ask? After some complicated discussion we tentatively agree we are talking about the same instrumentality.

Finally I ask, "So did you miss anything important at yesterday's practice?" "Naah," she shrugs. She is plainly a veteran now. "Just some organizational stuff and lots of sitting around." She acts surprised that the question could even be relevant. Yesterday's trauma is today's trifle. Isn't that how life should always be?


Day 5

Two things are clear. One: Dani is exhausted. Pooped to the core. I can see it in her eyes. Two: Things are going well, or at least not going badly. I can see that deeper in her eyes. Today I have to press for details. "I ran the 40 in 5.3 seconds" she reports. "Third, maybe fourth fastest." She mentions something about learning how to tackle. That's about all she offers up. She yawns. I let the subject drop. As we are shopping in the Randalls, ever nosy me, I pry for more. "How are the boys treating you?" "Almost all of them are real supportive, Dad." Cool. "And how is the coach treating you?" "He treats me exactly like everyone else. He's real good about that." Very cool. What she really wants to talk about is that she wants to eat more "carbs." So we stock up on macaroni & cheese. I know for certain things are going well when she announces over dinner that she wants to go the 6:45am practice (15 minutes earlier than the main practice) which is reserved for those who are trying out for quarterback or running back. Very, very cool.


Day 6

I am late getting home, which means I have to compete with The Simpsons to extract information. A futile battle. I do learn, as she dashes up the stairs during commercials, that she is "psyched, psyched, psyched" (each "psyched" being coordinated with a foot landing on a new step) about tomorrow: first day of full pads. Tomorrow is also another first: The first school dance of the year. But the pads seem to be more enticing to her. I am not sure whether that should make me happy or worried.


Day 7

Dani goes home with a friend after school to prepare for the big dance. I call her at her friend's. "How'd it go with pads?" I hear a whoop. "Great, Dad! I really smacked one kid." Mean Joe Green she is. "But when you tackle someone you have to wrap yourself around their body, and it feels kinda weird to wrap my body around a boy!" Hold that thought for the dance, I think.


The Cut

The day the cut is announced I'm on pins and needles. People from all corners have offered their theories. A common one is that the seventh-grade team is merely a farm team for one of Texas' true high school football powerhouses, and that, as a result, they will never "waste" their time on a girl; girls will never play in high school. I try to resist conspiracy theories, but they seem to have a point. I prepare for the worst. The names of those who make the team will be printed on a roster. If your name is not on there, you did not make the cut. I try to focus on my work. At 4pm the phone rings. "Dad I went home to a friend's house after school." Okay, okay, I think, I know I've drilled the point that you must call when you go somewhere other than home, but to heck with those details, what happened? I hear her friends in the background, "Dani Rocks!" Dani finally shares the good news -- she made it! "So how did it feel seeing your name printed on the roster?" I ask. "Well, Dad," she explains, "I never saw my name on the roster --" My heart sinks. "It was posted in the boys locker room, so I had to send a friend in to check for me."


First Game

History is made!! Dani plays kicker, first-string offensive end, and second-string defensive end. No passes caught (one thrown behind her in the end zone, one she loses in the glaring sun). But she plays awesome defense.

History is also made as her Dad almost faints when, after the game, she lifts her shirt (discreetly) to show her tummy. She reveals a huge welt. "Look, Dad," she says with a beaming smile. "I got this when I tackled a guy, and he kicked me!"


Second Game

There is perhaps no feeling quite like the feeling of a father watching his daughter catch a pass and then get swarmed by a pack of teenage boys. Now I better understand Thelma & Louise. But all of that fades away when she flips me a big thumbs-up sign from the sidelines. Anxiety melts into pride. She hung onto the ball. She made a first down inside the 20. She conquered. My lil' Thelma. She rocks.

Football is a team game, but comprised of highly individual efforts. The focus very often turns on one, and only one, individual: the guy who makes the fumble or the guy who misses the tackle. The high of her first pass reception evaporates three plays later. Her team does their fake double-reverse pass play. Dani is wide open in the end zone. The pass is true. The spiral seems to float forever in the air. It comes closer and closer. It's like a movie. But the ball bounces off her shoulder pads. The coach yells, "You gotta catch those passes!" as she trots to the sidelines. My heart sinks. No more thumbs-up signs. She stares at the game. It's a long car ride home. We talk about ups and downs, catches and bobbles. Lessons of life learned from football. Or rather, I babble, she listens. Does it help? Hard to tell.


Third Game

Points!!! Dani scores two points on a successful two-point conversion pass. I am in seventh heaven. More pass receptions. More first downs. This is getting very cool.

Defense! Defense! Defense! Dani gets a sack -- dashes through the front line and almost runs past the quarterback. As she's running by, she seems to remember what to do and sticks out her arm and plum flips the quarterback. A masterpiece.


Fourth Game

The team's first (and eventually, only) loss of the season. The other team is one size bigger and one notch faster. All around. This is the first time I am really scared. Dani has to block a kid that seems twice her size. He swats her away. She keeps coming back. He keeps swatting her. On defense she misses a tackle. Coach yells. She is "relieved of her defensive duties." Deep down I am happy. I breathe easier when she is on the sidelines for this game.


Ninth Game

This game was no offensive spectacle. She had no points scored or passes caught. But it was actually her most impressive game. A true tour de force. Parents were literally stopping her in the parking lot after the game to congratulate her. Like, wow (though of course I, the modest Dad, don't pay attention to such accolades).

For you to understand this story, I first have to explain something about seventh-grade football. You see, every team has one boy whose hormones have kicked into action one or two years early. He is easy to pick out. He stands about two heads above and weighs at least 50 pounds more than everyone else. A Gulliver among hormonally challenged Lilliputians. He is not only bigger, but he always looks like a monster. Big, fierce, mean and itching for a bruising.

After detailed study, I have discerned a very subtle but remarkable strategy common to all the teams. I call it the "Monster Strategy." Though quite complex, it goes something like this: Hike the ball to the quarterback so he can hand it to the Monster, Monster runs up the middle to the right. Then, hike the ball to the quarterback so he can hand it to the Monster, Monster runs up the middle to the left. Or even, hike the ball to the quarterback so he can hand it to the Monster, Monster runs a sweep to the right. Well, you get the idea. See, by the time four or five of the opposing teammates cling on to the Monster, he will have dragged them along for six or seven yards, like ants clinging onto a cockroach. The Monster lumbers forward until their sheer weight drags him down. I am proud to say, I unraveled this very secret strategy after about five minutes of the first game I ever witnessed. I may have a future in the NFL.

Now here's the fun part -- where Dani meets the Monster. Dani is one of the kickers for her team. Guess who is always the deep receiver for the other team? The Monster. Twice in the game Dani kicked the ball far enough to get it down to the deep receiver (a feat unto itself in seventh-grade football), and twice, that's right twice, she single-handedly tackled the Monster as he zoomed upfield. The first time, she forced him out of bounds with a solid hit to the side that sent him flying out of bounds. Very cool. All the parents were dutifully impressed (not that I pay attention to these things). But the second time took the cake. The kick was her best yet, garnering all kinds of oooohhs and aaahhhs from the parents (though I barely noticed). The Monster fielded the ball and swatted away every Cougar who came close. We might as well be called the gnats. He passed the entire team. He was sprinting up the sideline. It was a sure touchdown. Out of nowhere came Dani, who proceeded to catch up to the Monster and lunge right at his knees. Her arms wrapped around his legs and she brought him down with a splendid tackle. He never knew what hit him. The crowd roared (though I really did not notice). After the game one of the dads came up to me and said, "I was working the chains, so I was right on the sidelines, and I have to say, that was the finest open-field tackle I have ever seen." Well, okay, I admit, maybe I noticed that one.

As we relaxed in the bleachers to watch the next seventh-grade game, I tried to get Dani to talk to me about "the tackle." But she only wanted to tell me the story, as she could not stop laughing, of the loser guy from the other team who had asked her for her phone number. She could not believe how stupid boys are. -- Life goes on --


Last Game

The most remarkable thing about the last game was how unremarkable it was. She played well. She scored more points. She kicked more balls. But that was now the norm. She was not a star, not the team Monster, not a future pro baller. But she was a solid member of the team. Tuesday night football games had become our routine. Like eating at Luby's, it became more comfortable than exciting.

As I sat in the stands soaking it in, I had to tip my hat to her coach. He had been perfect. Not one ounce of favoritism, which would have embarrassed her (she has her Dad for that), and never a hint of less than equal treatment. He paid her the ultimate compliment: He judged her on her ability to play.

Period.

And what were Dani's last words of the season? "Basketball tryouts start next week, Dad!"

Go, girl! Go.


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