The game of football is under attack.
We see it every day in the headlines and on the news. The medical concerns are pressing. The game has taken its share of criticism. President Barack Obama said that if he had boys he wouldn’t let them play football. Even LeBron James has publicly said no football in his house.
The question is asked over and over: Why would anyone want to play football? And why would anyone let their kids play?
Here’s my answer: I believe there’s practically no other place where a young man is held to a higher standard.
Football is hard. It’s tough. It demands discipline. It teaches obedience. It builds character.
Football is a metaphor for life.
This game asks a young man to push himself further than he ever thought he could go. It literally challenges his physical courage. It shows him what it means to sacrifice. It teaches him the importance of doing his job well. We learn to put others first, to be part of something bigger than ourselves. And we learn to lift our teammates – and ourselves – up together.
These are rare lessons nowadays.
Football has faced challenges like this before.
In 1905, there were 19 player deaths and at least 137 serious injuries. Many of these occurred at the high school and college levels. Major colleges said they were going to drop football because the game had become too violent.
That’s when President Teddy Roosevelt stepped in to call a meeting with coaches and athletic advisers from Harvard, Princeton and Yale. He wanted to find a way to make the game safer. They made significant changes, introducing new rules like the forward pass and the wide receiver position. Those changes turned football more into the game we know it as today.
We made progress. Rules changed. Society evolved. The game advanced.
We’re at another turning point in our sport. The concussion issue is real and we have to face it.
We have to continue to get players in better helmets. We have to teach tackling the right way, and that starts at the NFL level. Change the rules. Take certain things out of the game. It’s all the right thing to do.
But even with all of that, the importance of football hasn’t changed. In some ways, it’s more important than ever.
And I believe the most critical place for football is at the youth and high school levels. For 97 percent of football players, the pinnacle of their careers is the high school game. Few players ever go on to the college level. Even less make it to the pros.
For a lot of these kids, it’s not until it’s all said and done, and they look back on it several years later, that they realize the difference the sport made in their lives. They are proud of playing the game. Have you ever met anybody who accomplished playing four years of high school football, and at the end of that run said, ‘Man, I wish I wouldn’t have played’? It doesn’t get said.
We know that football players aren’t perfect. Nobody is. But millions of former players, one by one, can recount the life-altering principles they learned from football.
They know the value of football is the values in football.
That’s why high school football – and particularly high school coaches – play such a vital role in our society. Our football coaches are on the front lines of the battle for the hearts and minds of the young men in our society. The culture war is on and we see it every day. These young men are more vulnerable than ever.
How many youth and high school coaches serve as a father figure to their players? How many mothers look to the coaches of their son’s football team as the last best hope to show their son what it means to become a man – a real man? More than we’ll ever know.
Coaches teach our young people the lessons of life that very often they learn from no one else. Coaches have the kind of influence in our schools, and with our young people, that is difficult to come by.
Billy Graham once said, “One coach will influence more people in one year than the average person will do in a lifetime.” My dad also says all the time that it just takes one person to believe in a young man or young woman to change their lives. I couldn’t agree more.
Our culture teaches us to judge an activity by how it’s going to make us feel right now. But football doesn’t work that way. The game challenges and pushes us. It’s often uncomfortable. It requires us to be at our best.
Isn’t that what we want in our society?
Football is a great sport. Football teams can be, and very often are, the catalyst for good in our schools and our communities. Millions of young men have learned lessons in football that they could only learn through playing this game. Football has saved lives.
That is why football matters.
The International Football Association Board (IFAB) may possess a proud reputation as having preserved the foundations of the game as it enters a third century, but there are still a few things about the way football was once played that might raise a few eyebrows…
1. During the very first international football match between Scotland and England in 1872, players not only wore “knickerbockers” or long pants but bobble hats or caps too. The head dresses were a normal part of the footballing attire at the time and lasted well into the 20th century.
2. Balls were not exactly round when the first club and country matches took place. A pig’s bladder was blown up like a balloon, tied at the ends and placed inside a leather case, affording it an egg shape. The discovery of Indian rubber in the 1860s gave the ball greater roundness.
3. While it is true footballs of yesteryear gained weight in wet conditions, they were in fact lighter than today’s ball. In 1889, the spherical object used had to be between 12-15 ounces (340 – 425 grams) but this increased to 14-16 ounces (397 -454 grams) in 1937.
4. In the FA rules of 1863, there was no mention of a crossbar. As in rugby today, a goal could be scored at any height as long as the ball went between the sticks or posts. A tape was used to close the goal during the first internationals before a crossbar replaced it in 1875.
A 450-year-old football, made from a pig’s bladder and pieces of leather, laced together and found in the rafters of Stirling Castle
5. Mob football, a descendant of the modern game, stormed into England around the 12th Century and caught on to such an extent it was banned by Royal decree by many kings and queens. It was a violent game in which “murder and manslaughter” were allegedly the only barriers to transporting the ball to village ends. King Henry VIII, however, is believed to have been a keen player.
6. Contrary to some beliefs, football was very much an upper class sport in England during its infancy. The rules of the game were largely drafted by students belonging to public schools and universities. The working class adopted the sport during the late 19th Century.
7. The first meeting of the Football Association on 26 October 1863 in London did not end in total agreement among the 12 attendees. One club walked out, refusing to accept the non-inclusion of hacking (kicking below the knee) among the original rules.
8. Early football tactics resembled those of today’s rugby. Teams were top-heavy with forwards and because of the offside law, which prevented advanced players touching the ball, attacking often meant players grouping or scrimmaging together around the ball to move it towards goal.
The ancient Greek “Maradona”, playing “Episkyros” with a pala (National Museum of Archeology in Athens)
9. Penalties or referees found no place in the original rules of the game. Gentlemen would never intentionally foul, it was assumed. In fact debating techniques were almost as important as ball skills in those days as players could appeal against decisions first to captains and then to umpires before referees, named so because they had originally been referred to by umpires, found their place on the pitch in 1891.
10. It was only in the 20th Century that the penalty spot was introduced. In the decade before penalties, originally called the kick of death, could be taken anywhere along a line 12-yards from goal.
11. The word soccer does not come from the United States but was a term used by public school and university students, most notably at Oxford, in the 19th Century to shorten the new game “Association Football”. The predilection to shorten words with “er” extended to Rugby too, known as rugger.
12. Many of football’s terms and expressions are of military origin: defence, back line, offside, winger, forward, attack, etc
13. The FA’s 1863 rules of the game permitted the use of handling. Although a player could not handle the ball if it was on the ground, he was able to catch it in the air and make a mark to gain a “free” kick, which opposing players were not allowed to charge down.
14. There were no David Beckhams or Roberto Carlos’ before 1927 as goals could not be scored from direct free kicks.
15. Goalkeepers, in their own half, could handle the ball both inside and outside the penalty area before 1912.
16. London’s Kensington High Street traffic lights are the inspiration for the red and yellow cards used in today’s game. English referee and then FIFA’s Head of Refereeing Ken Aston was driving through central London thinking of ways to better illustrate a caution or sending off when the change of green to yellow to red of the lights gave him the idea.
17. Before 1913 when a corner was taken, instead of deciding on an inswinger, outswinger or taking a short one, there was nothing to stop a player dribbling the ball by himself. The rules were changed after several players teed themselves up before scoring.
18. Not surprisingly with hacking only a thing of the recent past, shin pads or guards were first permitted in the rules as early as 1874. They first appeared as a cut down version of the cricket pad.
19. The first act of a goalkeeper on a Saturday morning was not always to throw open the doors of his wardrobe before selecting his mood colour that day. Back in 1909, he was given a choice of royal blue, white or scarlet. If a goalkeeper became his country’s number 1 in 1921, he wore yellow.
20. Referees attempted to catch up with play around the turn of the century decked in black trousers, blazer and bow tie!