It's been a long while since football was a real concern to my fall. Of course, there are the Vikings to root against on television and my Cyclones to pull for, not to mention the beloved Beavers on a nice Saturday afternoon and some Friday night heroics from our Tornadoes.
But I must admit to be being a somewhat detached football fan, and these days, two-a-days to me means only the number of Subway tuna sandwiches I'm allowed to consume without keeling over from mercury poisoning.
So, I feel a bit out of place on the sidelines of northwest Iowa, second-guessing the coaches with the rest of the old farts as my son plays tight end for a miniature version of the Storm Lake football team.
I wonder when this all happened. What became of the little kid who just learning to toddle around the house? The one who was just learning to ride a bike? The one who liked to be read Tom Sawyer stories? Seems like I just blinked, and here he is padded up as one of these broad-shouldered, swaggery football players. Good gosh, am I going to wake up tomorrow and find him in grad school? Somebody, please slow it all down a little...
At all of maybe 80 pounds soaking wet, this tight end isn't exactly a gargantuan threat to the gridiron, but he doesn't know that - or at least doesn't let it bother him.
Play after play, the big kid on the other side of the line knocks him flat, or worse. I wince every time, and it is entirely possible it hurts me more than him.
Or maybe not. He has bruises on top of bruises, and there's usually bright spots of blood soaking through some part of his white uniform, yet another challenge for the liquid Clorox.
But he keeps getting up, keeps firing off the line, keeps standing on the sideline within an inch of the coach, begging to be noticed so he can get out there on defense too.
The final scores haven't been too kind to this group yet, but they keep their heads up; they don't complain and they don't quit. The more tired and beat up and dirty they get, the more they seem to like it.
I guess football hasn't changed so much after all. Which means that before too long, there will be the epiphanous discovery of girls on the sidelines. To all things their season.
So far, I have managed to keep the boy's mother from assaulting the big juvenile delinquent punk who applies a late hit to her offspring. I have managed to pace the sideline without opening my mouth any more than necessary. Here we are two games into the season, and I have yet to vocally suggest creative alternatives for a ref's parental heritage.
With bloodshot Saturday morning vision, I've slowly gained the skill of actually finding my child on the field of little warriors in white. At first, I was tempted to mount a small flag atop his helmet, since his body doesn't quit fill out the 66 jersey, and tucked in he normally looks more like 00, or maybe 88, or just one big walking grass stain.
There is an actual playbook, although I've yet to match up the carefully-drawn scheme with the utter chaos that seems to occur with each snap at this level.
Remember those electric football sets they used to have? When you turned the know, the little plastic players started to vibrate crazily and skitter all over the field until they all ended up in one frantic pulsing lump? Yeah, you get the picture.
Every once in a while, some little guy squirts out of the knot of youthful humanity, and goes scampering on down the green field, and sleepy, chilly parents come to their feet with a jolt of adrenaline and a whoop or a groan.
They yell all the time-honored motivational messages:
"Hold 'em now!"
"Fire up out there!"
None of these help much, of course, but as a parent, you realize that this little player will one day have a hand in sending you to the home, so you hope he'll remember that you made it to his games and choose one with at least warm gruel pushed through the bars.
Rough, warlike sport though it may be, I think that football is an almost vital part of American boyhood. In no other sport do you find out quite as much about yourself, or stand to take quite as much hurt for your team.
If you never get knocked on your butt, you never get the opportunity to get up and try again. And again. And again.
And that's one of life's necessities.
A lot of plays have been run over the years out on Lakeshore Drive to prepare for this, and each and every one of the neighbors' cars have been hit at least once, though most of them are probably finding out about that fact here for the first time. Sorry, it was the wind, or the sun, or the humidity, or the traffic. It got away from me. So have some years...
But once again, it is football season. And now it matters in a whole different way.