Loco Parentis: The Letter Man Show

It’s just a jacket. Why has it taken on a life of its own?

“Thanks,” I whispered, inaudible in my astonished surprise — and then was so grateful I hadn’t said it more loudly when I realized she was talking to another ex-cheerleader standing right over my shoulder.

My son took a cheerleader to prom.

You want your children to have it easier than you did, to be happier than you were — don’t you? I’m not sure. Marcy, my daughter — different like I was, though in different ways — gets really pissed off at what she sees as the free pass that life is giving her brother. She worked so hard to get good grades all through high school, sweated her SATs, and is still studying like crazy now that she’s in college, to keep her GPA up in the stratosphere. Jake does the absolute bare minimum he can in school — and it doesn’t matter; good colleges are begging him to e-mail them, return their calls, come visit them, because of football. I hate what this is teaching her — and him — about life.

But it would be much simpler to be scornful if I didn’t love the game. That the thrill of watching him play could continue, that somehow I — lowly, geeky I — might get an extension on the string of autumn afternoons spent sitting in bleachers, that the grand panoply of mascots and marching bands and referees’ whistles and leaping receivers’ outstretched hands could last beyond this senior year, makes me beside myself with happiness.

And then I feel like a horrible mother, because really, what about concussions? What about arthritis 30 years from now? What about torn meniscuses and ACLs and rotor cuffs and groin muscles?

What about … Division I?

I SPENT THE summer driving Jake to football camps. We’d get up at dawn and head out for Lafayette or Delaware or Temple or Princeton, chasing the dream. I’m not sure, really, whose dream it is. He says he wants to play in college. But he also says he wants to go to the best school that will have him, academically. That could well be Division III, which doesn’t give athletic scholarships, which means I’ll never recoup the money for the camps and the cleats and the lineman gloves.

The jacket, though — he’ll have that forever, a symbol of where he stood in the high-school pecking order: Top of the world, Ma! Big man on campus. Jock king. I fret that everything after will pale in comparison, the way it can for people who peak early.

I fret more that he’ll hurt himself in this, his senior year.

The camps were full of large children, man-kids, all jockeying for recognition. Even in their midst, Jake stood out on account of his size. “Big Guy,” the coaches called him: “Way to go, Big Guy!” “Keep hustling, Big Guy!” I watched him at those camps, taking his stance across from one player after another, helmetless, without pads, just one on one, mano-a-mano, driving, pushing, shoving, fighting for dominance in a display as feral as two headlocking bulls or mastodons or mountain goats. Men have been doing this — with one excuse or another; not always football — for the past 30,000 years. They’ll go on doing it forever, I guess.