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When your kid is the smallest one on the team. By a lot

The Kid. The Little Guy. The White Kid. 

This how my boy, who seems to me to be lanky and tall and very grown up to me at exactly 9-1/2 years and a self-perceived age of approximately 27, is waved down, called out to and referred as among the other kids he plays flag football with every Friday evening inside a local park district gym.

E was thrilled that I signed him up for this eight-week class, and it eased the eye-rolling burden of taking one more session of swimming that interrupts his Saturday afternoons all winter long. He grabbed me and squealed spontaneously and high-pitched in that tween-ish way that lets a mama knows she's made a good move and can be forgiven, not only for the whole swimming thing but also maybe for insisting on walking him all the way into the school before the morning bell rings. 

I, however, wasn't thrilled about the idea of football. But in my head, that was the head-crashing, concussion-causing, bones-broken kind that I want to keep my boy many yards from, now and when the allure of playing in high school creeps up. No matter what my thoughts were about saving my son a lifetime of rotator cuff surgeries and traumatic brain injuries and very, very large people pummeling him into Astro Turf, I couldn't stop the offensive line that came right for him. 

He didn't get tackled, or even intimidated. What I mean is, I couldn't stop my boy from loving football. At some point this year, something clicked, and he was suddenly asking me to turn the channel to ESPN or to look up scores for him on my phone. I never felt this way about football, or any sport outside of figure skating during the Olympics, and I watched in awe as he suited up for this new sport-love.

It makes sense. His dad is a fan. It's something they have in common. And now, it is a language they both can speak to each other. Since his dad isn't present to talk about homework or third-grade social dramas or what's happening in the world on most nights of the week, football can be the conversation. I hear it when his dad calls after dinner or as they walk down the stairs of our apartment on Wednesday evening visitations - check-ins on how teams are doing and which ones might be better next season and who E's best buddies are rooting for so E is now rooting for. 

Football immersion has also meant that E has something very guy-ish to bring up, sitting on the couch next to my dad or the Not Boyfriend. And he speaks fluently, holding his place next to men who have been in many fantasy leagues, paid for lots of Superbowl squares and become fans of the teams their fathers were fans of decades before.

I just watch. And listen. And sign my son up for the less-worrisome version of the sport.

Of course, the Superbowl and season are long over. But even in the bitter cold, E clung to his Nerf football as we walked to school so he could squeeze in a game with those best buddies if his class was maybe-possibly allowed to go outside in the snow and ice and frozen slush and negative degree-temps. He still talked the game, thought the game. And so when that park district class started up, the squeal was replaced with a confident nod.

And then we walked in the gym. There, in mid-January with coats flung on bleachers and in high-top shoes untied and expelling all the strange grunts and screams and goading of super-awkward boys in the super-awkward years, were eight kids at the upper end of the 9-12 year old age range for flag football.

The kid I thought was huge (my own) was dwarfed by boys a year or two older, some with with a hundred pounds and six inches on him. E fell silent and scooted in next to me on a bench until the coach showed up and whistled the boys to half-court. 

E walked down the bleacher stairs carefully, moved to the middle of the group tentatively, was uncharacteristically quiet and unnoticeable among the kids blurting out random Justin Timberlake lyrics and insults. He struggled with the belt for the flags, tried unsuccessfully to get the coach's attention for help, then turned to another kid who waved him off. I raised my eyebrows to call him over and it worked and, as quickly as I could, slipped the belt over-under-through around his tiny waist. 

I held my breath. What in the hell was going to happen? Was no-touch football going to lay my boy out on the gym floor? 

Then, like that turning point in Friday Night Lights or The Broad Side or some other cheer-tears football movie, E took a breath and walked right into the center of all those much-bigger players. He became just another flagged kid ready to play.

It took some time for them to pass the ball to him, but until they did, he jumped and waved his arms, wide open and ready. It took some time for them to acknowledge he was even there in the huddle, but until they saw him squeeze in at shoulder-height, he was there nodding and pointing and suggesting plays.

And finally, some kid saw that the unthreatening, uncovered little guy in the corner was actually part of a great strategy. Or at least, the idea just occured to him to give E a chance. He threw a long pass and E caught it and ran hard and quick, dodging around the bigger boys all the way to the touchdown line.

The crowd of parents screamed and the kids yelled out, too. The coach's whistle blew to make the six-point count official. And E? He looked to the stands, half-shocked, half-smug. Just like he should be.

"THE KID!," one boy shouted a minute later. "Throw it to the kid!"

The Not Boyfriend and I laughed. The whole thing unraveled like a sitcom, like The Wonder Years' gym class, with the coach explaining to boys who think they know it all that you shouldn't talk about your upcoming plays loud enough for the other team to hear and other sage advice from a guy who seemingly never stopped taking PE. 

Not every player on the team passed it off to E, some even pretended not to see him. But a few did, folding him into the huddle, handing the ball off to him, seeing he was a runner on a team of more experienced, but lopey and sometimes slow boys. 

E left happy and proud. And tired and hungry.

"Those kids," I said, not finishing before he interrupted.

"I know."

"They are bigger. Lots bigger. And you got in there. And used your best skills to your advantage," I said anyway. He nodded. It was cold and our breath was steamy outside our bodies as we quick-stepped to our car. "You are quick and can weave in between them. If they don't think you are a threat, that just means you are open and ready for a play."

What I was saying, he already knew. He'd figured it out early in the game. So I ended like a mom on the sidelines should.

"I am really proud of you. You got in there." Then he smiled. "Want me to show you how to do that belt when we get home."

"Yeah!" he yelled out and ran to tackle a pile of snow.

In the Friday nights since, he hasn't caught every glory pass or escaped every grasp at his flag as he tears by toward a potential touchdown. But his confidence has grown and he's seen more openings to step in, be seen, be heard. 

One kid - Nick, who is a broad-shouldered and instinctual player who has been to the Chicago Bears kids camps - has become E's advocate. E knows this well and lights up when Nick arrives. He pauses to see which color flag Nick chooses so he is sure to get thrown at least a pass or two in the 45-minute play time. Other players are in and out. E understands it all.

One night, after he got very little time with his hands on the football at all, I said that I thought they were throwing to their buddies and that it was silly to pass off the ball to a clump of kids rather than E, alone and jumping and waving and ready at the goal line. I knew I didn't phrase it correctly, but he got what I meant.

"It's OK. It takes time. It's still fun," he said. And I tried hard to trust that like I trust him.

The session is almost over. One more week. I have been encouraging E to take his turn as a quarterback, not just to hand off the ball but to pass it, this time maybe to someone unexpected. 

"We'll see," he's told me every time.

But last Friday, he was really in there. He scored once and had several great tries, a few more near-catches and a play or two that had me beaming from the bleachers. 

"LITTLE GUY!" one kid yelled out. All eyes turned to E for a surprise pass. "TO THE LITTLE GUY!"

And later, after E wove through one of those clumps of kids I'd described, another kid screamed across the gym, "WATCH OUT FOR THE WHITE KID!"

We laughed. And cheered. When he caught a long pass right after that and shot a look of complete amazement over a dropped jaw, I jumped off of the bench and yelled for the little white guy, too. 

The Not Boyfriend and I, plus my parents some weeks, have provided much of the laugh track for the sitcom that is tweens all trying to be the star of this disshelved, mismatched football team. It has been a very entertaining way to start our weekends and often, we head out to dinner, talking loudly about the players and the plays and boasting about my boy in the cinched-tight flag belt. 

But what I am most proud of is how he's handled himself among players who are not just bigger and older and more experienced than he, but who are louder and take up more space with their words and brashness. I am proud he doesn't have to be a star every play or prove himself or do anything more than run as fast as he can and try like crazy to catch that ball. I am proud he sussed out his best skills in this situation and uses them over and over, especially since they are very different than the dexterity the other boys have. He didn't let anything stop him from playing his own game.

After this Friday, there won't be flag football offered at the park district for nine more months. But there will be dodgeball. And you can be sure the smallest kid on the court will be right in the middle of all the action.





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