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I watched my son get injured playing football and I’m still hurting

With every play, the mother of a high school quarterback feels the pain of the game

The mind of a mother goes to strange places as she looks out over the football field where her son is injured.

My fear feels low-level at first. But it strengthens at regular intervals, like labor pain, as the minutes go by and my son, Satchel, 16, varsity quarterback for the Maret School in Washington, D.C., does not move.

Down 33-0 to powerhouse Episcopal High and deep in their own territory, Satchel dropped back in the pocket. I didn’t see the hit because I was focused on the interception, which, at the time, felt like the worst thing in the world that could happen.

Later, watching it on film, you can make out a defender holding Satchel’s ankles while the noseguard extends his forearm, catching Satchel under the chin and snapping his head back. A few seconds later, as the defensive back runs for the touchdown, you can see the defender who had him by the ankles extend his hand. Satchel tries to get up but falls.

As my son lies still on the field, the noise of the crowd recedes. I turn to see the woman behind me shake her head, telling her friend, I saw the whole thing. From then on, I can no longer look at the other parents. I only have eyes for the field where my son has not moved.

I begin to sway back and forth, descending into the separation the mom of the hurt feels from the moms of the healthy. I will myself not to cry. Come on, Satch, get up, my husband urges. He is temperamentally even, so I find his anxiety unbearable, and suddenly I separate from him as well. I run to the edge of the bleachers, trying to get a better look.

For years now, people around me have drilled it into my head that I am not to embarrass Satchel. I’m not to call out his name too often, and never on the sidelines so he can turn and I can take pictures or give him the thumbs-up. I am not to make a spectacle of myself with a raw momness that’s outside prescribed channels, and at odds with the violence and decorum of the game. If I really wanted to punctuate a moment, I could ring a cowbell, but I never did. I was always afraid I’d let fly at the wrong time, so instead I just clapped and yelled when everybody else on our side did the same.

For many years, I had fought football but I had lost. I named my son after the Negro Leagues pitching legend and encouraged him in baseball. I sat in on nearly every one of his junior high and rec league basketball games and practices. But at 12, he donned a helmet and shoulder pads and fell in love. He bonded with his father, my ex-husband, who had played for Duke and encouraged Satchel’s desire to throw the ball. And all of a sudden, my love for my son, my ardent wish for him to be happy, and my fear of him turning away from me the more I resisted him playing, were all working against me. Football — with its athletic grace, cultural sway, and rituals of brotherhood and toughness — has so many ways to run up the score on a mother.

I can take pictures or give him the thumbs-up, but I am not to make a spectacle of myself with a raw momness that’s outside prescribed channels, and at odds with the violence and decorum of the game.

When we walked into the stadium the day of the Episcopal game, I met our coach’s wife, whose son was on crutches from an earlier football injury. We remarked on the size of the other team. “I’m glad he’s not out there,” she said of her son before quickly apologizing. But I knew what she meant. We laughed together, and I pushed against that gnawing awareness of the risk that has lived with me since my son began playing in high school.

Now, he was stretched out on the field and I was no longer swaying but rocking rhythmically, back and forth. Then I began to jump up and down. It wasn’t until my ex-husband descended the steps in front of me that I allowed myself to walk with him out onto the field. I started keening, and my ex-husband, who was managing his own apprehension, issued a terse “Calm down.”

Like the stands behind me, the stands on the other side of the field were silent. I was surrounded by people, but the mother of an injured football player is alone.

My husband and my ex walked over to my son, but I stopped short. I did not know what I would see or if I was strong enough to see it. If I faint, everyone will say Satchel’s mom is a diva, I told myself. The coach came over and smiled. He spoke of “good signs,” and I made no reply.

Then my son moved his legs, not in a twitch but turning each slowly as an act of volition, and I finally ran the distance between us. My son was answering questions. His knee hurt, he said, and his neck was killing him, but, yes, he could move it. Tears rolled down his face and into his ears. Someone took a drill to his helmet to remove his face mask. The mood palpably lightened. Team doctors and trainers said his injury appeared to be “muscle not bone.” Translation: My son was not paralyzed. They called for an ambulance “in an abundance of caution,” and the Episcopal team doctor sat with Satchel’s head cradled in his hands. I knelt at his feet, rubbing his legs. A siren sounded in the distance.

Satchel was distraught at having to leave his team “without getting a chance to redeem myself.” As he was loaded onto a stretcher and wheeled toward the ambulance, Satchel raised his arm to give a thumbs-up salute, and the silence turned to cheers.

“I see you! I see you No. 7!” yelled a guy who had been the loudest voice from the other side. I never saw his face, but somehow it was that piercing voice, that obnoxious fandom, newly repurposed, that guided me back. That told me how afraid everyone watching had been. How they had been pulling for my son, and imagining themselves in my place.

On both sides of the field, people clapped and waved and rose to their feet.

Satchel had an X-ray and a CT scan at the hospital that came back normal. The team doctor later ordered an MRI. He’d suffered a severe neck sprain and some bruising, but after a few days he was fine. Schoolmates and parents texted and called, kept his spirits buoyed and wrapped their arms around me. But I no longer feel myself the football mother I used to be.

Lonnae O’Neal (left) and her son, Satchel Parker.

Thomas Reed

Satchel had a bye week right after his injury in September. He’s played three football games since, winning two. Each time, I’ve wrestled with whether I could even be there.

Team parents have told me how they cried when Satchel was taken off the field, and they detailed their anger over what some thought was a late hit. It’s not an anger I especially share. It’s tilting at windmills, railing against the violence of a violent sport, and I’m just trying to hold it together.

In his first game back, Satchel came out sporting a new jersey because his old one had to be cut off of him. “You’re a brave woman to come back out here and watch,” a mother told me, and I wanted to protest that I did not want to be. That I wanted to be anywhere else. That I wanted my son to love anything but football.

“I started not to,” I told her instead. “Football is ruined for me.”

She looked away quickly, and I cautioned myself against being weirdly intense and marring the game for others. Every football parent has to make his or her own peace with the game. Play after play, they bet that the lessons of hard work and sacrifice are worth the risk that they are also betting, on a play-by-play basis, will pass by and over and — please, God — around their sons. I was always shaky on that score, and now I’m not there at all. On one play, a quarterback keep, Satchel ran nearly 60 yards for a touchdown. But I stayed planted low and quiet and rooted to the bench. I couldn’t move my hands, or my spirit, to clap.

In the past three weeks, I’ve yelled for Satchel to stop running the ball as he’s headed for the end zone and cried out when he’s gotten sacked. I’ve joined the sorority of mothers whose sons have been injured, the initiation rites of which include listening to stories of hyperextended joints and knee bones connected to thigh bones.

None of the injuries he sees or hears about has discouraged my son, however. He recently said he wants to play professional football, and my heart sank. Making it to the pros is a long shot for any young athlete, but even the aspiration carries pain.

Play after play, football parents bet that the lessons of hard work and sacrifice are worth the risk that they are also betting, on a play-by-play basis, will pass by and over and — please, God — around their sons.

Satchel said the hit in the Episcopal game was painful, but once he realized he could move his neck, he wasn’t afraid. He felt bad lying there, he said, because he knew that I would be upset.

“How do you feel about playing football now?” I asked.

“Great! I love it. I’m going to do it until I can’t do it anymore,” he said. Episcopal was a big, strong team, while Maret is younger and was overmatched, he reasoned. “Stuff like that happens sometimes.”

“It wouldn’t if you weren’t playing football,” I said.

“But I love football, so it’s not an option. And that hasn’t dissuaded me at all.” It’s like if you wrote a bad story, Mom, my son explained to me, “and got chewed out by your editor, and you decide to stop writing because of one bad story, one bad experience.”

“Writing a bad story doesn’t take me to the hospital,” I replied. But I don’t think he was hearing me. Or perhaps I wasn’t hearing him.

I deliberately avoided caffeine before Satchel’s most recent game against a crosstown rival. Still, my heart was racing. My husband told me my voice sounded as if I wasn’t getting enough oxygen. He urged me to take deep breaths, and to “look around.”

“That was a scary thing that happened, and I don’t diminish that, but you’re watching the immense caution around that particular injury. In a different time and place they’d have told him to spit on it and get up.”

Breathe out the fear and embrace what your son has chosen, he said. “He’s in a leadership position in a sport that teaches kids how to deal with success and failure. Satchel has turned himself into an elite athlete, and there’s joy in that.”

Maret won the game 43-7, and after the teams lined up and shook hands, my son skipped across the field and stretched out his arms as if to wrap the whole crowd in his joy. I felt his happiness, and I recognized that for my son, that feeling was worth the price he had to pay. Suddenly, I began to tremble.

I think, this time, only half of it was fear.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at Andscape. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.