On the same day last December, the Eau Claire newspaper published its annual All-Northwest high school football team, and just in case we might have forgotten for a moment that playing football can be risky, it also ran a column written by a man who had almost been paralyzed on the gridiron. But the writer didn’t use his words to condemn the game; he praised it, even though his own career ended face down on the field with a neck injury.
Jesse Reising went to Yale and played linebacker on the football team. In the 2010 season’s finale, Reising tackled a Harvard ball-carrier and suffered torn nerves in his neck, which left parts of his right shoulder and arm permanently paralyzed. The New York Times ran a photo of Reising, lying on the turf, in a story about the dangers of football.
It might be news to the Times and its readers, but football has always been violent. At one time, it was so dangerous that it was nearly banned. In 1905, during a season in which 18 football players (15 of them high schoolers) suffered fatal injuries, President Theodore Roosevelt summoned the leaders of the three major collegiate programs — Yale, Princeton and his own alma mater, Harvard (where his son was playing on the freshman team) — to the White House to discuss ways the game could be made safer. That meeting led to the founding a few months later of the organization that would become the NCAA. Rules were changed to open up the game, reducing injuries, and then a professional league came along to make the sport even more popular. Today, of course, football rules the American sports world.
In his column, Reising said he partially recovered from his injury but never again played football. Even though the injury ended his dream of joining the Marines, he made the most of the next decade anyway. He got his law degree and became a federal prosecutor. He co-founded the Warrior-Scholar Project, which helps veterans rediscover their sense of purpose. When asked whether he would allow his kids to play football, he answered with an emphatic yes. Football’s code of honor, he wrote, provides “a much-needed antidote to modern society’s culture of individualism, which favors self-preservation and pushes us away from communities of true meaning.”
I played football for one season in high school, then gave up the game to focus on basketball, which introduced me to very similar honor group. Like Reising, I believe athletics are one of the best ways we can introduce our kids to honor groups, where they learn about things like self-discipline and teamwork.
Being part of an honor group used to be quite common. To join, you had to establish certain bona fides, usually involving a willingness to work hard and sacrifice for the group. Once in, fellow members could be counted on to support you when times would get tough. Typically, the honor group had a goal, whether it was to win a championship or a war or just have a successful fundraiser. Membership was prized. Individualism was tolerated, but only to a point.
These days, a few honor groups still exist: the military, sports teams, fraternal organizations, maybe some companies. Popular fiction loves them; any “Star Trek” fan recognizes the honor groups of the Vulcans and Klingons right away. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one,” Mr. Spock said as he gave his life to save the Enterprise. Here on real-world Earth, it’s usually the other way around. The needs of the individual must be met, his or her feelings must never be wounded. If the group suffers, too bad.
Honor groups aren’t immune to petty human emotions like jealousy, pride and arrogance. The most famous honor group in Wisconsin is the Green Bay Packers, whose most important player is displaying all those emotions, and more, in his quest to have…well, something. Aaron Rodgers has yet to speak publicly about exactly what he does want. The right thing to do, one would think, would be to honor the contract he signed. The team is willing to uphold its end of the deal, after all, making him even richer than he already is.
Fortunately, we still have high school football. You could watch 10 years of it and see maybe one or two players who eventually make the NFL. The vast majority know that this is it, these four short seasons will be as far as they go, so they give it all they’ve got. When the Rice Lake Warriors kick off their season in a couple months, I’ll be back at the radio mic, and it will be my pleasure once again to see a new generation of young people discover what honor really means.
Dave Tindell is a native Wisconsinite who has lived in the Northwest since 1991. After a career in Federal service, he now dabbles in radio, writes novels and trains in the martial arts.