Boys and football: Right to pass is a rite of passage

Barring bad weather or a plumbing emergency, I plan to attend the final game of the neighborhood's Sunday afternoon touch football season. I am the referee, the dad with the whistle, the only adult on the field.

The pickup teams, composed of a handful of 11- and 12-year-old boys, have played either nine or 10 games this year. No one counted. One game was rained out. And another game was threatened by grass seed.


The combatants arrived at the makeshift gridiron, the playground of the Bolton Hill Swim and Tennis Club, to find that portions of the field had just been seeded. For a moment it looked like the game might be called, perhaps the first football game in history to be called on account of germination. An alternate site, the park across the street from the nearby Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, was considered but voted down. It was too close to culture.

Eventually the game was played on a rearranged field. If a player landed on a newly cultivated area, his team would get a penalty. Five yards for seed-stomping.


The boys picked the teams. Three, sometimes four kids were on a team. The kids also agreed on rules. Touchdowns were either six or seven points, depending on whether the kids felt up to attempting to kick extra points.

The kicking game required some imagination. There were no goal posts to kick the ball through. Instead, the poles holding up a nearby volleyball net substituted as uprights. A point-producing kick was one that sailed over the volleyball net. But then the net was taken down for the winter. That required drawing an imaginary line between the posts. A good kick was one that sailed over this line. Rushing the kicker was not allowed. But taunting was. You could stand 5 yards away from the kicker and holler at him.

As referee, I ruled on whether the kicked ball had cleared the invisible line. Many of my rulings were contested. These kids argued more than lawyers.

When the kids howled at me, I thought of what a teacher had said during one of those parent-teacher nights at school; that kids in the 11-13 age group are just beginning to accept responsibility for their actions. Both their good actions and their bad ones. It made sense to me. So when one of the neighborhood football players protested one of my calls, I tried to tell myself that this young man was struggling with the fact that the kid he was supposed to be guarding had just caught a touchdown pass. That is what I thought. What I said was, "Any more lip and you are out of the game."

During my tenure as referee, I also saw moments of joy. An acrobatic catch, a game-winning extra point, an artful dodge produced those rare, glorious smiles of a kid pleased by a deed well done.

I witnessed moments of extreme solidarity. The boys loudly agreed that they didn't want their brothers, big or little, playing in the game. The big brothers would take the game over. The little brothers, the 7- and 8-year-olds, would "mess it up." From time to time this no-brothers rule was eased. But only when some of the "real" players didn't show up for the games, and the once-shunned siblings were needed to make even teams.

As the season wore on, it became apparent that the kids did not want my advice. Whenever I tried to give them a tip on how to catch the ball, or how to punt, or how to block, they eased out of earshot. They didn't want to practice. They wanted to compete. To play a game. To collide.

This seemingly irrepressible urge of boys to knock heads is how these Sunday afternoon games got started. My 11-year-old son was disappointed when he didn't get into a tackle football league. By the time he heard about the league, the deadline for signing up had passed.


My wife was not enthusiastic about her son playing tackle football. She had visions of his limbs and several weeks worth of orthodontics being wiped out by one tackle.

As a guy who played tackle football in high school and has a bum knee to show for it, I had mixed feelings about sending my first-born into the fray.

But I knew that telling a kid that he couldn't play football because it made his mother nervous would not sit well on his psyche. So the idea of organizing a neighborhood touch football game, where the ball carrier is stopped by a two-handed tag, not a tackle, was born. The 11-year-old sent out letters to a handful of his friends announcing the game. I agreed to officiate.

I made every game except one. I was out of town and arrived at the game late. The dad of one of the other kids had filled in as referee. They yelled at him too.