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  “I just can’t understand how parents can encourage their kids to play football.” This post on Facebook recently caught my attention. It is an understandable comment considering the attention concussions from football injuries have been getting lately in the news. I agree that football is a dangerous sport and as a  psychologist, I have seen firsthand the cognitive effects of concussions. I know all too well the risks inherent in playing a contact sport. This Facebook comment made me stop and reflect because while all of the above is true, I am also the mom of a teenage football player.

My 14-year-old son is so passionate about playing football that he lives and breathes football. He talks endlessly about possible strategies and game winning plays. He goes to every practice full of energy and comes back exhausted yet exhilarated. His scrapes and bruises are worn like badges of honor. I’m not sure how this love for football developed in a household that values intellectual pursuits over athletics and quiet reading over physical activity but he is head over heels for the game.

People wonder how I can let my son play football when I know the risks so well. It is not because I have a personal love for the game and not because my husband is vicariously living out a childhood dream of his own. We both hate the risks involved in football and are fearful for our son’s physical well-being. I let him play because football, at least for right now, is the wellspring of his self- esteem. He is a kid who needs to soak up every drop of confidence he can get. His many exceptional qualities are not always appreciated and positive feedback is often hard to come by.

At school, he is the kid who has lost his homework yet again. His messy locker, stuffed with crumpled papers and textbooks, is so tightly packed it barely stays closed. He is the student who teachers describe with exasperation as someone who could do so much better, if only he would apply himself. He is the boy whose reputation of being talkative and distractible precedes him so that teachers are already on guard before they even meet him and see what he has to offer.

At home, he is the little brother who isn’t enthusiastic about intellectual pursuits and therefore doesn’t reap as many accolades as his academically driven siblings. He is the boisterous extrovert in a family of introverts. He is loved dearly but tends to get shushed a lot and asked to find something quiet to do.

But on the football field, he is “Beans” (a moniker given because his last name is Pinto), #79, a defensive end and a highly esteemed player on the team. His coaches praise him for his dogged persistence and hard work. He is valued for his bottomless optimism and school spirit. He is a team player, encouraging others to keep going and pulling them up when they fall. He uses his loud voice to cheer his teammates on until his own voice fails him. As a football player, he is revered by younger students, respected by his teammates, and appreciated by the adult coaches. When he dons his jersey on game day, it becomes a protective armor against all the naysayers who judge him as not working to his full potential. He is not the most talented player on the team but nonetheless the football field is my son’s place to shine.

Yes, football is dangerous and yes, it has its risks. I still worry about injuries, particularly concussions. I pray for my son’s safety while he is on the field and my hair turns a bit more grey after every game. But I continue to let him play because I am not willing to take away this source of pride and accomplishment. I let him play because his wonderful qualities are appreciated on the football field more than anywhere else. I know that it is these same qualities that will get him far in real life. Who wouldn’t want to be around a guy who is eternally optimistic, full of life, zealously persistent, and who brings out the best in those lucky enough to be around him?

Dr. Jennifer Pinto

Jennifer Pinto is an avid reader, writer, psychologist and mom to a daughter(20) and two sons (16 & 14). She has been married to her husband for 21 years. She is currently writing a young adult novel and has a psychology-themed blog called "Off the Couch..." She enjoys drinking coffee at all hours of the day, cooking Indian food and being the team mom for her son's tennis & football teams.

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