Are You Ready For Some Football?

The Healing Power of Sports   

By Max Rykov

One evening last year, after leaving an event at the Five Point West Public Library, I was stopped at a red light with my window down. A car pulled up next to me, and the passenger asked “what do you do for a living?” This question, under the circumstances, was a bit strange, but I answered truthfully: “I’m a quarterback!”. They passenger and driver both laughed. The driver followed up: “for who?”. I responded honestly, “I’m freelance.” They both cracked up, and drove off.

For years, whenever someone asks me what I do for a living, Freelance Quarterback has been my answer. It’s a unique made-up profession, in which I throw passes and yell encouraging slogans at weddings, Bar-Mitzvahs, bachelorette parties, corporate outings, and all sorts of other social functions. To date, no one has yet formally hired me, but I am still holding out hope, and am convinced that freelance quarterbacking is my likeliest avenue to wealth.

It’s not an entirely ridiculous enterprise. Despite my wiry frame, I can throw a football around 60 yards, a skill that I’m quite proud of, and one that developed in middle school when I became thoroughly obsessed with the sport of American football.

I came to Alabama in 1993 as an outsider, an immigrant from the Soviet Union, a nation with an embarrassing record of 0-0 in American Football competition. It didn’t take me too long to realize, even at a young age, that American Football (or football, as I’ll call it now for short), is the source, substance, and context of culture in Alabama. It was a source of great pride then, when during recesses in 4th grade, I was able to transfer some of the athletic skills I naturally demonstrated in soccer, to a much more significant sport. I also observed that my newfound prowess at recess football elevated my social standing, and earned my respect from the American young men at the Jewish Day School. So, probably as a means to fit in and be accepted, I started a ravenous obsession with the sport. I spent my weekends playing catch with my friends for hours on end. I checked out books about the history of football from the library, and began writing my own compendium.

In 6th grade, my best friend and I both asked our respective mothers to let us play football, but they both (despite our elaborate tantrums) denied our heart’s pleas, citing the brutality and danger of the sport.

The following year, we wore down our mothers. We were the happiest boys in the history of the world, gleefully embarking on a journey that would undoubtedly lead to enshrinement in the NFL Hall of Fame.

My friend’s middle school had a football team, so he played there, but mine didn’t, so my father took my to register at the closest youth football program, the mighty Colts of Crestwood.

The Crestwood Colts played in the Birmingham Metro Youth Football league, which had been around since the 1960s (if not earlier). One thing became clear pretty quickly—I was not like the other kids. Now, I was used to being different-—I was an immigrant, after all. I turned out that I was not only the only white kid on the whole team, but the only white kid in the entire league! What’s more interesting though, is that I felt totally accepted, embraced, and loved by all the coaches, players, and even by the other teams.

We played teams from Wahouma, East Lake, Huffman, Midfield, Fairfield, North Pratt, and other communities in and around Birmingham. I got to go to neighborhoods that I would never have gone to otherwise, and establish friendships with people who didn’t look like me. The two years I played on the Crestwood Colts were some of the happiest of my life, and thoroughly enriched my life-experience. To me, football has always meant acceptance, because in my time with the Crestwood Colts, it transcended racial and socio-economic identity in a town that still (like the rest of the country) struggles with race and class relations.

This isn’t a profound new revelation. It’s a relatively common experience that sport has the power to bridge social divides and bring people from different backgrounds together, at least for a while. But in the Birmingham-Metro Area, where kids can grow up in a bubble (of one kind or another), and hardly ever interact with peers who don’t look like them, sports are one of the few avenues of possible integration.

If I have kids of my own one day, I probably won’t let them play tackle football. Too many studies have come out about the significant dangers associated with football’s inherent head-to-head collisions. But if my any future children demonstrate an interest in playing sports, I will do my absolute best to make sure the leagues they play in are as racially and socio-economically diverse as possible. Forming friendships and having shared experiences with people who don’t look like us, and who come from different backgrounds than us, is one of the key factors in healing our communities, and our nation. And even something as seemingly simple and innocent as youth sports can play a critical role in that healing by raising young people with empathy and perspective. I know it did for me. 

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