Katie's musings, mostly on things related to family life

Friday, April 04, 2003  

NOTE to readers: I live in Knoxville, TN, home of the University of Tennessee. In case you don't know (and I wouldn't if I didn't live here) the UT football team -- the Vols -- is a Very Big Deal. Football truly is a religion in our neck of the woods. But not at our house, which is too bad for my football-crazy kid

Stranger in a Strange Land

by Katie Allison Granju

My fourth grade son, Henry inherited his beautiful brown eyes from his father, his love of good books from me … and his passionate interest in football from God knows where. This poor child, who has loved watching and playing football from the time he was old enough to babble, has been cursed with the only parents in east Tennessee who don’t know when the Vols are playing unless and until we accidentally encounter an extra-long line of orange-clad, pre-game beer seekers at our neighborhood convenience store. We are even less informed about the latest statewide football craze, the Tennessee Titans. When our six year old neighbor, Justin came by recently wearing a blue jersey reading “E. George” on the back, I asked him why he was wearing some other kid’s shirt.

I did actually attend one football game at Neyland Stadium when I was a student at UT. But according to my son, the fact that I was proudly sporting a sandwich board reading “U.S. Out of Nicaragua” at the time totally obviates the experience. When I first came to Knoxville in 1986 as a college sophomore, I really wanted to fit in, but
the whole football-centered social scene just totally eluded me. I was handicapped by the fact that my own high school, The Webb School in Bell Buckle, TN did away with their football program in the late 19th century when a distant cousin of mine had his neck snapped playing in a school football game. So we had soccer and basketball and even ultimate Frisbee teams, but no football. No cheerleaders either, except the loosely-organized squad of teenage boys in drag who occasionally showed up on the sidelines of particularly important school basketball games.

Henry’s father, my husband Chris was born only a few blocks from Knoxville’s Taj Mah-Stadium at Fort Sanders Hospital, and raised entirely within the environs of Big Orange Country, yet he too somehow managed to avoid all contact with football while growing up. His own father, Jean-Pierre, is a skinny French engineer who
emigrated to Knoxville and UT’s grad school in the early 60s because, as an enthusiastic fan of Disney and Fess Parker’s Davy Crockett movies (and you thought the French only liked Jerry Lewis!), he found himself inexorably attracted to the drawing of a hillbilly-cum-mountaineer that then graced all of UT’s promotional materials. He can’t recall ever having attended any football game.

And thus it came to pass that my husband was never initiated into the Knoxville Cult of Football like the other local boys his age. He did allow himself to be dragged to one Vols game as a UT undergrad, but he says he quickly realized that if he ever had the urge to watch a football game again, the seats were more comfortable and
the snacks were cheaper in his own living room.

So imagine our shock and surprise when our progeny, Henry began asking to watch UT football games on television at about three years of age. He would sit raptly in front of the screen asking us question after question about the rules, the players, and the action, none of which we could even attempt to answer for him. I quickly located a
book called “The Kid’s Guide to Football” and offered to read it to him, which he loved. For his fifth Christmas, he asked Santa to bring him a miniature Vols uniform, which he received and wore happily until it fell apart. When he began asking his father to practice throwing a football with him so he could practice for the day when he
would be old enough to join a youth league team, we knew we needed help.

Luckily, we had extended family members who were able to step in to teach Henry the fundamentals. My brother-in-law, Ray, is a Vols season ticket holder and so he had long worried about his nephew’s football-deprived upbringing. When offered the chance, he happily took Henry to a few games at Neyland Stadium, and he patiently
taught Henry how to hold and throw the ball. And so, by the time Henry was seven years old, he was begging to be allowed to join a local youth football team.

On the very first day of fall practice for Henry’s new kids’ team at West Hills park, I knew immediately that our family’s non-football orientation was going to pose some problems. For starters, in the parking lot abutting the grassy field in which Henry and his all-male, second grade team mates were running drills and practicing tackles, a
group of little GIRLS were shaking their non-existent butts to a provocative (not to mention terrible) Jennifer Lopez-esque hit blaring out of a jambox. Somewhere along the way, in organizing Knoxville’s youth football programs, someone who had apparently never heard of Serena Williams, Mia Hamm, or Title IX, thought it would be a good
idea to have little girls dress in micro miniskirts and perform on thesidelines, cheering "their" boys. Several gum-chewing, extremely tan, middle-aged women were directing the tiny cheerleaders in their routines, one of which involved them poutily teasing listeners with the line, “We got it – you want it!” as they suggestively jutted their
pointy hip-bones at an imaginary stadium full of youth football fans. I am well aware that cheerleading can be a highly athletic, competitive gymnastics activity for kids, but this particular group of children looked a lot more like junior versions the girls of "Wild On..." than they did Mary Lou Retton.

After watching the cheerleaders in feminist astonishment for a little while, I settled into the lawn chair I had brought to watch the boys practice. Several other parents were similarly observing their own future Peyton Mannings, and I tried to strike up a friendly conversation.

“So how about those cheerleaders,” I asked in a shocked tone of one mother sitting beside me and leafing through the latest issue of Sports Illustrated.

“Yeah, they look great,” she answered, oblivious to my point. “They look even better at games when they get a little make up on.”

Undaunted, I next turned to the father, built like a faded linebacker (see, I learned something from that “Kid’s Guide to Football”!), who was standing against the fence a few feet away from me.

“Gee, it’s awfully hot today,” I said. “I hope they don’t let the children practice too long in this heat.”

“I hope they run ‘em into the ground today,” he answered back enthusiastically. “You got to break these kids early, like in boot camp. Kids today aren’t tough enough to play real football like we used to play. I wanna see these boys in world of hurt.”

And it was all downhill from there.

We hung in there as football parents for over a month – through the two, two-hour long practices per week in the Indian summer heat with the kids in full pads and through hearing the volunteer coaches yell at my 60 pound son that he was “playing like a girl.” We finally put the brakes on Henry’s budding football career after the first real
game, held at Karns High School, during which we heard parents – fathers AND mothers -- yell actual obscenities at their children from the stands and after which I heard one father bragging to another adult that his son had been tackled “hard enough to need a neck brace afterwards” during the game that day.

Henry was extremely disappointed when we told him that we didn’t feel like youth football was a good fit for our family’s values. In fact, he was furious. We promised him that he could try football again when he was a little older, secretly hoping that he would lose all interest and take up fly-fishing or power walking instead. We ingeniously tipped
the scales in our favor by enrolling him at the then-brand-new Episcopal School of Knoxville. As Episcopalians are generally better known for their ability to mix a mean Bloody Mary than their propensity for fronting winning school football teams, we figured we might be able to nip our kid’s football-jones in the bud.

But no luck. As the Vols gear up for the upcoming season, our son’s interest in football remains undiminished. Henry hopes to attend a few games at Neyland Stadium with his Uncle Ray this fall, and he will undoubtedly continue to practice his throwing arm in our front yard. As for his parents, he, along with other Knoxville friends and
colleagues who hear of our disinterest in football, seems to pity us.

“Mom,” he explains to me with some irritation whenever the subject comes up. “You just don’t GET football.”

I always reply that I certainly cannot argue with that.

Katie Allison Granju is the author of Attachment Parenting (Simon and Schuster/1999). You can email her at

posted by Julie | 12:12 PM