By Joseph Coffman
I recall tossing the football and meandering on the leaf-strewn field as the other boys flew ahead and formed around the receiver, tripping and falling in the leaves before finally rolling with the ball into the largest pile and laughing for a minute at the fall, not caring if we got closer to a touchdown or turnover. Blocking was minimal due to the leaves and the most you got was a twisted ankle or jammed finger.
That sensibility moved to larger fields in parks or grass playgrounds as we got older and in high school without gear and helmets, we switched to light blocking only along the line with five or more players and touch to end a play, either above or below the waist, depending on how tricky or fast a runner was or how good the passer or receiver. This was not wimp stuff. The body tag had to be two hands and was often hard enough to knock the runner down or shove the receiver into a roll to know he might pay a bit for an easy catch. Blocking was never more than a shoulder pop or beyond the line a body interfering with a run or pass pattern–similar to a basketball move re-directing a possible shooter.
This could be serious business, especially with a good quarterback and fast catcher, lateral plays or last second handoffs. After an hour we were exhausted. And no one needed a trip to a clinic or hospital.
As adults these hard touch games continued, often getting pretty rough but again with few if any permanent injuries, much like soccer or basketball.
Have we learned anything? Today the spectacle of American football has a few of these elements–with the pass and catch now the main draw for most spectators. Sure the runs can be spectacular but it’s the age of the quarterback and receiver over all and the instant thrill changing scores in a minute comes most often from a perfect pass or pass and run frustrating opposing teams with precision patterns.
But we all know what shadows any of these skills. Brutality.
At the line of scrimmage or just behind or beyond it and with hits on runners and often defenseless receivers the blocks and tackles have gotten scientifically mean with every move and play.
Was anyone surprised at the close call with the Bills player Damar Hamlin? Most players know it can happen on any play. Since the days of the crackback block or lineman slap on a helmet or announcer’s nervous comment about a “clean hit,” we know the clear probability at any time to ruin an athlete or continue the pattern of head and brain violence that leads irrevocably to lifelong impairment or early death for an astounding number of players.
And we also know that the football coaches, managers and league executives have played nothing less than hide and seek with obvious truths and bandaid remedies in order to keep the money stream going as fans lie and rationalize to themselves.
But the thrill of the pass or artful run can still be done with relative safety or lack of a bushel-sized helmet. I call it rough touch football.
Yes, with great athletes, we can dump the pads and warrior and destroy mentality to return to sport via the touch football tactics we all learned. We can make it rough with the touch and block runs done artfully while we watch the great pass/catch phenomenon we have all come to love.
But our players, in schools and on professional gridirons, can still have a chance for normal lives–as soccer players, basketball and tennis players and golfers do.
Rough touch football is the answer. It will work. The alternative is continued brutality.
Joseph Coffman is a cultural writer and columnist for the Traverse City Record-Eagle. As a youth he was an above average touch football receiver.