I must admit that I know very little about American football. Having spent all my youth in Malaysia, England and Australia, I was a relative newcomer to America, and to football. I have no excuse, however. I have lived here for 20 years. I realized early on that watching football is one of America’s favorite pastimes, but respectfully, I didn’t really appreciate or understand it much, and grouped it along with all things American that were foreign to me, such as Thanksgiving and Ground Hog Day.
I did try to be as thrilled and wide-eyed as my friends were as they excitedly analyzed intricate details of each game, often down to every move. I was truly excited that they were excited, because they were my friends. But the only time I was up close and personal was when I was literally close to the TV getting a book or something when a game was on.
That all changed last week. My perspective shifted. My son was given the opportunity to meet Rick Neuheisal, the football coach for UCLA, and he was invited to watch their training.
We arrived early to avoid the meandering mass of cars on the LA freeways. The UCLA campus had a pulse, as we hastily made our way to the entrance gate of the football field. We quietly let ourselves in and watched from the side as the players came through for practice, huge, strong men in armor-like football gear, some hurrying, while others strolled through. It felt intimidating but only for a moment.
How strongly they contrasted with my son, as he sat in stillness. Unprompted, a towering, broad, muscular football player came up to him, and put his hand out for my son to reach. He then placed his hand in my son’s upon realizing he could not lift his hand, and crouched down next to his wheelchair. Beneath his sturdy exterior was a gentle and caring person, who took time out to say hello. This happened again and again as these gentle giants boldly came through the gate and humbly approached my son.
Coach Neuheisal was warm and friendly. He spent some time with us before he hurriedly went off to train these men, with only two days to go before the team would fly off to Texas for the much anticipated game, that America would once again stop and watch and analyze.
We eagerly watched as newcomers to the training spectacle in front of us. When everything was broken down into maneuvers, we understood more about the game. We looked out for the players we had just met, hidden now under their robot-like head gear, having to find their numbers on the backs of their shirts as they trained gruelingly for speed, power and agility.
After a few hours, we turned away from the football practice and headed out toward the gate. I looked back one last time at the players, and will always remember that underneath their tough, strong exterior is a kindness that I will never forget as these men gave of their time to meet my son.
I will be watching the game this Saturday, with a renewed understanding and appreciation for football. This time, I will be thrilled and wide- eyed, and up close and personal.