Some thirteen months ago I bought a Halloween outfit for my son Elliott who was two years old at the time. It was a ‘Football Player’ uniform replete with the cheap, costumey, felt material jersey and pants and the topper was, well, the helmet. It was a misshapen, foam hat with a chinstrap that seemed to be made of the same material that is used to package electronics. Fastened by velcro, this piece of equipment could probably withstand a head-on collision with a mosquito.
I paid $14 for the ensemble but if the material used for it was worth more than 50 cents I’d be shocked. Occasionally still, the entire outfit is donned for a marathon session of pass, catch and tackling (“zacking”) daddy but the helmet comes out every single day. Elliott loves that damn helmet.
To keep the peace we pretty much let him wear it anywhere he pleases. He often asks to wear eye black as well to complement the look. A quick swipe of the forefinger and we’ve got ourselves one happy little football freak! It’s become so commonplace that when strangers at Target or Publix chuckle at his headgear I forget what they are even looking at (ohhhhh, like your kid is so cute??!!)
Now, it is nearly impossible to be a football fan in Atlanta without considering the issue of race. Michael Vick, a dynamic black quarterback, is probably the most popular athlete in Atlanta despite the minor detail that he currently makes his living in Philadelphia. But he used to play here and then he got caught being unspeakably cruel to dogs and then a debate about race and sports emerged like a weed from concrete. There are Falcons fans and there are Vick fans—those that actually accuse the Falcons management of racism for releasing him when really there was no choice to be made.
Vick spent a couple of seasons in prison and Atlanta drafted a paper-lily white kid out of Boston College named Matt Ryan to shoulder the quarterbacking duties and essentially become the new face of the franchise. (I can deem him such because I am a paper-lily-every-bit-as-white product of the Boston College intramural program some umpteen years prior.)
Sure a compensation disparity of some 75 million dollars separates us, but there is a kinship in the suburban whiteness Matt and I share. I’m not bragging or anything but I’m pretty sure that when I was 16 and he was 4, I could take him in a variety of backyard sports….
Anyway, I watched just about every snap he took in college and knew he was a special player so I was thrilled when Atlanta drafted him. It didn’t hurt that by all accounts, he was a great person too. I knew he’d represent the Falcons well and that he’d make BC alums proud. I knew he would be the type of athlete Elliott could look up to. So like any good dad would, I passed that enthusiasm along to my son with concerted repetition and exuberance for official Boston College & Falcons gear.
A couple of Thursdays ago the Falcons played the Baltimore Ravens and wore their black jerseys. We let a rightfully riveted Elliott stay up a little late to see some of the game. So as we re-played the victory in the park that weekend I nearly fell flat out when I heard this blond haired, blue-eyed, sweetheart of a 3 year old declare “I’m the black Matt Ryan!!”
I noted an interracial couple on the path next to us, walking a pit bull that looked meaner than Ray Lewis. I stuttered something along the lines of “heh heh…he means the Matt Ryan that wears the black Jersey…heh heh.” The couple was a bit puzzled but generally bemused (thankfully). More importantly Ray the dog had his sights set on a falling leaf so disaster was averted.
There is still a long way to go but Elliott’s generation will certainly advance race relations further won’t they? For their part, Matt Ryan and Michael Vick have both done a great deal to quell the talk of race and get the fans focused on football again.
Elliott doesn’t really know black from white from yellow and when he does begin understand racial differences, I don’t sense it will matter much to him. Wouldn’t it be cool if we all just needed to recalibrate what it meant if and when our kids say things like “we don’t want the black guys to win”? That’s not to say it would hurt to invest in some better helmets.