As a child growing up in suburban Batavia, Ill., we only knew our beloved Bulldogs football team to be lousy. It’s hard to imagine the program, now a perennial state powerhouse, as anything less than competitive.
In the late 1980s, my sister was a member of the school’s pom squad, so my parents would drag us out to games on those crisp fall Friday nights. Her boyfriend was on the team, a nice guy named Josh who lived across the street from us. He wore №32, played defensive back, and even notched a few interceptions his senior year. Watching him play live made him an instant celebrity in my eyes.
Even at a young age, I had a growing passion for football. I fell in love with the Bears (along with every other suburban Chicago kid my age) during the 1985 Super Bowl year. That was TV though. Ditka, Payton and McMahon seemed like characters in a movie that was perfectly scripted for our entertainment. The drubbings I watched the Bulldogs endure at Batavia High Stadium — that was real. And despite their ineptitude, droves of Batavians came out for the experience: the smell of grilled sausage and hot dogs and corn on the cob. The band. The scripted cheers. I was hooked. I was a superfan.
There wasn’t much in the way of pee wee football back then, so I focused on soccer. I was a midfielder for the Fox Valley Strikers. Every weekend, Pop drove me from one end of Northern Illinois to the other, blasting Phil Collins, The Police and Dire Straits from those cherry speakers in the ’89 Acura Legend that the old man eventually handed down to me. I loved the freedom and creativity that soccer allowed, but I was always anxious to put on the pads, and I knew it was only a matter of time.
It wasn’t until I entered high school (class of ’98) that Batavia really started to become consistently competitive and make the state playoffs nearly every year. I played cornerback from eighth grade until my junior year. My senior year, a bout of mono caused me to lose around 40 lbs. and I didn’t recover until the season was pretty much over. I have no illusion that my absence was a great loss for the team, but my mom sure missed the camaraderie she had with the other mothers in the stands.
My last year playing, 1996, we made it further in the playoffs than any Batavia team ever had up to that point. We lost to Providence, the eventual state champs, in the class 4A state quarterfinals. Judging by the support we got from the town and the reception we received when we returned from New Lenox, one might have mistook us for the victors. When you get the impression that an entire population is proud of you, it has a way of sticking with a kid and giving him lasting confidence. At the very least, it gives him a sense that he comes from somewhere that cares about something.
Fast forward 20 years. I follow the news around concussions and CTE closely. Some experts say that even those of us who played in high school, no matter how undersized, underutilized or flailing we were, could possibly suffer effects of CTE. The perception of the sport that made me view my peers as brothers, helped galvanize our community and countless others across the country, has shifted dramatically.
When I recall growing up in Batavia, football was a catalyst for the town at its finest. It helped to ground some of my most formative years. It announced the arrival of the midwest’s greatest season: fall. But knowing what it’s become — a dangerous undertaking with serious potential consequences akin to boxing — it’s difficult for me (and I imagine many who played) to reconcile the transformative experience of being part of that brotherhood with the media’s countless cautionary tales.
My daughter turns one year old this month. Thankfully, the odds that I’ll have to decide whether to let her play football are low. From a health and safety perspective, there’s no way I’d let a child play football today. I look at some of these kids — local football players who I saw working hard at the gym every day this summer — and it almost seems like a form of child abuse to allow teenagers to smash into each other like that (and Bennet Omalu, the famous “Concussion” doctor, agrees). Funny what a little education can do to a person’s perspective.
On one hand, I’d tell the child that it’s just not worth it. On the other hand, I’d want them to be part of the community, the culture and the passion that surrounds a sport to which I still dedicate my fall Saturdays and Sundays (as a viewer, of course).
I had the chance to go back to Batavia this past summer. It hasn’t changed much, but you can tell it’s an even nicer place to live than when I grew up there. But I don’t need to be there to tell you that two-a-day practices are starting, and the booster club is getting ready for its annual corn boil.
There’s a lot that’s wrong in the world, and there’s a lot that’s wrong with football — but these things aren’t it. And I can’t imagine my hometown without it.