“We interrupt this marriage to bring you football season.” During my son Damien’s college football years, this statement best described my life. Over the span of five seasons, my husband Darin and I attended every home game and traveled to many away games together. If he couldn’t travel with me, then I would go alone or with my parents. However, when you’re in a football family, you never really travel alone.
My experience as a Division 1 college football mom is something that I will cherish forever. It is a unique experience that is shared by few. According to an NCAA survey, it is estimated that only 6.5% of high school football players will play college football and only 2.5% of those are from Division 1 collegiate programs.
What many people don’t realize is that ONE student-athlete’s commitment to play creates a domino effect of support and allegiance to the university. I never had a favorite college team until Damien verbally committed to UCLA in his junior year of high school; now, anyone who knows me is fully aware that I am a Bruin supporter! Everyone in our circle of family and friends suddenly followed UCLA Football (if they hadn’t already). Many of them even watched or attended their first college football game because of Damien. In addition, it was always amusing to hear the die-hard fans of non-UCLA teams tell me, “I’m still a ______ fan, but I always cheer for Damien to do well.” I understood and appreciated the support.
Since there aren’t many people who get to live through the experience that I had, I have decided to share my thoughts and memories. This is one mom’s perspective. Not the student-athlete. Not the fan. Not the coaching staff. Just a college football mom.
RECRUITING PROCESS Thoughts: Just because a student-athlete verbally commits to a university, doesn’t mean that the recruiting process is over. Until Signing Day in February of their senior year, anything can happen. Coaching changes or an official school visit might affect a previous decision. I spoke to one parent whose son actually changed his choice on Signing Day. In the end, until the name is on the dotted line, the ball is in the student-athlete’s court.
I heard a funny comparison once about the recruiting process and the treatment of players’ families. Recruiting is like the dating/engagement phase of a relationship, where you’re trying to woo the other person. This is when families get to be on the field before the game and recruits are in the locker room afterwards. It’s when you’re an invited guest to other college games, such as basketball, or on the field at football practices. I have heard some interesting stories through the years, as to what extent different coaches would say or do. After Signing Day, it’s the honeymoon phase, where everything is so new and exciting. Once practices and games begin, however, so does the marriage. This is where you are no longer being wooed. Unless it is Senior Day, parents are not allowed on the field before a game at any time and locker room visits are unheard of.
Being a player parent isn’t all that bad though. We are still allowed to attend “closed practices,” only now, we just watch from the stands. Another parent perk are the 2-4 player guest tickets that we get to use each game. We are seated at the 50-yard line for Home games. However, our tickets are grouped in the end zone area of Away games. We also get to go “behind the gate” after home games to greet our players first.
RECRUITING PROCESS Memory: Many of the recruits from my son’s year were able to bond before Signing Day. For that reason, one of the parents planned a Signing Day event in front of their restaurant with media, music, a congratulatory banner, podium, signing table, and the ever-important fax machine to send each Letter of Intent to the university. We are forever grateful to the Johnsons for their hospitality.
It didn’t end there though. After the morning event and a delicious breakfast at the restaurant, we traveled the hour back home, so that Damien could participate in a similar event at his high school. Three of his teammates were also signing to play at other universities. Each player had a large action shot behind them as they sat at the table set on the school auditorium stage . I can’t speak for my son, but as a parent, it is a day that I will look upon with great pride.
FOOTBALL PRACTICE Thoughts: “There’s a new sheriff in town.” This is probably the best line for every new football parent to realize. The first thing to remember is that EVERY player on the field was a star athlete in high school. However, in college, chances are you will see your child practice with third or fourth-string squads in the beginning.
Also, once your child signs that dotted line and steps on that practice field, your direct parent involvement with the team has stopped. You are no longer preparing team meals, working the snack bar, or fundraising (fireworks booth, programs, t-shirts, 50/50 tickets, etc.). Your job is to be a spectator and your child’s biggest supporter.
FOOTBALL PRACTICE Memories: I used to LOVE going to Damien’s practices, especially during Fall and Spring Camps. At least 2 days a week during those camp schedules, I would leave work right away to travel the 70 miles. Weekends too, of course! It was an outlet for me, as well as a great chance to catch up with my son after practices. Sometimes we would grab a meal together afterwards and other times, it was sweaty hugs and 10-20 minute conversations. Sure it was a long round trip of LA traffic in the middle of the workweek, but it was worth every mile. It made me happy seeing him follow his dreams.
GAMEDAY ARRIVAL Thoughts: Seeing the excitement build as the football team arrives to the stadium is infectious. First, you see the police escorts. Then, you hear the sounds of the players yelling and pumping each other up on the bus, sometimes even shaking the bus back and forth, from the inside. Next, you see them get off of the bus, looking focused and ready. They have their game faces on. Some keep their headphones on bopping their head to the beat, while others put it around their necks as they take in the crowd noise. Lastly, they gather together and begin walking through the path of fans who are ready with their high-fives, words of encouragement, and cameras. I always wondered how the players felt; I never asked my son or his friends though.
GAMEDAY ARRIVAL Memories: YES, I cried the first and last time that my son did this. My FAVORITE part of the ritual was the pregame hug. It was my last opportunity to say, “good luck” and “I love you,” before the game. Since, I got to know many of the players, my ”Good Luck” hug would extend to them also. We learned to watch out for each other’s sons. In the end, seeing players hug their family members never got old.
GAME DAY Thoughts: Football parents walk into a college stadium with a range of emotions ready to embark. Excitement and anxiety arrive together as we are reminded that our student-athlete is playing in front of tens of thousands of people; even more, if it’s televised. Anticipation arrives next, hoping that our child starts or plays, depending on their current position in the depth chart. Restraint occurs when a nearby fan yells negative or discouraging comments to or about the team. Add a trip to the restroom or snack bar, and the restraint to keep quiet intensifies.
It’s not uncommon for parents, especially the moms, to refer to the players as “our boys.” This means that even though the fan may not be talking about our own son, it can feel just as hurtful. I’m sure that many parents’ tongues have almost been bitten off trying to stay silent. Lastly, we sit through each game with hope. Hope that they play well. And most importantly, hope that they stay injury-free.
GAME DAY Memories: Wearing my son’s jersey number and name during a football game made me happy and proud. He changed his number from #97 to #43 his senior year though, so I had to get all new football mom attire!
I have a few favorite memories. The first time that I saw Damien’s name on the big screen announced as a starter was a thrill. Watching the introduction where he says his name, hometown, and position was a moment that I thought I couldn’t top. Then, he became one of the captains his senior year. On the big screen, I watched him and the other captains lead the team from the locker room onto the field with thumping music and several close-ups. I got chills every time! After that tunnel walk, the captains and an honorary captain would walk to the center of the field for the coin toss.
My all-time favorite coin toss was when a former player, Nick Ekbatani, was the honorary captain. Two months earlier, he had his leg amputated after a motorcycle accident. He stood at the edge of the field, dropped his crutches and hopped his way to the center with the captains. I doubt if there was a dry eye in the stadium.
Honestly, all of my game day memories are of joy and happiness. Why choose anything else? I had been to the practices. I knew the busy school and football schedule that each student-athlete carried. I knew that every one of them had their own reason for originally choosing to attend UCLA, but in the end, they shared a love and respect for each other and the university. In every situation, these players showed a united front by being fiercely protective of their teammates and the program. On that football field were young men who worked together everyday to make a difference in their football program, their university, and their own future. They lived together, studied together, competed together and evidently, grew up together, as they each moved from their homes into collegiate life.
ADVICE TO THE “NEW” PARENTS:
- Be your son’s biggest supporter! He will hear from enough critics and will be probably be just as hard on himself. So, don’t add to the mix. Listen when you need to listen and hug when there are no words.
- Do not read any social media sites where fans freely write about their observations, thoughts, and suggestions about the program, which undoubtedly involves players’ names. They have the right to their opinion, but you don’t need to read it. Don’t react.
- Meet the other families. They share the same hopes, dreams, frustrations, and concerns for their son, as you do for yours. It’s also nice to have someone else “inside” the program to talk to about shared experiences. Not only has my son gained some lifelong friends along the way, but so have I.
- Go to as many Away games as possible. Seeing your son and his teammates at the team hotel the day before and day of the game is an unforgettable experience. It’s also a cool thing to see them get the red carpet treatment when they arrive and depart. Before the team leaves to the airport after the game, remember that there is always time for a quick hug and most often, a quick conversation.
- Be positive and trust the process. Your son is on a team with other superior athletes. If your child is talented enough to earn a college scholarship, then he has probably been a superior athlete for many years, most likely in more than one sport. He will not be used to “sitting on the bench” or playing anything other than first-string. You won’t be used to it either. As I stated in the beginning of this article, EVERY player on the team was a star athlete in high school. Every one of them is used to shining. During his college playing years, your son WILL have to compete for a starting position.
- Be the voice of reason and source of strength. Some players will fight through an injury that requires a long-term recovery period, which may cause depression. In a worst-case scenario, a few will sustain an injury that requires them to stop playing the game that they love.
- Know that your parent role is changing and you need to let your son learn to deal with conflict. You need to understand that he will experience things in the locker room, on the practice field, off-campus, and in the classroom, that will teach him about life’s ups and downs. Through all of this though, he will still need you to be there: to listen, encourage, support, smile, laugh, hug or just talk about something else, besides football. Just be there.
ADVICE TO THE FAMILIES & FRIENDS: Support the player, their immediate family and the program. Even more importantly, go to as many of the games as possible to share the experience of watching someone you know follow their dreams on the football field.
LIFE AFTER COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Support the former player as he makes the transition into the real world. Remember that when Division 1 athletes are recruited from high school, they make the choice where to go. Everybody wants them. In the pros, the athletes generally do not have that privilege. Some are drafted, while others are not and even then, there are no guarantees of a long career. According to the NCAA survey, only 3.7% of college football players play in some type of professional league.
Ultimately, every former college student-athlete will have to decide what to do after his or her sports career ends. Some of them just have to make that decision earlier than they expected. For those who didn’t finish their degree, the transition may be more difficult. So, continue to be a source of strength and reason to former student-athletes. Being a mentor or guiding them towards certain career paths is a gesture that many of them appreciate. I guarantee that they’re having a much harder time adjusting than you think. Remember that they are used to putting on their game face.
So, what do I miss most about my son playing college football? Absolutely everything!