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All Points West: For the love of sports, have fun
February 12, 2016 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez
A recent Washington Post story asserted that parents are killing sports participation for their kids.

Depends. Are kids still allowed to play outside?

Sports heroes were my motivation, and believe me, liking, even loving sports had very little to do with my parents. I felt sorry for kids like some of my friends who were stuffed into a variety of unis and ordered to early morning practices.

Though, I’m sure there is some benefit to travelling teams and starting kids young. Case in point: The Williams sisters (Serena and Venus). Financial security and championships are fine, but bottom line, sports are meant to be fun.

When I was a kid watching NFL teams (primarily Denver), I marveled at the way Houston Oilers’ running back Earl Campbell pounded his way past defenders. Sports writers described him as prolific, powerful and fast, a rare combination for someone who stood 5-foot-11, and carried 245-pounds on a stocky frame designed to withstand the spearing a.k.a. targeting (headfirst tackles), forearm thumps, and yes, even eye-gouging.

Watching Super Bowl 50 reminded me a bit of that when I saw Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton wearing a clear plastic shield underneath his faceguard most likely to prevent stray fingers from getting into his peepers.

Back in Campbell’s day, I’m not so sure an incidental finger to the eye was even called a cheap-shot.

In my way of thinking, whiners weren’t allowed. Anyone who whimpered in the slightest, might have been told to leave the field, at the very least, to suck it up, and demands made not to ruin the game for everyone else. Campbell, and backs like him, Gayle Sayers, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders – if they were brought down by vicious tackles, they popped back up, dusted themselves off, strapped their helmets back on, and fought back even harder.

Therein lived the spirit, the drive, of all that it took to be better than the next guy.

I’m not sure what to make of Cam’s premature, or immature, departure from a post-Super Bowl 50 press conference. For every game, there has to be a loser. His counterpart standing on the Denver Broncos sideline, legendary QB Peyton Manning, called the “Sherriff” by loyal fans, was drafted into the NFL exactly 20 years before Campbell played his rookie year at Houston. After 17 years in the league, in contrast to Cam, Peyton is considered the consummate role model, gracious, genteel, a good sportsman.

By the time Manning appeared in the league as an Indianapolis Colt, professional football in America had evolved into an aerial circus, and the grind-it-out running game became stifled by stouter, fast defenses. “Smothering,” is what I’d call Denver’s latest version of the Orange Crush, an aspect of the game more responsible for the Bronco’s 24-10 victory over Carolina than Peyton’s arm. When the Broncos’ linebacker Von Miller, No. 58, was named Most Valuable Player after the Big Game, hope was revived in me. Is the pendulum swinging back? Could this be the NFL’s return to sandlot-style play?

When my five brothers and I played as kids, you might have thought it was life or death. We didn’t play by any rules. We called our version ‘Throw it up, and kill ’em.” A cross between Rugby, boxing, wrestling, but mostly football, I pretended to be the mighty Earl.

Participation wasn’t a problem. Of course, it helped that I had as many brothers. With all our friends, who needed blocking dummies? The patch of sod, sometimes dry patches of dirt, next to our house in Gering served as a makeshift field for just about any sport in the book.

You name it, we did it, but our mainstay was this cruel activity. For the unaware newcomer, the novice, it meant getting pushed around, and essentially beat up. Scratches and Charlie Horses became badges of honor.

The game involved toting a football, well any ball, in the absence of the pigskin. We were poor. So, substitutes, including using a pumpkin or a squash from my dad’s garden, were common. The idea was to carry the ball or melon until you were caught by someone in this yelling, screaming mass swarm of boys. Once caught, held, essentially stopped, you faced making a vital choice. You either submitted – stunned because you got slugged in the gut, and your head ground into the turf – or you could jump back up at the first chance. Holding onto the ball was everything. Once you caught your breath, you could motor off, and live for the moment to brag about it, taunting your pursuers. Or, you could take the coward’s way out, and give up the ball by throwing it randomly into the air, allowing some other victim a chance at glory.

Any young boys who caught the Super Bowl – and watched Von strip the ball from Cam, not once, but twice – might have come away idolizing the passionate Bronco linebacker. Or, maybe they took note of an enduring legend in Peyton. Far from any participation trophy and pushy parent, and given the right conditions, and desire, who knows? Some young tyke might end up loving the game.

Like my impersonations of Campbell, maybe several young tykes will take to the open fields, and become the next generation of great competitors.
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