My buddy Luke, age 8, is an outstanding football player. This is not bragging or the sports blog equivalent of a parent or grandparent posting pictures of their “outstanding” children on Facebook. I have evidence to back up my claim.
Luke has played in several football leagues, the last two of which were a flag football-tackle football hybrid called Extreme Flag Football based in Round Rock, Texas. It’s flag football, but the kids wear shoulder pads and helmets, so they’re not discouraged from knocking each other to the ground. They don’t keep stats that I’m aware of, but I’m pretty sure Luke, a running back, is the leading scorer in his age division over the last two seasons. The reason I’m confident of this is because he averages about a touchdown a game in a league where the two teams might combine for three touchdowns per contest. Additionally, Luke’s teams have won his age division’s championship the last two seasons and he is the only player in the league to have played on both championship teams.
So you can argue with me about a lot of things in this or other essays, but you can’t argue with the evidence that Luke is at least a very good football player.
One thing that makes Luke an excellent running back is speed. He’s fast. But speed alone doesn’t make one an outstanding football player or Usain Bolt would be training with the Miami Dolphins right now. Luke also has the essential ingredient that we might call instinct in that he can make the other 8-year-olds miss him when they attempt to tackle him.
I’ve seen Luke sprint to the sideline, drawing the defense’s momentum to that side, then he cut back through a seam and ran for a touchdown. That’s pretty sophisticated football IQ for an 8-year-old.
But I don’t think it’s totally instinct. I think it’s something Luke learned, even if he isn’t aware that he learned it. Luke watches a lot of football. His favorite team is the Texas Longhorns and he despises my Texas Tech Red Raiders. That’s the chief obstacle in our friendship. But he doesn’t solely watch the Longhorns. Sometimes I’ll call Luke’s house to talk to his parents and he will be watching a rerun of a three-year-old game between Rutgers and Army or something equally random and impertinent to his life in Texas.
Having read this extremely interesting article by Le Anne Schreiber on Grantland.com last fall, I think Luke’s love of watching football and his ability on the football field could be linked. The article suggests that when we watch sports, our brains actively play the sport we’re watching. There’s a wealth of scientific evidence to back up this claim, including a brilliant story about a monkey and an accidental epiphany.
Watching the Little League World Series this week reminded me of the study and sent me scrambling to find where I read about it. The Little Leaguers annually show us how kids closely watch professional athletes and mimic them in myriad ways. I used to roll my eyes at this as I assumed the young baseball players were consciously trying to look cool for the television cameras. I might be too cynical. At any rate, Schreiber’s article changed my thinking on this subject.
It’s also fascinating to think about other areas where our brains pick up visual clues and learn how to do activities that we’ve never attempted. This is also another reason not to watch The Bachelorette.
I have no way of predicting how good a football player Luke will ultimately be. I don’t know if he’ll be big enough, though he probably has a good chance of being a Wes Welker clone. I know he can catch because I’ve thrown him a lot of footballs and he’s been grabbing them regularly since he was 5.
I don’t know if he will lose interest in watching football, though I doubt it as his dad watches a lot of football and still remembers semi-obscure players from his teenage years. So much so that he can pick them out in airports. Seriously. If you’re ever in an airport and wonder if that guy across the terminal is Mike Rozier, you should call my friend Jeremy.
It’s amazing what the sports-obsessed brain can do.