(This article was published October 14, 2021, in Let’s Play Football)
By Mike Sonntag
My involvement in football spans 40 years and has run the gamut first as a player from the youth level through college, a youth and high school coach, and finally as a football parent. A few years back when Bryan Zollman and I first began discussions to start Let’s Play Football, the main objective was to create a statewide following by publishing positive stories about the sport of football on a print and digital platform. Now three years into this endeavor, while the objective remains the same, I find myself reflecting on my passion for football and what changes I have seen which only reinforce my children of today need to be playing football not only to create life-long memories but for the betterment of society.
Looking back at my times as a player many memories still stay fresh in my mind. I remember disliking football practice the most but learned to understand how important they were to giving us the best chance to win the next game. I was always nervous before every game, even if it was a team we were expecting to beat.
The Friday night lights of high school were really special. In Minnesota, your first few games are played in late August and early September with the weather still borderline hot. Usually around homecoming time by the end of the game, there was enough of a chill you could see your breath in the air. I remember waking up to severe soreness the morning after a game, but I appreciated it because I knew I had been in a battle with my best friends the night before.
Of course, there was more than just the game. The bus rides, the conditioning, team dinners, the national anthems, homecoming, the list can go on and on. When you are in those moments you think they will last forever, and now almost 3 decades removed from my playing days at times wish they did last forever.
Football coaches of my era and earlier were often hard-nosed and intimidating individuals who were hard on players, commanded respect and preached discipline. It would be disingenuous to assert that everyone who played high school or college football leave with favorable opinions of their coaches, but those were different times. I was fortunate enough to have youth, high school, and college coaches that left positive lasting impressions on my life. They all in their own way helped mold me into the man that I am today. I still stay in contact with my high school coach, in fact it was his phone call to me last week that prompted me to want to write this article. The legacy left by many coaches on their players and communities can never be overstated.
Yet, times have changed. The football coaches of today are no longer able to coach with an iron fist. Now many use acronyms and slogans like F.A.M.I.L.Y (forget about me I love you), T.E.A.M (together everyone achieves more), to Row the Boat. I see these teachings as having just as much of a positive impact on the kids of today.
Today football might be the only sport that isn’t offered 12 months a year through clubs outside of the normal association or high school fall season. Sports like hockey and baseball (and more recently lacrosse) have offered a fall option for players, as recently as 10 years ago coaches of those extended seasons understood the “in season” or varsity sport was a priority. That has since clearly changed as these clubs, and the expense that come with it, have put pressure on parents and athletes to decide which is more important. If a player has a football game on Friday night and a double header baseball game the next morning the club coach will sit him if he misses the first game to watch film with his football team. I don’t see a solution that that problem anytime in the near future, and the athlete is the only loser in that situation.
Many schools have celebrated homecoming games in the past few weeks. I attended mine and spoke to many of my former high school and college teammates at those games. I also recently bumped into a former teammate of mine from my 4th and 5th-grade championship football teams from our days in the White Bear Lake youth football association. I credit football for giving me lifelong friendships that have stood for decades, and the storytelling gets better and better over time. That being said one thing really struck me over many of those conversations and stories, is that many of my former teammates who clearly still share the same passion for football did not let their own sons play the sport. It makes me wonder what external pressure kept them from allowing their children to create the same memories?
A friend of mine with greater football experience than me once told me “Football will save the world”. When he said it, I am not sure I totally understood where he was coming from, but it is starting to make clear sense now. Football is still and might forever be the only sport that requires discipline from the whole unit on the playing field at once.
Football is unique. Games can’t be played multiple times a week. Players and coaches must dedicate five times as much time to practice than games. Reserve players are as valuable to the success of a team as the starting players. With playing football comes life lessons of how to win, lose, lead, follow, overcome adversities, and create life-long bonds. If you are a former football player who looks back fondly on your time playing and has passion for the game still today with zero regrets, why wouldn’t you give your son that same opportunity?
Let’s Play Football is here to be a reminder for past players and a vehicle to promote football for generations to come. Football has never been safer to play. Football is a fraternity. Football is a brotherhood. Football is Life.