Adventures in American Football: Week 4

You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel.

Let’s not sugar coat things. This is a violent game.

Each week, the Australians who enjoy playing American Football inflict all levels of pain on each other. They scrap, they scrape and they drag through hurt in order to win a competition for which they will receive no kudos except from the other people who stand, slump and limp with them across the proverbial finish line. On the field helmets crackle against each other as the brains rattle inside like maracas. Bodies slam, twist and break in all manner of directions. Ligaments hold on for dear life around joints as their owners strive to win a title that most of us are unaware of. There’s a reason one of the first things your asked when you join is if you have ambulance cover.

These people are crazy. They also exude more courage on the weekend than I will in my entire life.

Playing hurt in this game is normal. If someone goes down during the game with an injury, you take a knee. Assuming the position five or six times a game seems normal. It’s not uncommon to see someone come off with what seems like a proper injury, take a few deep breaths and then inform the coach they’re ready to get back in. The people I play with are just tougher than I would be (will be?). They decide they are hurt, not injured.

In a recent game a man was taken off with what appeared to be neck injuries. Strapped onto a gurney, the paramedics moved him slowly and deliberately as we all watched. If this had happened in another sport, in any other facet of life, it would have been met with stunned silence and the desperate prayer. Instead we chatted a bit as he went off, wondering how it had happened. After the game a teammate of his confirmed what most people already thought – he’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and got hit from the wrong direction. He’d be fine, the paramedics already had him upright by the time the game was over. It was just concussion.

You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel.

The first time this was said to me I had just picked myself off the ground, having just been hit so hard my will to live had been tangibly separated from my body.

During a kick-off drill I had made my way through to find the ball carrier. As he scooted across field I turned to chase, just in time to see what I had originally thought was a fellow defender. A step too late I realised it was an opponent. A moment after that I was staring at the beautifully clear night, trying to ascertain how to breathe again. The only thing that had separated those two moments was the involuntary, fearful noise that emanated from my body in the split second before the hit. I bled all over my helmet strapping from a cut under my chin caused by the hit. I kept training.

One of the line-backers picked me up off the ground. A really friendly guy, he’s about ten years my younger with a proper family and a normal existence outside of the football field. I’ve also seen him hit a guy so hard I genuinely became worried the gent might be dead. As he dragged my stunned form up off the ground and simply said “You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel. They’ll just light you up every time if you’re not watching.” It’s an old saying in American Football, referring to the need to be aware of your surroundings. There are people out there who can genuinely injure you and they’re coming from 360 degrees.

You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel.

To be fair it’s impossible to play this game without being hurt. After a full contact training I hurt everywhere. As I write this both of my hands hurt, though in different ways. My left bicep is bruised like someone punched me there (which isn’t that far from the truth). My shoulders are throbbing – so much so that it’s uncomfortable to lift my arms above the horizontal. My neck muscles are tight and my back aches. My head hurts like someone hit me with a hammer – a specific point hurts to touch, and I’ve had a headache most of the day. The physio I go to has become my best friend, finding me a range of new stretches to do every day just so my right knee and left quad can handle the strain of the game. After training, I woke up the next morning with blood in the dental guard I wear to stop me grinding my teeth. In short, I hurt.

But there’s a difference between being hurt and ending up injured. And the way to avoid that?

You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel.

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