Oscar is finally a member of the Little Leopards football team.
I use the word “finally” because his journey into little league football has been three years in the making. He tried to join in 2019, only to have the program dissolved due to lack of participation. Then 2020 hit, and like most youth sports around the world, football was canceled.
“Maybe I should just stick with Minecraft,” Oscar said when the pandemic ruined another opportunity to learn to play his favorite sport.
To be more specific, Oscar is “finally” a member of the squidgettes, the youngest of two teams representing the Little Leopards. Players range in age from 5 to 8. Among that age group, there are vast differences in sizes and body types.
Oscar’s size initially made me more comfortable about his foray into tackle football. Like most football parents, Mary Beth and I are concerned about injuries and concussions, but we’ve also witnessed the speed at which these kids hit each other. It’s not the hard-hitting stuff we see on Sundays. And with all the padding, it’s a wonder some of these kids can even stand upright, let alone run a slant pattern.
Plus, Oscar is 8. With a birthday in November, he’s an old 8 for football. He’s probably the oldest player on his team. This also helps to make him one of the biggest players. Some coaches initially confused him for a member of the older team. “You’re how old?” one coach asked in stunned disbelief. “Hey y’all,” the coach said through a big smile. “This kid’s only 8!”
Alas, it turns out that Oscar is actually too big. What they don’t tell you at sign-up in March is that there’s a weight limit. Turns out that being a certain age isn’t nearly as important as being a certain weight. This is because no one wants a large 8-year-old destroying a 6-year-old half his size.
For the squidgettes, the weight limit is 105 pounds. But the day we learned of the weight limit, Oscar weighed 114. This was also 10 days before his first game.
I was angry. “This kid has been busting his ass for a month, and now they tell us there’s a weight limit,” I complained to Mary Beth. “That’s not fair. How’s he going to lose 9 pounds in 10 days?”
I didn’t let Oscar know I was angry. I didn’t want him to mistake my anger at the rule for anger toward him. Instead, I let him know that I was on his side. “Hey dude, we're in this together,” I said. “We’ll get in playing shape together.”
“Yeah, but you don’t play football,” he said with his head down.
“But I want to,” I said. “I want to be able to play with you. I can get back into playing shape. Just watch me. I’ll be running a 40-yard dash in… well, let’s just say I’ll run it.”
That earned me a bright-eyed smile.
So we started our diet and exercise regimen together. We went on walks, long hikes, short runs (OK, he sprinted, I speed-walked), played basketball and threw the football around. We even tried to eat (some) healthier foods. Look, the kid is 8 years old. I’m not going to deny him an occasional trip to Rise Pies or a small bag of Takis.
In a weird way, the squidgettes player weight limit was our pandemic potbelly wake-up call. On reflection, however, I’m pretty sure I needed the wake-up call far more than Oscar. When we went into lockdown in March 2020, I was already in exercise mode. Mary Beth wrote about this in October 2020’s column “Eating My Way Through COVID.” I was down 50 pounds. But soon after Mahoning Matters posted that column, I fell into a pandemic depression and opted to eat my feelings. There were days when I ate my weight in Twinkies and bacon double cheeseburgers while watching marathons of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
Eat and sit. Sit and eat. How quickly those 50 pounds found their way back to my belly.
Oscar and I are both a tad chunky. And we both knew we needed to be in better shape. He really wanted to make weight and play. I really wanted to drop those 50 pounds again. So we used the “105” goal to our advantage.
In the hours before the first game, he weighed 108. Rather than try to lose 3 pounds in water weight, he chose to sit on the sidelines with his teammates. He wore his game jersey and cheered on his team. I felt bad for him, but I was also incredibly proud. He went from 114 to 108 in 10 days.
That’s impressive for anyone, let alone an 8-year-old.
We went back to work that next week. Each day he weighed himself. 107. 108. 107. He never seemed able to break the magic number.
The morning of his next game, he weighed 107.2. Oscar was resigned to the fact that he would not play again that day. Nonetheless, we loaded up his equipment and headed off to the field. Some of his teammates were there early. He joined them as they walked the track. Like Oscar, they were also trying to make weight. It was hot, and they were hoping to sweat out a few pounds.
When official weigh-ins started, Oscar stood on the scale. 105.1
He turned and looked at me with the biggest, brightest, widest smile. “Does this mean I can actually play?” he asked.
“It sure does,” a coach replied.
Play he did. He had been playing offensive line in most of the practices leading up to this game. But today he was playing both offense and defense. I almost think it was a kind of reward from his coaches for all the extra hard work he had put in to make weight.
As for my weight loss goal, I’ll admit some early failure. It wasn’t going as well at first. That was until I saw that ear-to-ear smile when he looked back at me from the scale.
See, what Oscar doesn’t know is that my weight loss goal has more to do with him than he’ll probably ever know. Sure, I want to lose weight to be in better shape, to feel better, to look better.
What I really want is to be a bit healthier to live long enough to watch him play football with his own kids someday.
— Adam Earnheardt is professor of communication at YSU and executive director of the Youngstown Press Club. Follow him on Twitter at @adamearn.