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Michiana Chronicles writers bring portraits of our life and times to the 88.1 WVPE airwaves every Friday at 7:45 am during Morning Edition and over the noon hour at 12:30 pm during Here and Now. Michiana Chronicles was first broadcast in October 2001. Contact the writers through their individual e-mails and thanks for listening!

Michiana Chronicles: Go-time in the Red Zone

Brett McNeil

Grandma watched the game through a chain link fence, sunk deep into a folding camp chair near the concession stand.

“Hit ‘em!” she shouted.

The offense was moving too freely, driving through the D line down after down. The tackling was terrible.

“Wrap ‘em up!”

But nobody did. A ground-and-pound clinic from the boys in silver just punching it up the gut against the boys in blue. Smashmouth football. Rock’em sock’em football. Blue had no answer.

To be fair, Blue’s defensive end was three-and-a-half footballs tall. Their interior line was pretty shrimpy, too. Silver had some dudes up front, and their running back was more than five footballs tall.

Grandma turned away from the game and into her smartphone.

Full contact, full pads, youth tackle football. I pulled over while driving past the local middle school and sure enough. I thought this had all gone the way of leaded gas but the stands were full. Girl cheerleaders waved their pom poms from the running track. On the near sideline a boy of about 11 leaned into a pair of crutches, his right leg stiff inside a knee immobilizer. Other players limped off the field, nursed hand injuries, cradled a banged-up elbow.

It was pretty legit.

No marching bands and no nighttime games but something approximating high school football in miniature. Which is clearly the point: a feeder program for third- to sixth-graders, future Cavemen and Knights and What Have Yous. But also maybe as much tackle football as most of these families will ever have – big kids get bigger, rosters get tighter -- and I remember how important my brother’s frosh football photos were to him.

But not my cup of tea. And apparently not Marcus Freeman’s, either. His young kids play flag football. Freeman and other mandarins of the game surely know plenty about the Lost Children of Football, as Rolling Stone recently dubbed dead young men with CTE, all former youth tackle football players.

I left the game thinking I knew where this essay was headed. I reached out to IU Classics Professor Cynthia Bannon and she coached me up on gladiator history. There are lots of parallels, especially with NFL football. But my central questions were too leading – Did the Romans raise kids to be gladiators? Did children ever fight as gladiators? – my conclusions pre-determined.


We attended our first parent-teacher conference last month and the teacher said, “Kindergarten is the new First Grade.” The school touts a STEM focus and claims all students learn about computer coding. The classroom teacher posts updates online and recently recognized two Kindergarteners for their “Employability Skills.”

“If you could have any Employability Skill, Winnie-the-Pooh, what would it be?” asked Christopher Robin.

Pooh had never held a job before. So he thought for a long time. 

“I suppose I would like to blow up blue balloons, Christopher Robin,” said Winnie-the-Pooh.

The pressure and sorting and ranking start immediately. It’s always go-time in the Red Zone. The parents straddle an anxiety bike they will never dismount.

God, please give my kid an angle. Please give him an edge.


We visited Angola over fall break and found ourselves at a city playground. A young sister and brother attached themselves to us and our popcorn, sad and sweet kids, and performed on a balance beam to hold our attention.

“Wait, let me show you something!” the sister said.

She was about nine and wore a Pittsburgh Steelers shirt and beat up Keds and had excellent dexterity. She smiled and laughed when we clapped for her routines and her teeth were very crooked.

We met her mom in the parking lot, standing outside a rusting white minivan that was pretty obviously their home.

The girl held up a stuffed toy, some kind of cheap video game character, and said, “This is Dad.”

I thought I misheard. “Dad?”

“Yes. My dad passed away. He gave me this and I call him Dad.”

The girl heaved Dad skyward and reached high as the toy tumbled end over end back toward her.

I’m afraid to say she muffed it.

Music: “Winnie the Pooh” by Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward

Brett McNeil is a writer and essayist in Mishawaka, Indiana. His radio essays have aired on WVPE and WBEZ and his writing has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Crain’s Chicago Business and elsewhere. He is a former newspaper reporter and columnist and is the recipient of writing awards from the Chicago Headline Club, Illinois Press Association and Inland Press Association. Brett is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois Chicago. He works as an investigator in a law office. Reach him by email here