August 9, 2013

Werner Braun: Football then and now

— Watching my son Werner go off to Dalton High School football camp brings back a slew of memories from my days playing football for Cathedral High School in Indianapolis in the late 1950s.

Recently, I began ruminating on the differences between then and now, and I came up with quite a few ways in which the way young athletes play the game has changed.

To begin with, we didn’t go to football camp loaded down with goody bags packed by our moms. We practiced after school on weekdays, with nary a parent in sight.

Brain concussion policy? We have one today, but back in 1959, the attitude was “Is he conscious? Okay, get him back in there.”

Not that that was a good thing. We didn’t have an understanding of what the short- and long-term impacts of brain concussions really were. We had no idea how long it might take to recover from one.

A staff trainer for sports injuries? Nope, just coaches, most of whom would have said, “Put an Ace bandage on it and get back out there!”

Heat index restrictions? What’s a heat index? Back then, the term “heat index” wasn’t even a blip on the meteorologist’s radar screen.

And an irony here is that back in the day, coaches believed that drinking too much water during practice or a game could lead to cramps. So they made us take salt tablets washed down with just a mouthful of water so we wouldn’t cramp up, or so they thought. Go figure.

Contrast that with today when our kids are supplied with specialty hydration drinks and are encouraged to drink water and other fluids throughout practices and games. Let’s all thank goodness for that.

It might have been characteristic of the times, but in my inner-city high school there wasn’t a lot of additional funding for the athletic programs. Consequently, we didn’t have the weight rooms and state-of-the-art equipment that young athletes benefit from today.

In fact, our coaches actually made weights by taking old tin cans of various sizes and filling them up with cement. They sure weren’t elegant, but they worked.

Coaches and players seem to know a lot more about nutrition these days. The boys get Muscle Milk and protein shakes to bulk up, and they seem to be pretty savvy about what their bodies need to take in to be at peak performance. We were all pretty much left on our own. One of my clearest memories is of buying a dozen White Castles from the fast-food joint near our high school to wolf down on the back seat of the city bus on the way home after practice. And those 12 burgers came to a grand sum of 96 cents (no sales tax back then).

Of course, there were other differences as well. Our boys today play on artificial turf, which didn’t exist in our day. Our boys have multiple jerseys — for home and away games — while we had one that had to be washed and ready for the next Friday’s game.

As for classifying divisions — 1A, 2A, 4A, etc. — those distinctions just didn’t exist. It didn’t matter whether you went to a high school with 300 students or one with 3,000, if you were competing in football you played all the teams in your town.

For all the differences, though, there are a great number of similarities. Like our boys today, we had to do the dreaded duck waddle during practice — probably the most horrible drill ever invented!

We had cheerleaders. And they were every bit as cute as the ones who cheer the teams on today.

We knew the thrill of playing in championship games. We packed the stadiums to the gills on game nights, filled with our families, friends and loyal fans.

We revered our coaches. In my high school, our coaches were a bunch of dedicated guys who really emphasized strength of character. I see that same dedication in the coaches of my son’s team, and I see the reverence our young athletes feel for them.

When playing football, you quickly learn that you get back in proportion to what you put in. You learn that bad choices have consequences, that it’s better to make good choices in the first place. You make friends who become friends for life. And despite whether you go on to play later on or hang up your jersey after senior year, you feel the impact of the football experience for the rest of your life.

Football is, in my mind, a metaphor for life. To lead a healthy, successful life, you have to be strong mentally, physically and spiritually. And to play good football, you have to be strong mentally, physically and spiritually.

A lot has changed in the game since I played, but change is a part of life. The carpet industry has changed over the years as well, especially when it comes to production details and advances in technology. But it’s still the same “game,” which requires dedication and strength of character, and each Carpet and Rug Institute “team member” is going for championships of their own every day.

Let the season begin!

Werner Braun is president of the Dalton-based Carpet and Rug Institute.