‘He’s a Tough Kid’: Confessions of a Football Mom
Over nearly two decades, Washington State QB Connor Halliday’s mother has watched her son’s NFL dream take shape, from backyard practices through high school to a stellar college career cut short by a brutal injury. This weekend, she’ll learn whether his dream lives on, or comes to a close
BY JESSICA HALLIDAY
“He’s a tough kid.” This from the surgeon, after ramming a titanium rod down the middle of Connor’s leg. “He’s lucky—if he had to get hurt, this was the injury you’d want. He’ll be stronger than he was before.”
I am daunted by what lies ahead, helping my son face the possibility that his dreams are shattered along with his leg. The countless hours of training and preparation put in up to this moment—mine, not Connor’s—may not have been enough.
If the NFL had a draft to determine which mothers were equal to the task of watching their son play on Sundays, I know more than a few who would go in the first round. My own chances for an early-round pick are pretty good, and I don’t even have an agent. But I wonder, as I hear Dr. Tingstad give the recovery room nurse instructions for IV morphine—go ahead and give him as much as he can take; he’s going to really hurt—if this might be the year I’d get cut from a league whose draft hasn’t even happened.
My son Connor, like so many boys, worshipped sports, his first word “ba” (ball), his favorite television channel “EXPN,” when he was still too young to form an ‘S’ with his tongue. But lucky—there’s that word again—for him, my son was gifted. Dogged drive and athletic ability vaulted him to the top of every team: football, basketball, baseball, golf. When he was in the ninth grade, a baseball scout contacted us, Connor’s fastball a screaming solicitation of a potential future on the hill. A power forward in basketball, he received regular invitations to play on tournament teams that traveled the country. But it was in the third grade, the first year boys were allowed to play football, that he found his future. Always a quarterback, he practiced every free moment—by himself, with friends, with me. Today we laugh, recalling the hours he and I spent together in the front yard, me an improbable center, snapping him the football over and over, and over, so he could practice his footwork. I won’t forget the sight of him outside in the snow, playing alone both offense and defense, coming in for lunch and telling me, when I asked him who won his game, Mom. It’s only halftime.
His relentless work and natural ability have come to define him, and have left a lasting mark everywhere he's played. He broke all the passing records at his high school and went on to break all the passing records at his university, in spite of missing the last four games of the 2015 season. He was invited to the combine in February, where he met with NFL teams but didn’t go through the workouts for them, his leg still healing. After he returned home from Indianapolis, I remember his powerful voice traveling the two floors up to my room; he was on the phone with his agent, discussing the 10,000 playing cards he had to autograph as part of his contract.
* * *
We all know our stories don’t matter to anyone but ourselves, that anyone listening is merely waiting for you to finish so she can tell you her story. But we lurch forward anyway; maybe if it’s bad enough, we think, someone will get what it means. Someone, somewhere, will call time out, at least a 30-second one, and really get it.
I don’t often tell my Connor stories aloud, mostly because the ones that might give a listener pause are ones I want to forget. I write them instead, using what I’ve worshipped since childhood: stories. If I can’t forget them, at least I can make some sense out of them by putting them in order on a page.
Nearly 20 years of watching Connor has schooled me. Hands to the helmet after a hit: bad.
The latest chapter I’m working on is hard. The day Connor’s college football career ended, his O-lineman and a USC defender rolled into him just as he threw a pass, lives large in my mind. It’s not yet far enough away to be memory, the most graphic scenes stuck on auto-play and instant-rewind.
I knew from the way his hands came up as he went down that it was bad. Nearly 20 years of watching Connor has schooled me. Hands to the helmet after a hit: bad. I stood up in the stands, watching for him to move. No movement. People kneeling. Idiot in the row across, “Halliday’s f------ useless.” When Coach Leach ran out and Connor reached up—Help me—I bolted, grateful we were playing at home so I knew my way to the locker room. People stared; crowd control parted at my shout, I’m Connor’s mom! Trainers directed me not to the training room but to the driveway below, to the ambulance waiting for my son.
Dads, uncles, grandfathers, coaches, teammates, opponents, broadcasters—one thing they agree on is Connor’s unwavering focus on a W. The media coverage and recognition and hype—these things mean nothing to Connor. The thing that matters to Connor—what is life or death to him, almost literally—is to win. I could tell you a story or two about that. I could tell you about concussions he’s denied, having memorized the “test” used to determine a player’s capacity to endure further impact. I could tell you about the liver laceration he sustained early in a game his redshirt freshman year, passing out on the bench from pain during a timeout, lying to his coaches and the concerned officials so he could remain in the game and get that win. I could tell you about his junior year in high school when he threw up from abdominal pain after a particularly hard-hitting game, warranting another trip to another emergency room where another surprised doctor told me he must be in terrific pain, his spleen in danger of rupture, enlarged by the mononucleosis he was sick with, not that any of us knew it. That day, Connor lay on the E.R. table, furious with the doctor and then me as I tried to make sense of it for him, that he was unable to play in next week’s game. You can’t stop me. I’d rather die in the game than not play.
* * *
“Halliday’s a tough kid.” Fathers tell their children’s stories differently, with fewer words and even fewer tears, and sometimes in such brevity, truth is fully revealed.
Halliday is a tough kid. His father would add one more line, when he tells his version of the story. “He’s the toughest person I’ve ever known.”
This is saying a lot coming from a tape-an-aspirin-to-it dad, one whose approach to coaching Connor was the source of not a few major battles between us. When Connor was little, I was certain in the way of mothers of first-borns that my way was superior, though later Connor would chastise me. “You made me soft,” he said once, of my influence. Piano, French, art, writing—these were the games I practiced to play in, and Connor, obedient, submitted to lessons in each. Every time he agreed to the latest enrichment activity, I hoped some interest would be sparked, and each time I would be forced to admit defeat.
Mother of quarterbacks form an elite club whose rite of passage is a cruel hazing ritual consisting of being forced to watch your son injured, praised, chastisted and ridiculed in service of what some people call a game.
Football owns Connor in a way that has nothing to do with love of the game. It’s in him; it simply is him. I believe an X-ray of his heart would reveal it to be oblong-shaped and made of pigskin, though it’s my own heart that bears the trademark white threads—scars—across the top, the same ones Connor grips for purchase before he launches the rock, and my heart along with it, through the air.
Connor’s passion (did I say passion? I meant enslavement) has taken (did I say taken? I meant dragged) me across every terrain, geographic and physical and emotional. Along the way I’ve earned real friends, mothers belonging to an elite club whose rite of passage is harsh, a cruel hazing ritual consisting of being forced to watch your son injured, praised, chastised and ridiculed, all in service of what some people call a game. Mothers of pitchers, mothers of point guards, mothers of quarterbacks and middle linebackers—we are a unique strain of women. We sit together at games with ears shut against the yelling men in the stands who believe they have the skills to criticize our sons; plan massive dinners for boys who can’t afford to lose one pound; hold hands, silent, in emergency rooms. Our kids ought to be tough. Look at what their mothers can endure.
What to say about a sport that champions toughness over life? What to say about the retired NFL players coming forward to report memory loss, personality change, tremors? What to say about the research emerging from the study of dead players’ brains, about the effects they suffered from blunt-force trauma to the head? What to say to the boy whose dream it is to play professional football—a boy whose relentless devotion to achieving that dream has brought it just within reach?
It could be worse, and beyond doubt, I get that. There’s no paralysis. There’s no amputation. No leukemia. No deployment to the Middle East. No death.
But while Connor might not be packing gear for war, he is busily learning the language of the next country he hopes to himself inhabit and me to visit. It’s not quite a country yet, still a no-man’s land—no-mom’s land—an estate of his hope. With what he would call a little luck, his dream of playing football as a professional will come true, and I’ll need to renew my passport for another 10 years of travel. He’ll supply the tickets and itinerary, and I’ll bring my own climbing gear, hopeful it’s rugged enough to guide me up the new mountain range, one that makes the rocky peaks finally behind me a mere stretch of uneven ground.
And if he has it, that “little luck,” what will it mean for him? For me? What setbacks and realities will he ask me to help him navigate, the way he asked me, after his broken leg prematurely ended his record-setting college career, to make sense of it for him. But Mom, why did this happen to me?
My tough kid, it must be said, is less kid and more man these days, refusing guidance in choosing an agent, closed-lipped about pretty much everything. He has a serious girlfriend, and they consult each other about the future and the choices it brings. This brings me a measure of peace; this is how it should be.
So over the past month I’ve found myself in a familiar role, making vats of spaghetti and doing last loads of laundry for the man-boy in the basement before he leaves. On April 1 he finally had his pro day in front of scouts for NFL teams, and this week in Chicago, those teams will determine how, or whether, his football story will continue. Whatever the outcome, it won’t matter to anyone but Connor, and his dad, and me. Good or bad, the clocks won’t stop. They won’t cancel the mail or close the banks.
There’s nothing left, really, for me to do, except study my notes for this next test. I’m a good student; I work hard, don’t procrastinate, do extensive research to prepare myself. I may never fully accept the hard lesson that I can’t do enough to protect my son from anything that might come. But through it all I’ve learned the harder lesson: It doesn’t matter. I can’t save him, but I can’t stop trying.
Jessica Halliday writes fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction and teaches writing at Gonzaga University. She is at work on a book of essays about her experiences as a mother in the world of competitive sports. She has a love/hate relationship with the game of football.