Ten years ago — during the annual college football game between Harvard and Yale — a photographer snapped a picture of my body, face down on the football field, that The New York Times published to illustrate the dangers of college football.
As a linebacker for Yale, I had just tackled Harvard’s star running back at the perfectly wrong angle while we were both running full speed. We then collapsed on the field. I was motionless. Harvard’s running back was OK, fortunately. But the impact tore two nerves in my neck, causing searing chronic pain and permanently paralyzing parts of my right shoulder and arm. Making it especially difficult to cope, I soon learned that I’d never regain enough use of my arm to realize my dream of serving my country in the United States Marine Corps.
Pumped full of pain medication, in a matter of days I shrank from a 230-pound college linebacker and budding Marine to a 170-pound shell of the man I once was. My entire sense of purpose and identity crumbled along with my body on that field.
Having experienced this pain and loss, I’m often asked whether I would let my kids play football. My answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Football cultivates a codes-of-honor worldview that our country desperately needs right now. Football teammates accept risks, endure hardship and make sacrifices for one another in pursuit of their shared goal of winning football games.
These circumstances lead them to form and internalize a code of honor that requires putting the team’s interests ahead of their own. Under this code, they put everything on the line for the team. Challenges are viewed not as occasions to feel self-pity but rather as opportunities to demonstrate the depth of their commitment by overcoming those challenges.
Individual pain, blood, sweat and tears become collective. The bonds forged transcend race, class and ideology. Living up to their code of honor imbues them with such a profound sense of purpose and camaraderie that after they’re done playing, they forever seek to replace it with new teams — new honor groups.
They take that worldview with them off the field. It provides a much-needed antidote to modern society’s solipsistic culture of individualism, which favors self-preservation and pushes us away from communities of true meaning.
Society’s individualistic advice initially worsened the sense of alienation I felt after losing the Marine Corps. According to this advice, I should have been content simply knowing that I wanted to be a Marine: “Stop caring what others think.” This advice urged me to search within the solitude of my own conscience for answers about what to do next: “Just ask what you want out of life.”
But my worldview instead demanded that I reengage with my community to discern how to continue to be useful: “Ask what life wants out of you.” It allowed me to see that serving in the Marine Corps was not my ultimate goal but rather one way to live up to my code of honor of serving my country.
I recovered psychologically only when I was able to live up to that high bar by serving alongside new honor groups as a federal prosecutor in Chicago, as a civilian in Afghanistan, and as a co-founder of the Warrior-Scholar Project, which helps military veterans rediscover their sense of meaning in a similar way.
For many military service members and football players, being part of a tight-knit group formed around a shared set of values is like oxygen. They don’t even notice how critical it is to their sense of well-being until they no longer have it. The identity-obsessed lifestyle that society pushes on us doesn’t provide oxygen in the same way.
So yes, despite my injury, when I have children someday I will let them play football. It will help instill in them a yearning to find their honor groups, providing them with a sense of meaning and purpose that transcends the tragic divisions in our country. As it did for me, it will empower them not to become victims of circumstance.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jesse Reising is a Chicago-based lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis and former federal prosecutor, a former Yale linebacker and co-founder of the Warrior-Scholar Project.
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