I recently released Why We Play, a documentary on touch football I directed and produced this year, online. The film is meant to highlight the benefits of playing recreational sports as an adult. While my own experience playing touch football isn’t highlighted in the film, I thought it was important to share in terms of my motivation for making it.
I grew up identifying as a football player and later became a coach. That’s my story, and the story of many others who grew up as athletes, graduated high school, found a job, and struggled to remain active competitively or even recreationally. Sports programs in the country are largely designed for youth.
Moving to Winnipeg when I was 24, I quickly learned about The PIT football league (the league documented in this film). I played Junior football roughly 4 years before that and I wasn’t coaching at the time— therefore completely out of football. Before stepping on the field before my first PIT game I found out none of my teammates and few of my components had “real” football experience. I thought the game would be a cakewalk.
I still remember how I felt on my first snap, likely a misfire, and the utter annoyance that consumed me after having a rusher came straight at me untouched. It was the indoor season. The field is smaller, the windows tighter than the outdoor game. I couldn’t run my go to plays from my tackle days — the timing was off. It didn’t take me long to realize that this was a much different game than tackle football. Let’s just say it took some getting used to.
Did I mention we played regularly around midnight on weekends throughout the indoor season (October to April)? People often think I’m crazy when I tell them my football schedule. They also think I’m crazy when I tell them over 1000 people do this every season. Looking around each night, whether it’s before the game or in the facility’s lounge afterwards, I saw people from all walks of life playing the game. For some, this was the first sport they ever tried. Others came from high level volleyball, hockey, or basketball. Some were 18, others were 60 plus. I started to wonder why they did yet, why they decided to commit so much time to a one hour game on the weekends. I started taking notes on ideas for a film that represented the touch football community. I wanted an NFL films feel for a recreational league in order to show the passion of the players involved.
How Playing Affected My Life
Then I got sick. Really sick. I was 26 years old. It was playing in the PIT that had me recognizing my symptoms. I suddenly went from throwing 5 touchdowns a game to 5 interceptions a game. My deep ball never connected. I started to feel out of shape, constantly fatigued. Yet, I kept playing.
My health started spiralling. Eventually I noticed my vision was blurry. My left eye was almost completely blind, killing my depth perception (and my deep ball!). Soon after it was discovered that I had a brain tumour and needed surgery.
The first thing I worried about was playing football again, or anything physically active. Honestly, it might sound crazy but after spending a few years not physically active and competing I realized how much playing meant to me. I was told at the diagnosis that at best I would retain my vision at that time, which was about 50%, and that there was a possibility that my fatigue would remain the same or improve with drugs. So I decided to call up my favourite receiver 5 days before my surgery was scheduled to toss the ball around. I wanted to see what I’d be able to half-blind.
Apparently that was a bad idea. The little workout almost knocked out all of the vision in my left eye and my right eye was fading. I called my nurse the next morning and was operated on that Friday night.
I had two goals after surgery. To be able to get home and watch the Minnesota Viking game on Sunday and to get back on the football field as soon as possible. The doctors exceeded even their own expectations for success and restored my vision fully and the side effects were deemed to be manageable. It was a bit of a miracle. Oh, and I got to watch the Vikings beat the Lions that Sunday.
The league scheduled all of my team’s games for the end of that season, in the event I could get back on the field. 5 weeks later I went out for a series. I couldn’t throw more than 10 yards and was gassed after doing so. I worked my way through a half of football a week later, and went in for a few series here and there for the last few games. I struggled through the following season until eventually I started to play better. The game became a barometer for my health. It gave me something to look forward to, something to strive for. I was competing against myself and against the odds of returning back to form. Playing became an important part of my healing.
It goes without saying, but I knew there was something special not just with the league, but with sport, and the idea of it. I didn’t include my story in the film. It was more of an afterthought, motivation to demonstrate the role play sports can have in one’s life.
I eventually went back to my notes and started talking ideas with other players in the league, met with Jon Franklin, who owns and plays in the league, and went from there. After about and 18 month process I found 3 interesting stories to focus on, which you’ll find in the synopsis of the film.
I could have included more stories — a lot more. There are stories quite similar to my own. I played with others who came back from tumours, or played with colostomy bags, and of course rehabbed from major injuries stemming from the game. I’ve watched people try the game for the first time. I’ve witnessed life-long friendships form in the league, drama, national success, and upsets. Everyone has their reasons for playing, for dedicating the time to play what’s routinely dubbed as a children’s game.
I’m hoping that by exploring why the particular people in the film play in the league, you’ll see the bigger picture in the importance/benefits of continuing to play sports into adulthood. I’m also looking at taking my personal experience, along with what I learned from making this film into the school community as I enter a career in education. I’m currently coaching high school football. For most players, it’s the last sport they’ll play. Hopefully I’ll be able to convince them otherwise and they’ll continue to find ways to make sports a part of their lives as they enter adulthood.