Linda Burgess laughed when her 12-year-old son told her he planned to play seventh grade football for Fulmore Middle School, where he is enrolled in the humanities and law magnet.
He had shown not a scintilla of athletic ability or curiosity. He was tall and wobbly, and his talents seemed better spent in Boy Scouts, in the orchestra, in the Episcopal Church as an acolyte.
He had never thrown a football. Ever.
“You’ll get killed,” Linda blurted and might have protested had her husband, Steve, not intervened.
“It’s going to be OK,” he insisted. “He needs to play a team sport. Let him try.”
“Fine,” Linda thought. “But he has get in shape first,” so she signed him up for two weeks with a trainer at a West Austin country club. If she had hoped he would find it too hot, too sweaty, too grueling, then she was disappointed. Her son is not a quitter. And so, the Falcon season began, mostly with Stephen riding the bench as a second or third string tight end.
Linda didn’t expect him to play at all and was thrilled that he made it onto the field in every game, not that she had a clue what he was doing out when he was out there, other than standing around, “looking adorable,” in her own words.
Despite growing in Shawnee, OK, attending Notre Dame as an undergraduate and OU for law school, Linda knew next to nothing about football.
“I knew you had to go 10 yards to get a first down, and you get four tries,” she admitted. She knew who the quarterback was. She also knew football players were supposed to hit each other, and her son was not.
“I kept thinking, ‘He’s gotta be more aggressive,’” Linda said. “’He’s gotta knock someone over.’”
He never did. Stephen spent a good deal of the season trying to learn his plays and master the 3-point stance. He didn't catch a pass, and the team lost far more than they won, but it wasn’t a losing season, and here’s why: At the beginning of the season, Stephen knew none of his teammates — mostly South and East Austin neighborhood kids, mostly brown and black. Lots of free-lunches and lots of issues with test scores. Fulmore can be rough, especially for a nice boy who plays the bass in the orchestra and helped the Academic Quiz Bowl team to the 2013 national tournament in Chicago.
Football changed that — at least, it did for Stephen.
“Without football, he would have never interacted with kids from that neighborhood,” Linda said. “He did through football. He wasn’t going to school with kids he had known for years. Just the opposite, and it was good for him to have to handle all of that.”
It was good for Linda too.
“It made me care for these kids,” she said. “I didn’t know them or their parents, and without football, I wasn’t going to know them. They weren’t part of our social circle, and I wasn’t going to meet them through work.”
Without football, Linda and Steve would have mingled with the magnet school kids and their parents at random music and academic events. They would have never met the second-string quarterback’s mom. They would have neither known nor cared that the school had no football booster club. They would never appreciate the sacrifices some of these boys make to play, the sacrifices their parents make to watch them play.
But now, they do. Linda and Steve have become woven into the fabric of the school. They care about Fulmore, and not just the magnet program. The whole school.
“I didn’t realize that the Fulmore teachers come to all the games,” Linda said. “We were able to visit with them outside of the classroom. And I still can’t believe how excited I was when we finally got cheerleaders. I participated in every cheer.”
She also took charge of arranging snacks before games and bought a $70 royal blue rubber stamp the size of a slice of bread — to stamp all the lunch bags, “Go Falcons.”
She’ll use it again this fall, and she’s thrilled about that because Stephen briefly flirted with the idea of transferring to a private school before deciding to return to Fulmore for eighth grade. He’s more mature, more responsible. He’s spent the past year, tossing the football around, tucking it under his arm should he ever catch a pass. He’s even ready to knock someone over. He remains a Falcon because of football.
And Linda says she’s no longer worried about injuries. Steven is bigger, taller and slightly less wobbly, but things happen. Oddly enough, one of the Quiz Bowl boys tumbled crossing a Chicago street and broke his wrist.
And so it goes. The season begins soon, and the Oklahoma girl, the Notre Dame graduate, the wife of the die-hard Texas Longhorn fan who barely knows the difference between punt and a pickle says it can’t get here fast enough.