Do you remember that friend in junior high who talked you into doing something that you weren’t sure was a good idea, but you did it anyway? And then in the aftermath, you realized your premonition, and mother’s advice, was right. But the experience you gained shaped your life in a way you didn’t see coming?

Welcome to my one educational year of little league football.

“Come on, you won’t get hurt,” said Dave Lewis during his proselytizing efforts to get me to sign up to play for the Cowboys junior varsity team. Practice was already underway and with the roster terribly thin, Lewis needed a convert.

“It will be fun!” he said.

As an eighth grader in a fifth grader’s body, the idea of tackle football was intriguing, but dangerous. Despite my mother’s opposition, I thought, “What the heck! What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

What I didn’t know at the time was the team I was joining could give the Bad News Bears a run at their reputation.

As the last to sign up, I was left with the bottom of the barrel when it came to equipment. The regular-sized eighth graders, or varsity squad, got first pick. The junior varsity came next, and then, as a late arrival, there was me.

My shoulder pads didn’t fit quite right, and the pants were a bit long, but I pulled everything together except the helmet. All the good ones were gone.

“That’s it!” I said. “I’m out. I can’t play without a decent helmet.”

“I’ll find you one,” said Lewis.

Keeping his word, my friend presented me with a helmet prior to the first game. It fit perfectly and I loved the gray facemask, but there was just one problem. Our team wore white pants, white shirts, and white helmets — and this helmet was as red as Rudolph’s nose.

“It will be fine,” Lewis said. “Don’t worry about it.”

I quickly learned that a running back wearing the only red helmet on the field was an easy target for the defense to fulfill its seek-and-destroy missions — all at my expense.

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And so began a long season of bad football under the lights at the Orem City Center. However, to my surprise, the experience also delivered three life changing lessons — which, by the way, outnumbered our total victories 3-1.

Follow your blockers

“McCann! Right side sweep! Go!” shouted our second head coach. The first one was booted out of the league for fighting with the officials the week before.

I ran to the huddle and relayed the play call.

Lewis was the quarterback. He took the snap at the goal line and pitched me the ball. This was my big moment. Not only had we not won a game all season, but I hadn’t scored a single touchdown.

The blockers marched out in front of me as I drifted to the right. They punched holes in the defense, but I was convinced the path of least resistance was to the outside. They kept blocking for me and I kept resisting. I was going to do it my way — the same way I had seen Steve Young make it look so easy at Cougar Stadium.

The naïve ambitions took me away from my teammates and too close to the sideline, where I suddenly ran out of room. All I could do was turn up the field and greet the awaiting defenders who catapulted my body out of bounds for a loss of yardage.

“McCann!”

The coach waved me over.

“What are you doing? You had all those blockers in front of you to help you. If you would have followed them you would have scored, but instead you tried to do it all by yourself.”

I stood on the sideline drenched in sweat and disappointment and watched someone else score a touchdown on the next play. My glorious opportunity was gone and there wouldn’t be another one.

The lesson I learned was priceless — we don’t need to face our challenges alone. People can help us get where we want to go, and we can do the same for them.

Keep your helmet on

It was a hot Saturday afternoon, and our winless Cowboys were getting a beating by the undefeated Raiders — who to this day, I still contend were “loose with the rules.”

The referee’s whistle signaled the end of a play. I unbuckled the chin strap and lifted my helmet up to try and look cool while getting some fresh air.

Crack!

I felt a sharp pain and the world went dark — except for a few stars that appeared — which had nothing to do with us playing for the Cowboys.

One of the Raiders, whose name I will withhold because I don’t know if he is serving in a stake presidency somewhere or a prison sentence, hit me so hard on the chin with his helmet that it knocked me out of the game.

Of course, the underpaid and disinterested officiating crew missed the whole thing, and the cheap shot went unpenalized. The excruciating pain and instant swelling ended my day. Wiping away tears, I climbed on my bike and rode home.

Walking into the house with a deformed face was the fulfillment of my mother’s prophecy. She greeted me in the kitchen with shock and awe. I can still hear my dad’s voice asking a typical “dad” question — “Why didn’t you just keep your helmet on?”

The lesson was a painful, but important one. We have built-in protections, whether they be the laws of the land, like a speed limit, or behavioral guidelines connected to our religious preferences. The chances of survival are enhanced by obedience just like a helmet can protect a 14-year-old’s chin and keep him in the game.

Roll with the ride

The Cowboys tasted victory just one time that season. I don’t remember the score, but it was against the Chargers, who were, for at least one day, worse than us.

Lewis threw me a pass for a two-point conversion, and I caught a game-sealing reception. Despite all the pain and anguish from losing so much, Lewis was right — it was fun! But as much as I loved football, I knew it wasn’t for me.

My friends, including Lewis, went on to suit up for the Orem Tigers, but I never did. Instead, I found a different way to participate — as a sportswriter, earning $9.40 an article for the Provo Daily Herald.

It was there that I met my professional mentor Dick Harmon and eventually Kurt Kragthorpe (then with the Deseret News) and Tom Wharton (Salt Lake Tribune). They sit atop my Mount Rushmore of Utah sportswriters and have influenced so much of my storytelling in broadcast and print media. 

Sure, I would have loved to have played the game like my brothers did, but that lone season of bad football taught me to roll with the ride. Performing on the gridiron wasn’t in the cards for me — and that’s OK and thankfully, the Cowboys’ 1-12 season is rarely brought up during Sunday dinners.

I will be forever grateful for my friend Dave Lewis for convincing me to do something that, at the time, I didn’t think was a very good idea. Turns out, it was a game changer for me and a deformer for my chin, which may or may not have deepened the dimple on my face.

As for the McCann boys, I can listen to their athletic conquests all night long as a proud sibling, and then quietly remind them that only one of us gets paid to perform in LaVell Edwards Stadium — and it’s not them!

Follow your blockers, keep your helmet on and roll with the ride — three priceless life lessons from one season of bad football.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.