I. The Hawks
Preteen football players are usually described by other preteen football players with one of three words: “nice,” “funny,” or, the highest possible compliment, “awesome.” Celdon Manning, a running back with the Allen Hawks, is the rare athlete who makes his teammates reach for the Scholastic Children’s Thesaurus.
“Celdon is very … shy,” said Nick Trice, the center.
“He’s very … quiet,” said Bryce Monk, an outside linebacker.
He is also “so dope” and “so beast,” to page further through the twelve-year-old’s thesaurus, which is to say he can jump-cut and stiff-arm and cut-block and do things that make his teammates’ jaws drop. There was this one play, in the Allen Sports Association Super Bowl this past November. The Hawks were playing the Wild Dawgz for their fortieth consecutive victory and fourth straight league title. Celdon lined up in a Wildman formation with the Hawks leading 27–6. He took the snap and sprinted left. He saw a Wild Dawgz linebacker fill the hole. What was in his mind? As his teammates watched from the sidelines, Celdon jabbed his left foot toward the linebacker’s chest and then shifted his body weight to the right, like a metronome. In a split second, he was traveling in the opposite direction, past the defense and toward the end zone.
For four years, the Allen Hawks had been the best youth football team in the most football-mad suburb in Texas—which is to say, the world. In season after season, they’d been so untouchable, so dominant, that trophy-collecting had actually gotten slightly monotonous. “After the first one, I got excited,” Eric Engel, a linebacker, told me. “And after the second one, I got excited. After the third one, I was like, okay …” But this Super Bowl had the Hawks’ full and undivided attention—it was the last game they would play together. The sixth-graders had grown up together, fought together, gotten their shins skinned together. Next year most would become seventh graders and start playing for their middle school teams. “This is about the Hawks winning on this field for the final time,” said their head coach, Kevin Engel (Eric’s father), before the game. He sounded like he might cry.
Celdon was one of the few who wouldn’t be moving on, since he was actually in fifth grade. While many parents hold their sons back a grade to gain a competitive edge, Celdon’s mom, Tracy Wallace, insisted her son play “up.” Celdon, who was ten when the 2012 season began, has three older brothers, so he was used to it. “When he was three,” Tracy told me one afternoon, “he had a pacifier in his mouth, and he’d get down in a three-point stance.” Celdon’s dedication to football is fairly ordinary in Allen, a well-heeled suburb of Dallas that made national news in August when the high school opened the doors of a new, $60 million stadium, the largest in Texas devoted to a single school. Celdon was simply a product of that environment. Before every game, his mom made him watch a highlight video called NFL’s Top 10: Football Moves.
The images were burned in his brain. When he had the ball under his arm, Celdon said, he felt he could access those moves as easily as he could make a Madden 13 player execute a stiff-arm in the video game.
On that run in the Super Bowl, you could see Celdon mentally tapping the buttons. He juked right— tap—and the Wild Dawgz linebacker wound up facedown on the ground with his hands around Celdon’s shoe. Celdon saw a crowd between him and the goal line. Tap. He leaned his body forward so it was at a 45-degree angle and rammed into the defenders.
“Celdon is the best eleven-year-old football player in America,” Ronnie Braxton, his trainer, told me. “In America.” Celdon isn’t the first youth football player to inspire that kind of claim. But when he hit the pile, his powerful legs churning furiously as he wormed his way through the defenders, the assessment seemed indisputable. As the referees pulled everyone off the pile and found Celdon lying in the end zone, his teammates began hopping up and down, and one of the grandmas in the stands rang a cowbell, and the Hawks cheerleaders—yes, the Hawks have cheerleaders—shook their metallic red-and-black pompoms, and the sound system that Coach Engel had rigged up with two car batteries and an ice chest began pumping out triumphal music, and I abandoned journalistic objectivity to throw my arms in the air and cheer until my throat hurt. How does it feel to watch a running back from the best preteen football team in the most football-mad city in Texas exert his will? It’s so beast.
Football isn’t supposed to feel like this anymore. We know too much, don’t we? We know that if Celdon were to plow his helmet into the pile at the wrong angle, a player could receive a mild concussion. We know that enough mild concussions can cause something called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which could leave a former youth footballer, a few decades hence, unable to recognize his wife. We know that a thousand former NFL players right now are suing the league for the damage they incurred while slamming themselves into one another on television. We know that when Dave Duerson, a former Chicago Bears safety, killed himself in 2011, he aimed the gun at his chest, so that researchers could study what had happened to his brain.
Whenever football lights up our brains these days, we fear it’s turning someone else’s to mush. It’s a conflict that’s playing out not only in the offices of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell but on the sidelines of football fields all across the country, in places like Allen. By any measure, Allen, which has around 80,000 residents, is intensely devoted to football. “It’s ray-bid down here,” Coach Engel said. The high school football stadium that opened in August is not just big and expensive,