Column, Movie Diary

For the love of the game

By Dom Cioffi

When I was in middle school in the early 1980s, I played in a flag football league sponsored by our city’s recreation department. The league brought together kids from all the local schools and organized them onto eight teams.

I was a skinny, unassuming kid, but I was fast and coordinated, which gave me legitimacy. I played to my strengths in both the halfback and wide receiver positions and ended both seasons as one of the leading scorers in the league.

The speed and coordination certainly helped with my success, but it was a tip from my coach that was the real reason I shone. He told me to spin whenever the defense reached for my flag, which made tackling much harder.

Submitted – Click here to watch the trailer

I have memories of running down the field with the ball and then, as a player reached for my flag, spinning into the air while still in full stride. I’m not confident that this move looked visually impressive from the sidelines, but a touchdown is a touchdown, and scoring those was all I cared about.

I have several faded newspaper clippings from those games attesting to my superior play. It likely wouldn’t happen today, but back then, the local paper sent a sports reporter to cover middle school flag football games. The clippings meant the world to me; just seeing my name in conjunction with athletic prowess gave me immense pride and satisfaction.

And then came freshman football, complete with helmets and pads.

Everything changed when I hit 9th grade football. Unlike most of my classmates, I was late to puberty, so while my friends were all starting to look like men, I was still a skinny little kid. Not surprisingly, my lack of size and strength did not bode well in a sport where aggression and physical force determined success.

I did well when it came to running fast and catching difficult passes, but as soon as I was forced to go one-on-one with the bigger kids, I was toast. Being a running back was out of the question. And while, with time, I could have possibly matured into a respectable wide receiver, my small stature did not make me the most desirable target on the field.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), a late-season drill where the receivers would try to catch passes thrown at them at full force from close range, broke two of my fingers and ended my season.

Basketball was always my favorite sport and the reality that a football injury could affect my basketball season suddenly had me second guessing my interest in the gridiron.

Deciding not to continue with football was a tough decision since my father and brothers all played. But I was determined to be a good basketball player and to me, football was an impediment in that regard.

And so, I bowed out of JV and varsity football and focused on basketball, which turned out to be a good call since my team went to the state finals during our senior year. However, my love of the sport never waned.

I ended up growing quite a bit later in high school and managed to put on some more weight through training. I often wondered if I would have found success if I stuck with football.

Once I graduated from high school, my parents made the intelligent decision to send me to a post-graduate year before unleashing me into the world of college. I was OK with this plan because I thought an extra year of basketball would increase my chances of playing in college.

When I arrived on campus, I was told I would have to play a fall sport. Given that there were limited offerings, I decided to give football one more shot.

Suddenly I was not the smallest or skinniest kid. And with testosterone flowing through my body at a much higher level, I was more than happy to run full speed into another player.

I would like to tell you that I became an all-star wide receiver while at prep school, breaking school records and attracting college interest, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, a knee injury sidelined me for much of the season, rendering me fairly ineffective (but not before I had the opportunity to score a touchdown!).

This week’s film, “American Underdog,” is a much better story about someone who used football to reach the pinnacle of success. Kurt Warner was a small-college quarterback with zero interest from the pros, but he had a dream, and sometimes dreams can push people to amazing places.

“American Underdog” tells Warner’s incredible true-life story (arguably one of football’s greatest stories) and his unlikely accession to the heights of pro sports. The film is a bit cliché-ridden, but barring that, it was emotionally gripping throughout.

Check this one out if you love sports or simply love to see someone defy all odds.

A heroic “B-” for “American Underdog,” now playing in theaters.

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]

Mountain Times Newsletter

Sign up below to receive the weekly newsletter, which also includes top trending stories and what all the locals are talking about!