By Mark Schlereth
I love football.
I love everything about the game.
I love the off-season workouts, and grinding out rep after painstaking rep in preparation for the grueling battle of attrition that is the season.
I love sauntering out onto the field on a muggy July morning for the first practice of the summer. The pungent odor of freshly mowed grass hangs in the air like incense. The sun’s rays feel like a propane torch to the back of the neck.
I love stepping across the white chalk line, knowing that with each step I take I’m one step closer to feeling like shit for the next seven months. Still, I never hesitate to place one foot in front of the other.
I love the undeniable fact that only a few men in the entire world have the talent, guts, determination and loose screw that it takes to earn a living playing the part of a modern-day gladiator.
I love the mental preparation and strategy of a chess match played with live pawns, rooks and bishops, where checkmate is declared only after the final gun sounds.
I love knowing that every man is going to have to sacrifice to make our teams’ dreams become reality.
I love placing my hand over my heart to honor my country before kickoff.
I love lining up across from my mortal enemy and trying to beat him into submission and then kneeling with that same adversary after the game, our heads bowed together in prayer.
I love limping out of the locker room, knees aching, back wrenched, my hands swollen and bloodied, as I ignore the voice in my head pleading with me to retire.
I love football.
But the game I love is under siege. There is a faction in our country that would like to see the game go away, simply disappear — and I hate it!
If ever there was a guy that had the right to be disenchanted with the game, it’s me. During the course of my career, I endured a total of twenty-nine surgeries: twenty knee procedures, seven elbow surgeries, one back operation and one kidney surgery. I have been forever altered. The degenerative changes don’t subside when the pads come off. They simply worsen year after year.
In spite of the daily pain and limitations, football has given me far more than it has ever taken! Regardless of what the future holds, I will support and defend it until my dying day. And, if given the opportunity, I’d do it all over again. The lessons I’ve learned from my time playing the game could fill the pages of multiple books — lessons of perseverance, sacrifice, toughness, disappointments and joy.
One of my major takeaways from a career that spanned twelve seasons is that our biggest strength is our diversity and our willingness to trust and rely on one another. There is no greater example of this than playing offensive line: five guys from different parts of the country, from different social and economic backgrounds, all forgetting their differences and, like a woven basket, becoming one. Understanding that, individual greatness rings hollow compared to the crown that adorns championship teams.
Instead of bashing America’s No. 1 sport as barbaric bloodlust, we should be championing it. Football has much to teach us as a country about the great things we can accomplish when we simply embrace one another.
For twelve seasons, Mark Schlereth played guard in the NFL, a tenure that included three Super Bowl championship teams – one with the Washington Redskins and two with the Denver Broncos.