Football for me, as a younger person, was key in helping me believe I was loved. As long as I was scoring touchdowns, I thought people loved me.
My brother Rick was my mentor, both for life and, most certainly, for the game of football. He believed I was destined to follow in his footsteps and find a place on a Canadian Football League team.
All i really wanted was to be loved.
“We can promise to cover all your schooling costs if you choose to attend our University. We’d love to have you play with the X-Men here at St. Francis Xavier.” That promise was made in 1973 and confirmed a dream I had long held that it was possible to be awarded a football scholarship; something no Dolan had ever done.
Football brought me friends, adventure, commitment, dedication, devotion, risk, challenge, discipline, fantasy, notoriety, a sense of belonging, confidence, opportunity and love. It’s gifts, to me, were vast.
My bantam football year, 1972, was amazing. My brother Rick was the head coach and my other brother John helped out as an Assistant Coach.
I was awarded “The Most Inspirational Player” for my team and received “Top Running Back” from the League. Again, it was the feeling of being loved by my big brothers and a host of other people that moved me the most.
I left the Catholic high school most of my siblings attended and found myself at a Protestant school on the other side of Calgary. With no real connection to anyone, it was football that connected me to this new world.
“Aren’t you the catholic kid that played football with St. Francis? I’ve heard you’re an amazing player.” This was my first informal greeting I received shortly after arriving at my new school. I still remember, amidst the anxiety of those brand new surroundings, feeling loved because of football.
From high school I moved onto the next step, so I thought, in my growth of becoming a professional football player. This is when I began to feel afraid.
The laughter disappeared during practices. I’d hear coaches scream, “Rip their heads off!”, “Hurt them so they’ll remember who they played!”
It was language that was hard to hear; energy that was frightening. Most difficult for me was not being able to find anyone to share with that I was scared.
Even though my brother was coaching this junior team as well, he too was suggesting that I was not being tough enough to the opposing players. I felt shamed.
This experience was nothing like my amazing years in high school. Add to that the heightened call to violence. Suddenly football was less attractive. My limited time with junior football was horrible. I quit the team.
I chose to return to high school for a fourth year and very much looked forward to playing another season. I knew love was there for me and no one ever wanted me to hurt anyone. I deeply missed this safe harbour.
There was a ruling, from the High School Athletic Association, that would not allow me to play my fourth year with my high school team because of the experience I gained in junior football. I was confused and devastated.
I was never able to tell my brother how terrified I was playing on that junior team. He stopped showing any interest in football as it related to me. The chasm between us deepened.
The following year I headed to the University of Alberta.
What got me there was the attention I received from the Golden Bears Head Coach. I felt he really cared about me as he enticed me to attend the U of A. I can see now it was the feeling of love or my sense of what love was.
Boy, was I wrong.
When I got myself onto the practice field for the first time, I walked over to the Head Coach and respectfully said, “Proud to report to practice, Chief.” He glared at me and sharply shouted, “It’s Coach! And don’t ever tell me how you feel!” Embarrassed, shamed, feeling unloved and clearly wanting to bolt, I instead turned around and headed into practice.
I made the Golden Bears team of 1977.
I remember wanting to ask my former high school coaches if feeling so afraid was a normal response to playing on a university football team. I never felt comfortable asking a question for which I thought I’d get laughed at.
In time, the fear I was experiencing was overwhelming. I’d liken it to the effects connected to post traumatic stress disorder that I read about. The violence I experienced as a member of the U of A football team was even greater.
Sometime during that season I walked away from the team. I never talked to anyone about it. I returned to Calgary.
Being so unconscious, in my life at the time, I eventually returned to the game. This time it was with the University of Calgary. Perhaps being at home would allow me to feel loved.
Not only did that end up being untrue. The fear for the game steadily increased. I became a master at avoiding what I thought would hurt me during practice and also chose to use a separate locker room from the team so I could feel safer.
It amazes me that no one ever suspected the fear I held or how it was that no one ever asked me about it. For me, there was no way I’d ever let someone know how terrified I was.
In what became the last game I ever played in 1980, I sustained a pretty significant head injury. I believe it was classified as a third-grade concussion.
Although I didn’t get it at the time, the injury – my bump on the head – woke me up to the terror that the game I used to love was now causing me. I’d never play again.
After coming out I remember my dear friend Shelagh, one of the few to support me and a wife of one of my teammates, saying she always wondered why I would hang around with the football wives and not my teammates at the football parties. Clearly, it was my need to feel loved and safe.
The dreams I have today of playing football always create immense anxiety, fear and trauma for me. I’ve wondered how I could make them stop.
By telling this story and no longer feeling ashamed of sharing how scary football became for me, I am going to trust that my dreams will change.
I choose to make the generous assumption that I was doing the best I could at the time even though it might have been for either love or touchdowns.