About 11 hours after a morning practice for spring football camp, the linebackers and running backs of L.D. Bell High School gathered for a boys’ night at WhirlyBall LaserWhirld of HEB.
Lacrosse-like scoops in tow, they motored around in red-and-yellow carts with the objective of launching a Wiffle ball into a goal. With stakes much lower than a game on the football field, the boys shared smiles and laughs as they competed against each other. Coaches hopped in the carts to join the fun.
While the main objective of spring camp is to prepare for the fall football season, coaches at L.D. Bell in Hurst have made it their mission to facilitate healthy bonds and friendships among teammates. Competing together on the field and having fun during outings aid in making those relationships happen.
Athletic programs have started to foster cultures that prioritize relationships and personal development rather than just game-day outcomes.
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For young men in America, sports could be a solution for what experts deem a neglected and overlooked crisis of connection.
Earlier this month, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory that addressed the “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” and discussed the “National Strategy to Advance Social Connection.” Murthy said social connection can help offset the negative consequences of loneliness.
Experts say that loneliness can breed health issues, such as a weakened immune system, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.
“We live longer lives when we’re deeply connected,” Niobe Way, a professor of applied psychology at NYU who penned 2011′s Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendship and the Crisis of Connection, told The Dallas Morning News. “...You can actually die of loneliness.”
Such bonding opportunities such as the ones at L.D. Bell and other Dallas-area schools like North Forney, where football players are partnered with male mentors, provides boys — typically less connected with each other than girls — with the friendships they need during an era of social isolation.
“It’s fun,” said L.D. Bell rising senior Ruben Sosa, 17, during the team social. “It really gets us close to each other, even with the new players coming in, it kind of gets them out of their comfort zone.”
Not everyone that day could play whirlyball at once, so some teammates traded coins and hit up the arcade, where they indulged in Guitar Hero and racing games. Others stared through the glass, hollering at their friends . Several boys left their phones unattended on a nearby counter.
“Playing sports has made me keep friends,” said Caleb Jones, 17, a rising senior. “If you’re just an average student, maybe it’s harder to bond, but if you meet somebody that plays sports, you’ll have so much in common and that’s how most friendships are built.”
Sports help with boys isolation
When Murthy issued his recent advisory, he outlined six solutions to help reduce the number of people who suffer from loneliness and social isolation. It’s important to strengthen social infrastructure, enact pro-connection public policies, mobilize the health sector, reform digital environments, deepen knowledge and cultivate a culture of connection, he said.
“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health,” Murthy said. " Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight — one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.”
While Murthy and others acknowledge that women are also impacted by the friendship deficit, data shows that men suffer most. The percentage of men who cited having at least six close friends decreased by half from 1990 to 2021, according to findings by the AEI’s Survey Center on American Life and Gallup.
That deficit has fatal consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2021 that the suicide rate for men was about four times higher than the rate for women.
The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t help, as it led to increased rates of loneliness. Social media use and technology have diminished mental health, too.
Another culprit that fuels isolation in men: masculine norms promoting stoicism and rugged individualism. Both ideals can negatively impact males’ quality of life.
“Men who feel like they have to live up to traditionally masculine norms ..., they’re the ones most impacted by loneliness,” Joe Grasso, a licensed clinical psychologist who earned his PhD from UT-Austin and specializes in masculinity and men’s issues, told The News. “They’re the ones who face the most barriers around building close friendships.”
“We can teach all of our young people that they are important and they are valuable, no matter how tall they are, no matter what they look like, no matter what their socioeconomic status is, and I think that’s why sports … [or] any club or organization, or any team or family, provides that support and that value for kids,” L.D. Bell head football coach TJ Dibble said.
Landen Garcia, a graduating senior who quarterbacked L.D Bell last fall, said the power of sports eased his loneliness.
“I was one of those people who seemed OK,” Garcia said, “but internally … I was more closed off. … I would say I felt alone.”
Garcia, 17, said he’s seen what’s happened to peers who felt lonely. They’ve spiraled into drugs or pornography. They’ve turned toalcohol and other behaviors, he said, that only worsen situations.
“Certain things, like football, uplift you instead of putting you down,” Garcia said.
Dibble recognizes that.
“When young men have a place to belong ... it gives them purpose and it gives them a reason to get up out of bed and maybe try to pass that math class or make an A or a B,” he said. “ Because it’s not just about me anymore, it’s about all those other people that are expecting me to be there, too.”
The cost of loneliness
Like most teens, Matthew Hernandez, 17, has come of age during the onslaught of social media, a seismic societal shift.
Another shift occurred in March 2020, during his freshman year of high school.
“I’ve never been so lonely in my life. … COVID made that terrible,” said Hernandez, a graduating senior at L. D. Bell. “I didn’t want to talk to anybody because I felt like I couldn’t talk to anybody.”
His football teammate Michael Woods, 18, said he felt similarly. Unmotivated. Checked out.
“When you’re lonely, you just feel like nothing else is helping you out,” said Woods, a graduating senior at L.D. Bell. “All the heartache, pain, stress, starts getting to you and you start having different thoughts.”
Dibble said he noticed the impacts of the pandemic as both a teacher and coach at L.D. Bell.
“Coming out of that, I think the challenge is to build that confidence and social interaction,” Dibble said. “With the amount of technology that our young people have access to, it’s really easy to become isolated. More now than ever I would say because there are a lot of options where you can sit in your room or stay at home. ”
Other coaches say that if young men don’t find intimate connections at home or in extracurricular activities, they will look elsewhere. “They want to play. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves,” said Flower Mound head boys basketball coach Eric Littleton. “And if it’s not the team, it’s going to be the gang. Or it’s going to be the bad influences.”
Way, who has studied boys and friendship as part of her research, attributes the rise in societal violence and the proliferation of toxic online communities to growing isolation among men.
When the outside world makes a man feel rejected in some capacity, Way said it’s understandable that he would join a group, positive or not, that empowers and welcomes him.
North Forney head football coach Eric Luster agrees.
“There’s an old African proverb that talks about ‘The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth,’” Luster said. “So if we don’t find a way to engage kids, then that’s where we start to see the violence.”
The fear of opening up
When Landen Garcia played quarterback for L.D. Bell, he said his coaches led by example. He remembered how they reacted in a moment of triumph.
“… We won a game, and I saw two grown men hug and I took enough notice to it to say ‘That’s amazing,’” Garcia said. “...Then you look around and you see players hugging each other.
But hugs can still feel a bit taboo. At least in the L.D. Bell locker room, “dapping up” is the go-to connection point.
Boys slide their hands together with their mates and grip their fingers before removing them, and maybe add a snap of fingers at the end.
“I think dapping up is like a substitute for hugs for us,” Woods said. “ I guess it’s the best way to say what’s up and how are you doing without actually saying it.”
Throughout the football season, L.D. Bell players participate in weekly team meetings where they share personal stories and struggles. Dibble said players often point to that time, dedicated to emphasizing the friendship and brotherhood that comes with being on a team, as their favorite part of the program
While the meetings help the boys become more vulnerable, throwing “I love you’s” around is not exactly a common occurrence.
“It’s known and felt, but it’s not always said,” said Evan Pomrenke, a graduating senior at L.D. Bell.
Only 25% of men compared to 49% of women told a friend they loved them recently, according to a poll conducted by AEI’s Survey Center on American Life in 2021. Men are also less likely to seek emotional support from friends, according to the survey.
“I guess it’s just the stigma with it,” said Emari Oyedokun, 17, a rising senior in North Forney’s football program, “Your bros are there to have fun.”
Society often labels affection between men as not platonic.
Men who are confidently masculine can better resist norms of masculinity that could be harmful, Way said. Sports can build confidence and create a setting for men to develop emotional awareness. That’s a core purpose of North Forney’s Flight Crew program, which assigns male mentors to players.
The community of volunteers encourages them to open up about what’s going on in their lives. For boys without a father figure at home, adult male mentors like Joe Saldaña and Michael Oyedokun, father of Emari, fill that void and teach young men how to have healthy relationships.
“When we first started out, a lot of the boys [gave] one-word answers,” said Michael Oyedokun, a community pastor. “Once you develop the relationship with them and they see you coming consistently, then they start to open up more.”
Sports as a safe space
In the North Forney football locker room, rising senior AJ Anderson, 17, sees guys who devote everything they have to the game and team.
To cry after a loss, especially a decisive one, or when a player goes down with an injury is not strange or considered an act of weakness there .
“When you lose that safe haven or you fail to accomplish the goal that you had, it’s going to hurt,” Anderson said. “And I think a lot of football players understand that for other people.”
During brighter moments, players hug or smack each other’s backsides. They cry happy tears.
“It’s an outlet that society has said is appropriate for men to use to express emotion,” said Grasso, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in masculinity and men’s issues.
During L.D. Bell’s WhirlyBall session, a group of boys gathered around an arcade game called Boxer.
They lined up one by one to swing at a punching bag contraption and then waited to see who got the highest score — a marker of great strength. “Ooohs!” and laughs mixed in with the sound of brute force.
One player punched a score over 800. Another boasted to one of his peers standing in line that he could top that. When one of the coaches slugged for a score in the 500s, the boys playfully teased him.
Bonding over a shared activity proves enjoyable for many men who thrive off competition. Grasso said men tend to have “side-by-side” relationships and women have “face-to-face” ones.
“What ideally you want to see is that the ability to show emotion in the context of sports can open the door for those men to be able to express emotion about things in their personal life, too,” Grasso said. " And I think that’s the real power of sports in potentially helping to push back against this epidemic of loneliness in men.”
Once the L.D. Bell social ended, the boys took a group picture and collected their phones from the counter.
Then, before leaving the arcade games behind, they dapped up.
“I guess it’s just a sign of respect, love,” Pomrenke said of the gesture.