Forgive me if this sounds redundant, but football is great and it means an awful lot to me. I’ve said it before on here and you can expect it from me again.
That being said, it is also frustrating, boring, misguided, dangerous, and generally overplayed in our society. It can be terminally dull when a single play lasts only a few seconds, but downtime between plays is generally more than half a minute. Games can last 3 hours and never have a truly exciting thing happen . It can be among the least exciting entertainment this side of televised poker.
I have to admit, the only fall that I ever played organized football I just hated it. I hate the hitting, hated the running, hated most of my teammates, and hated how little interest the coaches gave to me because I had never really been coached before. I wanted to quit for most of the season and only stayed on the team because my parents and the athletic director convinced me that I had made a commitment and should see it through. I’m still not convinced that was worth another seven weeks of misery, but I’ll let that lie.
Those men who stayed on where I did not and continue to play in high schools, colleges, and for professional teams are all seemingly risking their well-being for very little reward. Just about every week there is a prominent player who suffers the kind of injury that can permanently affect his health and well-being, from ACL tears to career-ending concussions, there’s a lot of long-term damage being done to players for our entertainment. Just this week, the NFL agreed to a settlement in excess of $600 million to be paid to a few thousand of their former players who suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other chronic diseases and ailments cause be head trauma. This is much better than a century ago when it was a common occurrence for young men to die on the field due to the violent play.
On the collegiate level, where my rooting passions lie, the game seems ruled by an increasingly unsustainable cartel. The NCAA has maintained their amateurism policy far behind its usefulness to the game, and the end result has been nothing short of ridiculous. Even as the NCAA and its member conferences and schools rack up hundreds of millions in revenue based on the exploits of young men and women on the field they prohibit those athletes from similarly profiting on their success and celebrity. It’s an insane double-standard that is crumbling even as I type this, but while they persist such rules deserve nothing but scorn.
Yet. Despite all that. All these great reasons not to care for football, it remains an essential and powerful part of our popular culture and my specific interests. Very little gets me as wound up as a close Michigan game. (My wife can attest to this, having watched my writhe in agony on the floor at least once a year for the past half-decade) Nothing in media or culture this side of Bob’s Burgers can put as delirious a smile on my face as a breath-taking run from Denard Robinson. I’ve seen all the clips a million times, but watching the YouTube video of Michigan Stadium’s top ten moments a few days ago took my breath away. (Though, seriously, how is Desmond Howard’s “Hello, Heisman!” punt return touchdown only in 4th place? That’s arguably the most iconic image in modern sports. Watching a game where I care about the result of every down and try to take in the strategy behind every snap is a deliriously pleasurable thing. What can top it? What it better? Vanishingly little.
I talked about this on my Facebook wall earlier, but it’s worth telling in here again anyway. Last night I had the Vanderbilt-Ole Miss game on, which I don’t care about except it was live football and on my TV. But in the span of 10 minutes I watched a receiver for Vandy vomit repeatedly on the field because of a hard hit to the abdomen and leave the game seemingly permanently. Two plays later he returned to make a miracle 40-yard catch on 4th and long that lead to a go-ahead touchdown with 1 minute to go. He was not nearly done though, as Vandy gave up a 75-yard TD run just 2 plays later, putting themselves in the very hole he had just helped pull them from. So he trots back into the game and on another 4th down the ball if thrown his way. It deflects off his hands, shoots up into the air, and falls right into the arms of the player who hit him so hard earlier. Game over. This kid then walks to the sideline and just sobbed into his coach’s shoulder, great big heaving sobs with his helmet still on, for the next 5 minutes until the broadcast ended.
It was like watching a wrenching piece of Greek drama in the span of a few minutes on live TV. Yes, the stakes were low. Yes, most of the game was a snore. Yes, this kid will be fine and is heading towards a future with millions more than I will ever because he will be professional football player. But in those few moments he went right through it all and the rest doesn’t matter. For whatever reason he put his whole self, his body and spirit, on the line and when the decisive moment of the night passed right through his hands all he could do was find a shoulder to cry all of his pain and regret and embarrassment and exhaustion into. I didn’t turn on my TV to watch that, but fuck if it wasn’t one of the best things I’ll see all year. That young man acted out a primal drama of striving, pain, achievement, and crushing disappointment. It’s a drama we’re all familiar with. Life is hard out there for all of us, full of more pain and misery and useless repetition than we generally care to think about or acknowledge. But now it’s finally Fall again. That great sport, and all its incipient traditions, is about to be played again and again so that we might forget the rest of our own lives for a few hours.
The stadiums are filling up, the players are stretching, the band is playing, and football is back. For all of us.