Baseball is what we were. Football is what we have become.
— Mary McGrory
IF I’M DRIVING down the road and I see it being played, there’s a good chance that I’ll stop and watch for a while, even if there’s something else I have to do. I won’t stop for a basketball game (unless I’m going to try to play); I won’t stop to look at a glorious sunset or a rainbow; I won’t even always stop (to my slight shame) for a car that’s pulled over by the side of the road, hood up, steam flowing up from the engine, like vapor from a tea kettle. Even if it’s Pee Wees playing — kids who’re eight and nine and 10 years old — I’ll have a look. They stutter into each other; their heads, with the over-sized helmets, loll on their necks as though they were bobble-headed dolls; the ball squirts out of their hands. The coach is screaming his head off, or he’s passed into Zen bemusement. But I’m fascinated still: they’re playing the game; they’re into it; they’re doing this strange violent beautiful American thing. They’re playing football. Even from the sidelines, not knowing anyone on the field, I want to be involved. I want to see what will happen next.
I’m not alone in this apparently. Football has become the national game, America’s Game as the announcers and promoters like to call it. All over the country, people share my obsession. Like me, they want to watch high school games, and college contests, and on Sunday, after church (or not), they want to tune in to the pros. (Not all of them, to be sure, may be willing to pull over for a Pee Wee scrimmage.) They want to keep up with football on “SportsCenter”; they want to read about it in the paper; they want to call sports radio talk shows and weigh in on yesterday’s big trade; they even want to sit in front of ESPN and take in NFL draft day: “In the 7th round, the Arizona Cardinals choose […]” But what am I smiling about? I watch that show, too.
I sometimes wonder (being, I suppose, of a wondering disposition) what it is that draws us to the game. By Saturday afternoon in the fall — assuming I’ve kept away from mid-week games — I’m feeling something like an addict’s need. The urge to see some football really does feel nearly physical. It’s an American hunger, this interest in the game: I’m almost sure of that. Football’s played in Canada but, despite impressive marketing efforts, it hasn’t caught on in Europe or anywhere else. I don’t think it ever will. That is unless America and the world become synonymous, the way Rome became synonymous with the world for some time. Football is the American game, like rock is the American music, and black speak is the American vernacular, burgers and fries are (like it or lump it) American food, and golden beer served at sub-zero temp is the American drink.
If visitors from a galaxy far away landed in our precincts, landed in New York City, say, and asked us to show them (not tell, show them) what we were all about, how would we respond? I’d be tempted to take them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the palace of Western culture. Or I might be inclined to guide them up between the sentinel lions at the New York Public Library and into the great reading room. But in either case, I’d be wrong. I’d be idealizing. No, surely the best place to take them, if they wanted to see America, would be out to the Meadowlands to watch the Giants go to war with the Redskins, or take on the Dallas Cowboys, blue versus gray, the Civil War one more time. Maybe better, one would take them up close to a flat screen TV — high definition, surround sound, the works — and let our visitors view the images that have now become, if this is possible, more life-like than life. And you would point to the screen in joy and consternation and sometimes in dismay or something close to horror. And you’d be tempted to say: This is who we are. This is what we Americans are about. But then, what exactly would you mean?
I might begin by speaking for myself. I love the uniforms, the helmets in particular. I love the screaming primary colors and the silvers and gold. I like the war of the colors when a play starts, as though an expressionist painting suddenly came to life. I love the sparkle of the helmets and the cages on the front, both protection and weapon. I like the way the uniforms give extra play to the shoulders and the head — as though the game is about brawn, which it surely is, but also about brains, which it can be as well. I love the pastoral green of the grass, which looks perfect and peaceful until it’s outraged by the battle that occurs on top of it.
I love a hard tackle — a form tackle — where the defender squares up and sticks his helmet right into the middle of the ball carrier and cleanly, quickly, takes him down. I’m a fan of the open field tackle in particular. I love it when the defensive player freezes his guy, and doesn’t commit to his fakes, but stays focused, stays centered and, when the ball carrier has thrown his couple of moves, sticks him hard and takes him down. I love last-ditch tackles, when a player is about to cross the goal line with the ball and the defender makes one wild stab and catches the enemy around the ankle and tumbles him down.
And is there anything — anything! — so tasty as seeing a guy raise the ball in triumph over his head when he’s 10 yards from the goal line and, from out of the edge of his peripheral vision, so he never sees it until it is way too late — Kapow — someone comes hurtling at him, flying so fast he might as well be wearing a cape and — oooooh — there goes the ball carrier, ass over teakettle, and look, squirting out like a dirty secret, the ball!
I love running backs, too. I love when they juke and jive and make people miss, but also when they know there will be no more juking and jiving, when they lower their helmets and collide head on with the player who is going to get them. I like it when they refuse to go out of bounds to avoid a hit but stay in and take it, and dish something out, too, even though it won’t get them an extra yard. I’m full of awe when a running back takes a clean hit that I know would send me to two weeks in a rest home, looking out at a quiet lake, surrounded by staff in white, sipping lemonade from a cot. But the running back hops up like Jack coming flash out of the box, so no one will believe he’s been hurt, though everyone knows he can barely see straight.
I love a beautiful catch. Footballs are hard to catch — they’re thick-skinned and rough and shaped the wrong way for grabbing. They’re shaped to throw all right — they’re shaped a bit like missiles — but catching them is another matter. Reach for one wrong, especially on a cold day, and it feels like a small bomb has gone off in your hands. I like when guys make diving, twisting, corkscrew catches and come dancing up with smiles pasted across their kissers. I like when tight ends go across the middle and concentrate, concentrate, concentrate on the ball, like artists looking, looking, looking at their subject, and then take the inevitable whack and hold on as though the ball were a baby.
I love it when the team that is not supposed to win does. There’s luck in football, for certain. But not all that much. When you win a football game you do it because you were the better team. Like chess, the best side that day wins. And when you beat a team that’s more talented, more experienced, and better coached, there is usually only one way to do it, which is by being tougher and hitting harder and jumping faster off the deck than they did. You beat better players by being braver than they are. You beat better teams by having more guts: there really is no other way. So when David whips Goliath on a football field it’s not because of a lucky shot with a slick weapon, but because he down and out-Goliathed the giant. It can be done — it’s just very hard. Every year the athletic director of my high school gave the same speech to us before the big Thanksgiving game with Malden — second oldest high school rivalry in America. “There’s only one way to be sure that you will win this game,” he said. “You must go out there and you must HIT!” The last word threatened the timbers of the roof. The man was, in almost every other regard, an idiot. But in this he was right.
I like defensive backs, the fearless, buzzing, stinging creatures with waspy waists who are committed to warrior arrogance and who, 10 seconds after having been burned on a post pattern for a touchdown, simply cannot remember that play at all, because they have gone back to thinking of themselves as indomitable. A few years ago, when Miami played against the university where I teach, Virginia, there was a pause, and the loudspeakers began playing an especially fetching piece of pop music. The two Miami safeties, separated by about 20 yards began, very subtly, very elegantly, dancing with each other. It was beautiful to behold, and I could only say to myself: In this world, those are the two happiest guys alive. They were losing at the time, which only made it better.
I like offensive linemen, who are some of the most violent people outside prison, but also have a streak of passivity in them. There’s something maternal about these guys. They protect others: quarterbacks, running backs, kickers. They hold out their big paws for you to shake and you can see that their great hope is that you won’t try to prove your manhood by squeezing too hard, because their hands have been stepped on dozens of times and can be made to glow like a furnace with a hard grip. A lot of them seem to be country boys; it’s not hard to imagine them working on ranches, taking care of animals, delivering calves, and sending hay bails flying into the air to see if they can nick a cloud or two, just for the fun of it.
Defensive linemen have a city vibe; they bring menace with them. You feel that you could set them off easily and they’d burst like TNT sticks. They seem mad at something, some insult usually, for they are aristocratic in their way, aristocrats manqué. They are always ready to try to prove something. The names are backwards — they are the offensive ones; the centers and guards are knightly defenders. The offensive linemen are loyal retainers who on some level love the skill players and would do anything to protect them. Defenders are revolutionaries in the making who can’t stand the backs and ends and all the glory they hog for themselves. They love to kick an elaborate sandcastle down. They love to burst inside the walls and raise hell. When my high school coach told me that I was an offensive lineman at heart I was insulted — it did not sort with my sense of myself at all.
I even like quarterbacks, even though they are not, truly speaking, football players. They don’t block and tackle; they don’t hit; most of them do not even want to run with the ball. They are more like baseball players with their powerful arms, their stiff, effective moves, their check-downs and audibles, and their “do the right thing and don’t screw up” mentality. They’re more computer-like than the other players; they are more corporate. They are bosom buddies with the coach — they’re coaches on the field. (Coaches to me are necessary evil.) They never do something in the game just for the hell of it, just to see if they can. (Brett Favre and Michael Vick excepted.) They can be prima donnas, porcelain people. They can seem precious. But they do stand in there with their backs to the onrushing linemen, and they guide the ball where it needs to go. When they take those horrible backside whacks, which are as close as the law allows to assassination attempts, they stand up, shake their heads, go back to the huddle, and try it again. The best ones don’t get agitated. They don’t fluster and fall apart. The Kipling bit, about keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, applies to them and often only them on the field.
I like the ridiculous dances the players make up: the Ickey Woods shuffle and the way Ray Lewis, in honor of Edgar Allan Poe, knowingly or not, flapped and cawed like a raven. The obscene sack dances of the jiggly-flabbery lineman call forth from my father the line: It must be jelly cause jam don’t shake like that. I like that William “The Refrigerator” Perry existed, that he bore that name, and that he scored touchdowns (sometimes).
I’m fascinated by the way that the game combines violence and beauty. Pater said that he loved it when art merged beauty and strangeness. But violence and beauty — there’s something about that, too. It’s been said ballplayers look like Homeric warriors, and they do, but football players may more closely resemble knights, jousting in a tournament, with rules and standards and dignity and respect for the opponent, though it is dangerous, too.
The kick-off is a cavalry charge, with runners going full, and the defenders flying at the speed of riders, moving fast, screaming headlong to make the tackle. The players are doing something that civilization in general simply does not allow people to do. They are going all out. Lives are lived in strict measure under the reign of civility: it’s all about six of one and half-dozen of the other and ambivalence and a paler shade of gray. But when the whistle blows and the players take off, there are no half measures. You go for the guy with the ball with all you have. When I think of the moments I have been alive, the moments covering a kick-off are at the top of the list. Usually your side has just scored and it is time to press the advantage home, stick the enemy deep into its own territory, and that’s exactly what you do.
I like what football did for me, and I’m grateful for it. I came to the game a buttery, soft, sensitive boy. I had little aptitude for it: not much speed, not much strength, no quicks of which to speak. And I had nothing much else going for me in life. I guess you could say I was depressed, though it wasn’t a term we used in Medford, circa 1970. My dear younger sister Barbara had just died; my mother was mourning her and was sick herself; my father was drinking more than he should have; my younger brother was too much younger (luckily for him) to take it all in. I was a dud at school — I couldn’t keep my eyes on a book. The letters swam like fish, minnows on the undulant move. I had a few friends, but they thought little enough of me. Girls? You must be kidding. I was a bad bet financially, professionally, humanly, emotionally, and I didn’t look too good either.
When I told other guys I was going out for football they didn’t believe me. They thought I was lying when I told them I’d gone and picked up pads. They thought it was ridiculous that someone with my deficits should step on the field with the high school idols. And in a part of my spirit I completely agreed. They’d get no real argument from me. I guess I wanted to flop at football so I could write myself off as a flop, pure and simple, and devote myself to TV and quart bottles of Schlitz and Miller High Life, the champagne of bottled beer. The first time I put on my pads I felt as though I’d been encased in a coffin. How the heck do you move inside this stuff? Then I stepped outside onto the field and, after a few preliminaries, our future all-state tackle showed me how. He demonstrated by flying at me on a sweep and knocking me half senseless. Q.E.D. Everybody laughed — as in: One Down. He’s had it. He’s going to quit.
Didn’t happen, though. The first day woke up something in me that wanted to stay alive and make it. I began to feel, like I’d been fooling with this sad-sack business. It turned out there was a stream of something not unlike fire underneath the stream of tears and treacle. Not much later, I walloped the star but good. It had no effect on him, and no one much saw it. It mattered to me, though. So yes, I’m grateful to the game. I won’t say: It made me what I am today — because what’s that? I will say that without it I might have crawled like a hermit crab into a big shell that wasn’t even mine and gone around hiding myself as well as I could, scuttling to the left and to the right, getting by the rocks, not breathing too hard, and ending up a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the sea, as the poet put it. J. Alfred Prufrock wasn’t far from me — and that’s giving it the best.
Football put me into good company. I like spirited people, people who pop off and go at life with a little gusto. I’m not crazy about corner-sitters and self-blamers and trudgers through and whiners. I like people who jump in and succeed or fail and accept the praise if it’s due and take the blame if it’s not. I like the people Whitman liked: crude and unlettered and with some spirit — I like refined and lettered people, too, but spirit is the sine qua non. In football you can find the best of them and the worst. In my high school — circa 1969 — there was only a handful of people who were ready to oppose the Vietnam War, and many of them were (stereotypes in abeyance) football players. Some of the big supporters of the war were with us, too. The game gave people the courage of their convictions. They thought — thinking was in the air at the time; you had to think — and what they thought they often freely spoke.
I like the game for how much it resembles my other obsession in life: poetry. They overlap more than you think. They’re about grace and daring and perfect balance going along with extreme boldness. They’re both about taking chances, falling on your ass (most poems fail; great poets write dozens of losers), and then getting up and doing it again. (Some of the stuff Keats wrote during the period when he was writing his great Odes is so bad as to be beyond description.) Sports and poetry are both about performance. They’re about taking what we all have — bodies, language — and doing something with them that makes others stand back in awe. (We aren’t all born with paintbrushes between out fingers, or calculators in out mitts: Michaelangelo and Rockefeller are secondary men.) The critic Richard Poirier was in love with this idea of performance and wrote a terrific book about it. What he liked most in life, he told me, was to see something or hear something or read something — he loved ballet almost as much as he loved poetry — and to stand in awe. “A human being did that!” he would say. “Damn, a human being did that.” On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in the fall in America, there are plenty of moments where that’s really all you can say: A human being did that! Amazing! One of us! And on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays on scrubby fields in Texas and Florida and California and Missouri, where kids are practicing, some mutt is working his head off, getting a little better and a little better while no one gives a shit but him, because he’s never going to start and maybe never going to play. But who’s to say that he doesn’t deserve the words: A human being is doing that. It’s not half bad what’s he’s up to there. A human being is doing that.
One of the things I did when I was playing ball was knock a kid’s teeth out. It was during double session drills, which took place away from home, at a camp, Camp Miramar in Duxbury, Massachusetts during my senior year. We were doing what were called hit and shed drills. There are two parallel lines of players and one guy, the goat, standing in front of those lines. Behind the goat stands a coach. The coach points to one of the other guys who are at the front of their lines, and the player so designated goes for the goat and tries to send him flying. The goat never knows who is coming — but it can only be one of two guys. His objective is to use a forearm and to shed him, as though shedding a blocker.
My guy came in high — you were always supposed to get low, and I clocked him. I hit him with a forearm in the face, an illegal blow, but a common one. He crumpled over. I saw a little blood come from his mouth. He smiled and there was a little more blood. The helmet he was wearing wasn’t worth a thing — the seniors got the good gear, and he was a sophomore. A better helmet couldn’t have been blown up and nearly off his head that way. Later that night I learned that he had gone to the hospital. I learned that he had lost his teeth because of me. He’d wear a bridge for the rest of his life. He dated a friend’s sister once and my friend told me about his coming to the door — “Remember,” my friend said, “the kid whose teeth you knocked out.” I did remember. I still do. I think back to that constantly, to the thing I did. Throwing a high elbow, harming someone, doing something vicious. Yeah, that was me, too.
The game is vicious. In the trench, the zone where the linemen close on each other, there is holding and grabbing and gouging and jamming of fingers into the eyes. If it is possible to bite an opponent, then I suppose there is biting, too. But the illegal stuff isn’t all that much of a problem. Usually you can’t hurt a fellow player half as much with illegal stuff as you can with the legal. When football players fight it’s almost laughable. Too many pads, dense helmet, hands wrapped in gauze or gloves: you can’t really hurt the other guy or be hurt. But you can hurt him on the field. A helmet is protection, but as every ballplayer knows, it is a weapon, too. You use it to block, and you use it to tackle. You send it into the unprotected gut of the guy with the ball, and you do it with a nice running start. It’s as though you were a dense metal ball and you rammed yourself back, back into a slingshot and let fly. Or you’re blocking on a kickoff or an end run and you hit the perfect angle (sports are all about angles) so the defender can’t see you and you smash him just right, like a truck hitting a compact car and Kaboom! — Happy Easter! Rise when you can and will. Though they may need a tow truck to pull you up. Then of course there’s head to head hits, which the NFL has tried to outlaw, but the outlawing seems almost to have increased the frequency. Brain injuries, we’re learning, are a horror. You get depressed, you get headaches, and if you’re a macho guy you don’t go to a psychiatrist. So you get worse and worse. Said one ballplayer: “I knew when I got into the game that after a while it might be hard to bend over and pick my son up. What I didn’t realize was that after I might get hit in the head so many times that I wouldn’t be able to recognize him.”
There’s also the fact that the players are stoked on drugs. To be sure, there aren’t many drug scandals in football, but this is partly because the drug rules are not very harsh and enforcement is spotty. It seems that college players juice themselves; the pros generally apply every helper they can to get them where they need to be. For the competition is brutal. It’s hard to stay in the game. NFL means Not For Long. What these drugs do to the body long-term no one knows, though we’ll surely find out. What they do to the spirit of fair play is a question, too. Guys break the rules. But if everyone is using them — is it really unethical? The drugs beef you up, juice you up, and make you a more ferocious weapon, able to deal more damage. Someone once asked Ronnie Lott what it was like to get hit by him. Wrap yourself in a thin mattress, he said. Tie it around your torso good. Then have a buddy of yours take a baseball bat, a Louisville Slugger, and have a solid swing, at the mattress, at you.
Lott is being a touch hyperbolic, no doubt, but he brings it close to home. This is what a big hit is about. This is what we thrill to on Saturday and Sunday afternoon — big, brain busting, body smashing whacks. Sometimes the hit cancels the player right away; sometimes the damage occurs over time. But no one gets out unscathed. If you’ve had a pro career, you wake up every morning hurting, whether you’re in the game now or 10 years away from it. But for some reason, we Americans need this — we find it entertaining.
Is there any silence as complexly toxic as the one that occurs when a football player goes down and stays down? I mean the silence that comes over the stadium and the other players, and even sometimes the never-shut-up announcers, as they load the player onto the stretcher and tighten him into the head brace. And he does not move. And you know he may never move again, or never move as he once did. It happened to Darryl Stingley. It happened to plenty of other players. When a baseball player goes down, or a soccer player, you can breathe more easily. Not because he isn’t seriously hurt. He may well be. But in football the injury is at the heart of the game. You came to see hits, blocks, and tackles that, as the coaches like to say, you can feel in the last crapper in the last row of the last men’s room under the stadium. When the opposing lines come together, the joint shakes. This guy lying motionless on the field is at the heart of the game: he is what it is about. By paying for your ticket or sitting home and tuning in you’ve helped make this happen. You’re in complicity — because it’s not some rare one-time thing. It’s not as though, if you and a few million other people weren’t watching, the players would be doing what they are. When I apologized to the nice, nice kid whose mouth I ruined, he apologized back. I came in too high, he said. It was all my fault.
Football players are black men, or at least two-thirds of the ones on the field in major college and the pro teams are, and they come out of the world of black Americans. Their dads aren’t usually lawyers; they’re moms generally neglected to go to Wellesley. Many of them came up with nothing and for a while they live like princes — or they try. Black men dominate football and basketball, the big money, big commercial sports, and no one much wants to speculate as to why. When Jimmy the Greek said that they probably descended from slaves strong enough to survive the Middle Passage, they tossed him off the air. Race and sports is a street no one really wants to walk down.
Ask an urban black kid what he wants to be when he grows up. He wants to be a pro athlete, or he wants to be a rapper. That’s often the story: a white guy isn’t supposed to say so, but it is. And some will be, but not many. Many, maybe most will fall into the underclass with their hoop dreams or their touchdown dreams from high school or college still hot in them. A lot of them will end up in jail — about a million and a half black men are there today. Put harshly: they spend a few years rehearsing for the all-American gladiator show that is football, and then they fail and they live lives of quiet (and sometimes loud) desperation or they go to jail. Maybe instead of talking up games to them someone should have mentioned Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin. Maybe someone should have said something about Malcolm X. It’s not all that hard to imagine what Malcolm would have said about football and black men. Get off the plantation and fight for your people. Stop dancing and marsh a step or two. Or words to that effect.
And yet, there is a glory to the game: one cannot deny it. Life outside of football is often lived by inches. We negotiate our way through. We look at two stacks and see six of one and half-dozen of the other, and we take our pick. Two roads divide in the woods and they are both the same damned road. We spend no end of time minimizing chances and cutting back dangers. We’ve all sold ourselves vast insurance policies. We are our own Liberty Mutual. We’re our own piece of the rock. We watch everything closely and move by increments. We watch what we say, watch what we wear, watch what we eat. People who make 10 bucks an hour talk about acting in a professional way and reconsider the pictures that they post on Facebook lest they queer their shot at the big money — 20 bucks per. We do not act full grown.
But there is a region of our culture where most of the niggling inhibitions have been put on hold, where people pin their ears back and go for it. You can participate, assuming you’re a guy and under 30; you can stand in awe, which is what excellence, even dark excellence ought to summon from us. We can stand in awe at the beautiful violence. And while we’re standing we can begin to total up the grace and the dismal qualities in what we see. As we do so, we can imagine, not without reason, that we Americans, creatures of our quaking democratic empire, are seeing ourselves for what we might actually be.
The terrible beauty that unfolds on the field is our own and ourselves.
So I continue to stop and pull over and have a look. The rainbow doesn’t do it, and the sunset has no chance. If they’re playing basketball, I might lace up my Nikes and see if I can still hit a jump hook in the paint (but that’s another story). If they’re playing football, though — the real game with pads and helmets and plays designed and coaches in heat — then I want to see what’s going on. And when I see it, I want to reflect on what it’s all about. Violence and grace; freedom and exploitation; glory and ignominy: terrible beauty — America now.
Mark Edmundson teaches English at the University of Virginia. His new book, Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game, is out from Penguin.