Football’s Purpose

In real life I avoid conflict and competition. Yet I have competed in many sports, and as a spectator I watch all sorts of games and matches, even boxing and mixed martial arts. Football too is a violent and brutal sport.
I’m not a football player like most of my cousins. I am a huge fan. This Saturday I spent most of the day and night flipping channels between various college games, looking for the most competitive.
I did not play football on my high school’s team. Not even the Lightweight Team, because my asthma cleared up the first month of my senior year, too late to go out for the team. Through the autumn on Friday nights I spotted for a fellow student who announced home games over the PA system. I joined the wrestling team in the winter season.
I played touch football games in the park with friends. We didn’t block very hard – mostly it was a strategic passing game of cleverly designed plays and occasional completed passes. We were our own clumsy chess pieces.
I once played an informal game of touch on the senior lawn with friends. My best friend, Steve Ruttschow, at 5’7” 160 pounds an undersized but fierce two-way player (guard and nose tackle) on our high school team, apparently could only play all-out, so he bulled through the other kids of both genders. We let him. On defense he eagerly tackled whoever carried the ball, all the way to the ground. We had no choice in that, except to end the game somewhat early.
I played in an eleven-on-eleven tackle pickup game in the summer after graduation, with no equipment. (Not even a mouthpiece or a cup.) Midgame I pursued a ball carrier downfield. An opponent threw his body into a low block. Instinctively I bumped my hands on his shoulders to prevent his forearms from taking out my knees. I went home with a sprained wrist.
I got a phone call inviting me to the next game, but I quit while I was ahead – ahead of further injury.
I did play organized football as a junior in college: flag football at the club level. The heaviest I weighed in my twenties was about 135 pounds.
I avidly followed football at all levels as a spectator. My mom was the football fan in our family. She really understood the game, commenting while we watched on TV. She rooted for the 49ers into her nineties.
My wife never understood my mom’s interest in sports. I just took it for granted. Mom played field hockey in high school in the 1930s. (Mom was a verbal disciplinarian, never spanked me or my brother; yet I remember finding my mental image of her running around a field swinging a stick a bit frightening.) I’m sure Mom’s love of sports was a factor in my becoming a fan of women’s sports.
I’m a big fan of Title IX. I welcomed passage of the law at the time as a victory for fairness. Over the decades since I felt Title IX powerfully empowered women in the workplace with lessons imparted by sports.
Competitive athletes learn personal responsibility, social responsibility (to their team, school, and community), cooperation (teamwork and mutual support), perseverance, overcoming adversity (coping with and learning from failure), and leadership.
Leadership is not just being the captain. Leadership is being a teammate: both a good leader and a good follower, sometimes at the same time, working together. Powering the pack rather than leading or trailing a flock.
My dad played and was a fan of baseball, bowling, and golf. I played catch with him a few precious times (he worked a lot). For some reason Dad always played with a first baseman’s mitt. I sort of remember one time throwing a football with him.
So I grew up without the paternal expectations James Wright references in his poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” I didn’t have the golden hero experience of running out of the tunnel onto a green gridiron to a small cheering crowd. My parents never saw me wrestle, so I didn’t get it there either.
Now that I think about it, I wonder why I never thought to invite them to a home meet; maybe because my teammates didn’t invite anyone either. We wrestled in obscurity at schools not known for the sport. We enjoyed the one-on-one challenge; we didn’t need an audience.
Back to football. For several decades I have watched on television as oversized young men hurl their lightly armored bodies at each other. Until I got married I watched with other men and cheered and hooted vociferously. Now I watch almost silently, as any loud sound I make upsets the women in my family. They only cheer at gymnastics meets. Although my daughter is an athlete, she is not a fan.
Watching silently has become such a habit that I don’t even cheer when I’m the only one in the house. Well, the only human anyway. The cats and the dog don’t object to any of my sounds. They make enough of their own. Come to think of it, their sounds also upset the women in my family.
Football doesn’t really do much for our pets, and it certainly doesn’t entertain my wife and daughter. Annoys them, actually. Just the sound of it. (They don’t like crowds, so a roaring crowd they really don’t like.)
For me though, it fulfills some physical, emotional need. Perhaps even a primal need. Maybe in the limbic system, that reptilian core of my brain that handles raw emotion, the most basic endocrine chemistry and physical awareness of my being.
I enjoy being part of an excited, focused, involved crowd. We sway and stomp and gasp and scream in unison, or more precisely in waves. We begin to rise up before the crest reaches us, and begin to sit down before the trough.
And no, I’m not talking about The Wave, that fan-initiated and fan-generated audience participation stunt that has as little to do with the game as a beach ball tossed onto the field that interrupts play. Neither am I talking about the physical waves of sound traveling through the air, the ground, the walkways and the seats of the stadium.
I’m talking about a metaphorical wave: a wave traveling through time rather than space, a sort of music not charted on staves with notes and measures. I’m talking about a crescendo of sound, physicality, and emotion. I’m talking about the group experience of enthusiasm, excitement, exhilaration, disappointment, dejection, relief, and elation. I’m talking about self and group encouragement, exhortation, naysaying and booing, affirmation and cheering.
Maybe it’s not so silly to identify with one team over the other, to wear its colors and chant its cheers. Maybe there is value in joining a pack and running and jumping and baying in a chorus. It helps my body, mind, and spirit come alive. It helps me be more of who I am.

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