Football season is back, and I am reminded that football is the hardest work I ever did: exhausting, hot, sweaty, violent, painful and degrading, with coaches screaming insults. Football. Twice-a-day sessions with no water in the August heat in uniforms crusty with the salt and ammonia from yesterday’s perspiration and shoes cracked and hardened from a decade’s use; helmets like toaster ovens, which we were taught to ram into our opponents, long before such tactics became an infraction.
If you want to win, you have to pay the price. You play like you practice. You’re like a blind dog in a meat house. You ain’t nothing but a cigarette-sucking, soda-pop-drinking drugstore cowboy. You suppose you were supposed to block the end? Well, suppose you run around this field until I tell you to quit. Lying down in the cold shower after practice, too tired to stand up. Waking up in the morning too sore to get out of bed. Then do it all over.
Compared to the hard labor of practice, games were a snap. A couple of hours of playing offense and defense in new uniforms with all the water we wanted and the whole town watching us from the stands—parents, girlfriends, uncles and aunts, everybody. Football would have been fine if we had just gone out there every Friday night and played the game without being sentenced to practice the rest of the week. But no. The basic training had to be tougher than actual battle, so we’d be ready.
After two embarrassing losing seasons, we began to win football games. Instead of everybody in town telling us how sorry we were, we got slapped on the back. Our coaches questioned our manhood less frequently. Friday night football was fun. We won a regional championship. We have great memories of games and struggles that (thanks, coaches) turned a scraggly bunch of boys into a team who became lifelong friends.
Friday night football is where it all starts. The SEC, the NFL—it all grows out of those high-school football games, but the bigger it gets, the more it morphs, and it becomes dependent on fans, most of whom are divorced from the game, who know how to talk endlessly about football but can’t play it, who can make a season out of complaining about players and coaches but couldn’t survive one wind sprint.
It’s very much like war—the glory, the enemy, the readiness to fight for victory, or at least to watch our team fight: Go Dawgs! Go America! We’re No. 1. We’re the greatest. We will bury you tigers, wildcats, commies.
I guess that explains alcohol and sports. Fans don’t need to stay in shape. Fans don’t need to worry about misjudgment. Fans can make a party out of sports, can eat, drink and be merry at the toil and pain of others. Fans can invest their psychic happiness in whether their chosen totems win or lose, but they are removed from the sweat and blood. So, football becomes pornography: avidly watched, but with no skin in the game.
All of us should be age-appropriate athletes—hitting a tennis ball or a volleyball or a golf ball, swimming, running. Our colleges should have more intramural sports: the English department against physics, law against vet medicine and so on to the all-campus playoffs. We’d all be healthier, and we’d be more discerning fans, too, better able to understand our athletes—not just whether they won or lost but how they played the game.
Somehow, we have the ability to pull for the Dogs, to glory in their wins and agonize in their defeats even though we know the athletic association is a big business under pressure to maximize the return. Business decisions have to be made, too. Do we play Chubb in a non-conference game and risk losing both him and the SEC? Play him at all and risk losing him his pro career? Play more games in Atlanta and make more money? Please that large fan base over there and allow students to go home and go to the game, too?
Go, Dogs! But stay here.