Editor’s Pick
FEBRUARY 4, 2010 4:08PM

Falling in Love with Football: A Super Bowl Valentine

Rate: 17 Flag

 

Holy helmet

 

In 1977, The Oakland Raiders finally returned to the Super Bowl. I was living at the beach that year, temporary roommates with my best friend, Stephen Salinger, a life-long Raiders fan. He made food, invited friends in, cheered through the game and celebrated for days after the Raiders’ decisive 32-14 win against the Minnesota Vikings.

          I went surfing.

          He couldn’t believe it. I had to be the only man in America not watching the game. It was perverse, it was pathological. It was unpatriotic. But there was a swell running and, in a favorite phrase of mine at the time, football was just “guys jumping into piles” anyway. I thought I was ‘above’ football, but the truth is I was a petty little snob from an upper East Side, socialist-leaning family (My mother voted for Adlai Stevenson. Twice). We went to anti-war demonstrations and Pete Seeger concerts (Yes, we sang along), not football games. Running photographs at half-time from Shea Stadium to the pressroom at The Daily News, years before, I had gotten a closer brush with the sport. I came away impressed by the sheer size of the players and the gladiatorial brutality of the game itself. But I wasn’t inspired to watch.

          I later became friendly with one of the players on the field that day, Jets cornerback Steve Tannen. We sat in my step-brother’s living room watching another Superbowl, and he explained what was going on. I still didn’t get it. My smug superior pose was like a suit of armor. I clanked when I walked. An actual NFL player was sitting on a couch with me, explaining the intricacies of the game, and all I could think was, “This is way too complicated for such a dumb sport.”

I might never have discovered the game at all, but around ten years ago, something completely unexpected happened.

          I fell in love with a fan.

.         Annie and I worked together in my contracting business and we were painting a kitchen one Sunday afternoon, when she put on the radio. Not NPR as usual, but an AM station out of new York city, WFAN. The Giants were playing and she didn’t want to miss the game. She liked listening almost as much as watching, which was convenient since the hated Patriots had knocked the Giants off the Boston television stations most Sundays.

          Bob Papa and Dick Lynch called the games better than the boneheads FOX and ABC, and she liked constructing the plays in her mind from their rapid-fire descriptions: “It’s third and eighteen, Collins in the shotgun. Amani Toomer split wide left, Cross to the right, Tiki Barber in the slot. Long snap from Center. Collins back to pass. He has Amani Toomer  up the left side line, he’s all alone … the pass is short, he comes back for the ball, makes the catch, in typical Toomer fashion, dragging both toes in-bounds. That’s a miraculous catch at the twelve yard line and – no, there’s a flag on the play. It’s coming back, folks.”

          I didn’t understand most of this. It was like listening cricket or curling. But Annie sure did. I’ll never forget her howl and rage and frustration at that moment, when it turned out that Roman Oben had forced the holding call.

“What the hell are you doing?!” she shouted at the radio. “They’re killing us with these penalties! You don't hold there! Not there! Not now! We’re giving them the game! Why can’t they just let them play? Now watch! It’s fourth and inches and Fassel’s going for the field goal! Just give Tiki the ball! Let him run it!” But he didn’t, and the kick went wide. Another dismal day for the Giants.

But the fans were used to days like that, in the lean years before the great squad of the mid-eighties and the tough years since. And at the end of all those seasons, they’d just sigh and say “Maybe next year…” There was always plenty of time to lick your wounds and prepare for the next season: it was a long way to September.

Eventually I learned the terminology, and more and more every Sunday I got drawn into the games. It had happened the same way for Annie, as a little girl, sitting with her Dad, watching the games on television – or traveling to Yankee Stadium, and even the Yale Bowl, during those seasons when the Giants didn’t have a venue of their own. Football turned into the best way to spend time with him: it gave them an endlessly fascinating topic in common, and a perfect strategy for getting to know her otherwise difficult and remote father. A few years later I saw Remember the Titans and thought I glimpsed a little of Annie in the white coach’s  ten-year old daughter,  screaming at the TV. Not that much has changed. She still paces and chides and screams “GO DEFENCE” on those crucial goal-line stands. I don’t think Annie sat down once through the whole of Super Bowl 42, when the Giants triumphed in their rematch with the hated Patriots.

She’s had her glory moments as fan. She submitted a song about the team – lyrics to the tune of Ora Lee -- in a FAN contest, and won it. She wound up singing on the radio with Offensive Tackle Karl Nelson. Bob Papa had written “Good” on the sheet she submitted – as terse and emphatic as the call on an extra point. Some sample lyrics—

 

Twelve and Four

Twelve and Four

We are playoff bound

With Stephen Baker in the air

And Otis on the ground

 

A friend of Annie’s worked for the New Yorker, and the big day got written up as a Talk of the Town piece.

          Cool.

          The more I watched, the more I fell in love with the game. I gloried in the spectacular pounding the Giants gave the Vikings on the way to that other Super Bowl, in 2000 – and suffered through their humiliating loss to the Ravens, a few weeks later. We drove all the way down to Connecticut for that calamity. Annie’s whole family was morbidly in tune with the team, reading the mood on the field even before the kickoff. “They look flat,” her Dad announced as the Giants out onto the field. It seemed nuts to me, but they were right. “It’s all about emotion,” Annie told me, and I began to sense that myself, feeling the shifts in psychic energy on the field with that crucial touchdown before the half-time, or the break in concentration when the other team called a disruptive time-out.

          With the increasing popularity of so-called ‘reality’ TV and the cultural ascendance of unscripted drama – from The Great Race to American Idol, from Survivor to The Biggest Loser – I started to realize a curious small truth: football is our true reality TV, and our most fascinating unscripted drama. I had seen football movies like Varsity Blues, where the final victory was a foregone conclusion. In the actual game, anything can happen. An interception or a turnover, a miscalculated on-side kick, can turn a game upside down.

 I realized that football defines itself through series of paradoxes. It represents a kind of utopian view of America, where people work together toward a common goal,  a world without rancor or racism, a peaceable kingdom … where men are broken and battered in ferocious combat every week. It’s a brutal sport that rewards elegance and grace, that elevates men to unparalleled stardom through intricate self effacing military teamwork; a bruising physical competition that relies on levels of knowledge and intuition and cerebral analysis that would give a MIT statistics professor pause. It takes place on a hundred yard playing field, and yet any individual game can be decided by a matter of inches; It plays itself out over almost four hours but so often resolves itself in the last few seconds – that over-time field goal in the air as the clock runs down.

It draws familes together, like Annie’s;  and friends, like Stephen and me (we commisterate now, about the Raiders and the Giants); and cities, like New Orleans and Indianapolis, whose teams will be duking it out this Sunday in Miami. And it gives us an extraordinarily diverse cast of characters to enjoy: The old legends thinking about retirement, the kids scoring their first NFL touchdowns ever, in the autumn sunlight; the younger brother struggling in his brother’s shadow and the older brother moving closer to the title of  greatest quarterback of all time, and closing in on it this weekend, beyond the glory of another ring. And the other players who’ll never get the ring – Tiki Barber, who retired too soon; or Barry Sanders, quitting because he was contractually bound to play out his career with a losing team. All the great careers ruined by traffic accidents and drug scandals, or by carrying a loaded gun in the waistband of your sweatpants and accidentally shooting yourself in the leg.

It’s a complex, fascinating world and I know I’m a part of it at last as I wait for Peyton to throw that first pass on Sunday, and wonder what happened to his little brother’s team, lying down to be trampled by the Vikings in a humiliating final game, and blow out a long breath and say, “Oh well. Maybe next year.”

I’ll be watching the Combine and the draft on the NFL channel, discussing the prospects with my family (The Giants need help on their offensive line). It’s not much, but I’ll take what I can get.

It’s a long way to September.

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Great!

And what non-fans don't understand is that football, to be played well, requires a lot of intelligence, altering blocking schemes at the line of scrimmage, whether a safety is coming on a blitz, which receiver should be covered, all decided in a matter of seconds. It's not just big brutes bashing each other.
Wonderfully written. Best description of football I've ever read. Lucky you, for finding Annie, and lucky us that you're here on OS! (r)
That's the best kind of love story. Passion like that is contagious and what a gift to share it with each other. :)

When my husband and I first got married and moved away from home, we were broke as a joke. Our weekly entertainment was to go to the local high school football game (for $2/person). We watched Tiki and Ronde grow up on the field. By the time they got to UVa, we were lucky to be in CVille. They hold a special place in my football loving heart.
Excellent, especially the last five paragraphs. As you discovered, there's far more to it than the casual observer or non-fan realizes.
Steven: Your writing is, as always, sublime, but I hate football, so I can't comment beyond that without sounding like a total moron.
John ... I suggest really watching a game sometime. At the risk of pulling bizarre anaologies out of the nether regions ... anything you really study becomes interesting ... as writers diverse as Malcolm Gladwell,(Writing about hair color products) Paul Fussel (writing about class in America) and John McPhee (writing about ... rocks) clearly demonstrate.
I remember reading about the cobbler in "A Suitable Boy" making one perfect pair of shoes from scratch, to impress his beloved. Shoes? Fascinating. The Wild-cat, the flea-flicker, the half-back option and the good old statue of liberty play? Ditto.
My compliments to you for this excellent article and to the editors for placing it on the cover. To the uninitiated this is a great way to garner some understanding and to the sad lot (incl.me)who know that hash tendencies does not describe Hippy Joe's Friday night recreational inclination, this is simply a good read.
There is a similar game known as "football" played in much of the civilized world. It is actually played with the foot. However, this American version looks jolly. Oh, the colonists, how they do like to invent. (HurumphHurumph) Amen.
I've watched the game forever, so have taken all this for granted. Covered high school games years ago and learned a lot from coaches who could smile after losing by 30 because their kids followed the game plan. Otherwise it would have been much worse. It is a great game and this is a great article.
As Howard Cosell might have opined, "I can't tell you how thrilling all of this is." Rated.

Read Halberstam's "The education of a coach." I know it's about Belichick, but it's a good read.
Nope, not buying it.

But I rated you anyway for the prose in the 4th to last paragraph. You almost had me there, but a string of Sport Center addict boyfriends has forever ruined it for me. Maybe its more adorable when its the woman who's into it.
I, like Annie, grew up watching sports with my Dad. Well, college hoops with my Mom. But all the rest with my Dad. Watched the AFL grow up; was secretly fond of the Steelers (I'm from Chiefs' country). And I know more about the golfers from the late '60s than any one person should.

But my favorite game (perversely, perhaps) was baseball. I adored the game. Still do, abstractly, for I gave up after the last two strikes. Just gave up.

Then I turned my gaze to football, and though I knew the basics growing up, it wasn't till I was in my 30's that I began to study it. It is operatic in scale, with staggering human dimension. I truly love it, and though I wince when I see what could be a concussion-causing hit, I have to admit, there's a throwback part of me that revels.

Gotta hate your friend's Raiders. But I generally root for the beleagured Giants - what happened to them this year? I think the coach is gonna get fired.

Definitely rooting for a Great Superbowl. It's good for America. It's good for me.
oops. beleaguered.

Looked it up, and it's interesting, comes Possibly from Dutch.
be - leger. Leger means "camp". Related to besiege, see. And does the "guer" versus "ger" come from the French "guerre"? That would seem to make sense. I wonder about this kind of stuff all the time. No wonder I don't get anything done.
Steven, I never needed to be convinced...but so many times I wished I could convince the unconverted (women and/or liberals, mostly) how to love the game, or even just defend my love of it. [but all I can ever seem to muster up is an angry, "IT's NOT STUPID!!!"]
Also, I could hear the radio announcers in that paragraph. The game on the radio (with our own announcers) is the usually the best way to 'see' it.
Norman Rockwell meets football or let Mikey try it, he hate's everything.

I've loved football since I remember remembering.

I love it still, but distanced myself as well for some time due to my thought it's a waste of time. I then realized most of life is wasted if one were to ask what you do with your time.

Writing doesn't make me any money, so it's a waste of time.

Money rules, hence I waste time. I love football and many other things that don't make me money.

Such is life.
Steve: another superb piece. For me, what makes it superb is the way you elevated and refocused the theme to be--more importantly--about human nature, social relationships, and American society. Football as a metaphor for so much more, as you dive and swoop to sweep in these linked issues--in the best tradition of a personal essay.

Congratulations, RMoore