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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chapter 6. Play the Game

by Bob Andelman

"I played one year of football in junior college. I played for the same coach that I had in high school. When he went to the single wing, I was a 'blocking back.' When he went to a split-T there was nothing for me except the line. I went through one spring practice on the line and figured that was enough of this football stuff for me. Then I was a sportswriter for 41 years."
Volney Meece
Executive Director
Football Writers Association of America

There are a number of things in life that every man is expected to do:

Drink beer.

Talk about sex.

Dream about sports cars.

Play football.

The great thing about the last expectation on the list is that we can play the game at any level and easily relate to guys who play it at higher levels. It's a joyous -- and jarring -- shared experience that men come back to our entire lives.

"Football is the single most attractive sport we have," Dr. Thomas A. Tutko says. "Baseball is too slow. Basketball is too fast. Hockey and soccer are too confusing. But football stops just enough so we can analyze it and think about it."

Football also exploits many American values. Hard work, competition, territoriality. It represents, in a symbolic way, all of the tough things in America that we look upon as high values.

"At some point in their lives, guys either play football or know guys who do. It's the All-American experience," former Chicago Bears offensive tackle Dan Jiggetts says. "That shared experience is something that draws people back."

"It's a sport I grew up playing and still play every Sunday morning." Larry Mayer says. "We play two-hand touch, but it gets pretty rough. These are guys I've played with since the seventh grade."

Even Bill Evans, a marketing manager for Compuserve in Columbus, Ohio, returned to the sport, despite rocky beginnings as a participant. "I played two weeks of Pee Wee football and gave it up," he says. "The coaches were blue-collar, ex-high school linemen who took out their anger on kids. It was terrible what they put us through. Just a bunch of washed-up people reliving their youth."

No matter what the quality of their individual experience, men who have played the game enjoy a bond, even if they never played in the same game or at the same level. A stockbroker who played flag football in phys ed class knows the joy of catching a game-winning touchdown or third-down conversion pass as well as his auto mechanic who played ball at a Division III college.

A lot of men watch football because they played it. They've been involved in it as a sport themselves on a sandlot or on an organized level. They reach a point where it is hard to participate anymore so they become fans. They develop a fascination for it as an athletic event or as a form of entertainment.

Men gravitate back to the sports and activities they enjoyed as youths. Football provides a bonus: There is little or no possibility of women being involved with football because it is the last truly male bastion of strength, violence and speed. That's important because much as men love women, they love their time away from them, too.

Many men are former school and college athletes who seek to recapture the echoes of their youth by watching the sports they used to play. They connect to yesterday -- no responsibilities, no debt, no obligations, no shaving -- by watching others play sports they still love. It's kind of a Walter Mitty thing of seeing themselves out there, dashing across the chalk lines, being heroic, athletic, drawing a crowd, being admired.

Of course, along with all that is our eternal fascination with standing in awe of the skills of the best. On TV we see those who have the tools we lack. There is an envy, a fascination with the Heisman Trophy winner, just like there is when an average musician stands in awe of the best musicians.

And between those who never played the game and those who did, there will always be an invisible wall.

"If you are in a group of men where one or two have played the game and the others have not," Dr. Michael Messner says, "the ones who have played the game will have a sense of having knowledge that the others don't. Depending on how secure or insecure they are, they use that or not. There is always that thing that until you have been out there and felt the blows and had the blood on you and sweated and cried with your teammates, you can't understand the game. People say that about war, about football, about whatever."

The game appeals to us because it's so neat and tidy, leaving few loose ends.

Men play football in high school in deference to their aggressive drive, the ability to express that in a sublimated, safe way. "Nothing happens at the end of a game," Dr. Mark Unterberg says. "Only one team wins and the other loses and everybody goes off to take a shower and goes home. It becomes a safe way for one group of men to kill another group and become victorious. Sometimes the image of the old Roman Coliseum or Roman Empire analogy and the gladiators may not be too far off."

What about able-bodied young men who didn't play the game? Dr. Allen L. Sack is dubious that there are any.

"It is pretty hard to avoid," the sociologist says. "They probably tried out for a team or were involved very closely with males who were involved in it. Somewhere along the line, even if you hated it, you were probably pressured into playing it. I don't know if that is true of all social classes but it is certainly true of the working class. It's tough. If you go to school in a place like Odessa, Texas (made famous by H.G. Bissinger's 1990 book Friday Night Lights {Addison-Wesley}) it's very difficult to envision a young man, even those who despise and loathe the very nature of the game, not in some way or other feeling pressure to be involved. Even if that was coming out for practice and trying out for the team and not liking it, walking off and having a negative attitude toward it. In the years that follow, when those really rotten memories start to go away, you start romanticizing what it was like. You still have some experience with the game."

Part of the mystery of football is the great divergence between those who play and those who watch. Baseball fans commonly participate in adult softball leagues and bar leagues. But there aren't many amateur adult football leagues.

The downside of becoming a fan without having experienced football, or only being exposed to it on television, is that you don't appreciate the athleticism. TV better captures a basketball court or boxing ring, but a football field is 100 yards long. The close-up is adequate, but it doesn't put the game in perspective.

A picture of Tim Tebow's Heisman trophy.
"That is why it's difficult for women to learn football from watching it on TV," says Dr. Daniel Begel, a Milwaukee psychiatrist and founder of the International Society for Sport Psychiatry. "And that's one of the reasons women can't get into it. They can't learn it from watching on TV. You have to have played it."

The difference could be in who you know. Certainly there are disabled men who become great and learned fans of the game without ever taking to the field. There are scores of people who did not necessarily participate but maybe had a parent or an uncle who participated so they had some vicarious exposure to it early on and developed an attraction to and interest in the sport.
* * *
Men associate with the aggressiveness of football and the violence. Yet we see a lot of people at games in wheelchairs. Some may have played the game before being disabled; some may have been disabled by football. Many of these men will never have that experience on a football field and yet they still associate with the game.

"It gets back to identifications," Dr. Stanley H. Teitelbaum says. "There is a pull, identifying with those who can run when you yourself can't. I have a friend who was paralyzed in childhood from polio. His greatest love became watching the ballet. It's the same phenomenon of being able to watch others who can glide gracefully or who can run and do the things you can't do. For some people that is very painful, but for others it becomes a way of identifying with the players and seeing yourself in them."

* * *
David Johnson is a special case. The Chula Vista, California, fan of the San Diego Chargers is about the same size as your average defensive tackle. In high school, the football coaches couldn't wait to get him on the playing field. And he wanted to play. But in the 10th grade, Johnson developed spinal meningitis. Since then, he's spent a lifetime wondering "What if?"

"The main reason I love pro football is I never had the opportunity to play it," he says. "I'm one of the biggest fans you'll ever find. I absolutely love football. I marvel at these people, how the quarterback can complete a 60-yard bomb to a receiver running down the field, hoping to hit him with pinpoint accuracy!"

(Silva empathizes with Johnson's plight. "When the ability to participate is taken away," he says, "particularly if it is not taken in a traumatic fashion, a lot of people will yearn for those things that they can't have.")

Johnson, an unemployed truck driver, relocated to Southern California from Indiana after a Navy stint in San Diego. He came to the Chargers' attention several years ago because everywhere they went, so did he. This superfan leaves the mobile home he shares with his parents 10 miles from the Mexican border and drives his '69 Chevy to daily training camp workouts, mini-camps and regular season practices. He's always positive and encouraging to his team.

"I give the guys a hand, a good round of applause. I appreciate the athletic ability of these people. They can do things I could never do in high school," he says.

One of the Chargers coaches took note of Johnson and "adopted" him, making sure a ticket is always available for him at Chargers home games.

Among Johnson's heroes of the game are the grand old man, George Blanda, and Dick Butkus. "Butkus exemplified the ferocity and violence that is football," Johnson says. "Seeing somebody tackle like him is a way to let out your frustrations from the week. When you've been unemployed as long as I have, you need something."

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