American Bullfight

I love watching football. Or, to put it more accurately, I love my memories of watching football. Though I grew up in mostly upstate New York and Southern California, I never swayed from my allegiance to the Dallas Cowboys. Why? I liked their helmets. That gorgeous star stamped on the sides of the players’ heads, reflecting the sun and stadium lights. I mean, damn! Not to mention the fact that being a Bills or Rams fan simply wasn’t cool. And the Raiders? Well, they just weren’t my style.

On Christmas in 1980, everything I got for Christmas was Cowboy-themed. I remember proudly donning every bit of it for the holiday dinner at the Scanlon’s house. I may have even slept in my new silver and blue PJs that night. Oh, who am I kidding, I slept in them every night.

Whether you were a fan or not, you can’t deny the greatness of my team in the late 70s and 80s. What, with Tom Landry, Tony Dorsett, Too Tall Jones and a mess of Super Bowl championships, the Cowboys were a force that brought lively drama and fierce rivalries to the game. Something the NFL no doubt cherished, if only for the revenue (which now exceeds $11 billion/year).

When I think about football, I think about those days. Being a Dallas fan was like having a tough big brother. Embodying Danny White or Drew Pearson during two-on-two games in a neighbor’s backyard gave me an immediate leg up. I wanted to be those guys. Didn’t hurt that I could throw and catch pretty well. Plus I had wheels.

For a long time I resented my folks for not letting me play Pop Warner. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that they finally gave in to Coach Seeley’s incessant pleas. I was seventeen and already pre-enlisted in the Army when I put on a full set of pads for the first time, setting out to learn the secret language of the game. Outs, hooks, sideline patterns, posts, fakes and plenty of other jargon that other kids learned in the pee-wee leagues. For me it never really caught on. So I spent most of the time during double days asking our number one receiver, Darren Fields, what I was supposed to do. Occasionally my QB, Dave Shultz, would drop back and send a bullet to option number two, me, and I’d do everything I could to make the play. I usually held my own.

I think it was the third game of the season when we played Long Beach Millikan. Dave shouted hike and I zipped a post route up the middle. He launched the pigskin and I leaped to get it, but it was just out of reach. On my descent, and just before landing, I got my bell rung by a spearing free safety and went table-top before bouncing to the grass on my back, my hands clasping my face mask. Dude knocked me out cold. When I came to, I asked Dave if I caught it. The medical crew helped me off the field as the crowd applauded. I remember hearing the announcer, Mr. Snetsinger, say, “Griffen is OK!”

That night in the locker room, Coach Doyle told the team that if everyone had the guts that I had, we just might win a game. He told us that if I hadn’t enlisted I’d probably score a ticket to college. I knew I wasn’t really a tough kid, but Doyle made me feel like I was. He made me feel like a man. But the fact was I didn’t like getting hit. I did my best to outsmart or out-maneuver the players who tried to crush me. Still, I inevitably got my clock cleaned on the regular. It was part of the game.

These days I am completely oblivious to what’s happening in football. I miss watching a good Sunday game and on the rare occasion where I catch a quarter or two I find myself blanketed by that familiar feeling. Reminds me of family, of heat-and-eat snacks and high-fiving my dad and brothers. I couldn’t tell you who won last year’s Super Bowl, but I am pretty sure Katy Perry was the halftime show. Yeah, this is the fan I have evolved to become. Don’t hate.

The September issue of The Sun magazine rustled up some of my old football memories. It contains an interview with author Steve Almond, “The Church of the Gridiron,” in which Almond discusses how he lost his faith in America’s favorite sport. He discusses football in terms of its injury rate (which is ridiculously high, by they way), its exaggeration of gender stereotypes (both men and women), and its inherent violence and racism (the annual Combine being likened to a historical slave trade). I found the conversation fascinating and am compelled to share my intrigue.

“Football,” Almond said, “is the largest shared narrative in the country…When Ernest Hemingway wanted to understand Spanish culture, he went to see bullfights. Football is our bullfight: an expression of our cultural values and a profound statement about our national consciousness. It’s important to understand what it does for us and to us, what its pleasures are and its moral costs. But football means so much to so many Americans that we’re terrified of interrogating it.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if Almond was simply riding his high horse, touting his strong opinions after realizing his fanatical tendencies toward the game. But as I read on, I realized his comments were not self-indulgent. They expressed a concern for what the game represents. His comments made me think hard about the game’s parallel between the violence of the football and our collective numbness to so many social problems including poverty, institutionalized racism, and America’s pervasive unhappiness.

Whether you are a football fan or not, I recommend you get this issue of The Sun. David Cook’s interview is insightful and enjoyable. It’s going to make you think. It might even make you uncomfortable — which is what the best sort of writing, the best kinds of discussions should do.

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