I used to love football, with a passion, like many young American men. My first love was hockey, but positioned behind two good goaltenders both a year ahead of me, I saw the writing: I’d get a year of varsity play at most. Meanwhile, I was getting good at football, and having a lot more fun. Hockey can be a brutal culture: hazing, violence, belittling, threats, debauchery, politics, etc. Football was something else: hard, rewarding work and camaraderie.
So I built myself up for football and let hockey go. I made the varsity my senior year, but as a backup goalie, and decided not to play so I could focus on football. (Of course, that was the year Minot High took State — 1992. Weird being in the stands when many of the guys I grew up playing with were taking the championship on the ice. Not a big deal now.) And playing line meant getting strong, and big.
I gained a lot of weight over four years, my sophomore year of high school through my freshman year of college, while getting strong. I had a good senior year playing defensive tackle, and the team started out 6-0 but then finished 7-3, losing first to St. Mary’s in Bismarck (some 160-lb guard on whom I had 60 pounds — 60! — spent the evening abusing me and making me his…servant). Lost to Bismarck high in the season, and then lost to Fargo South at home in the playoffs. And that was that.
I went off to college and tried to play. My freshman year I played special teams, but it was hard being about 230 going up against guys who were 300 or so, especially when I wasn’t quick. I got mono somehow and my season ended in mid-October. I decided not to play my sophomore year, because college ball wasn’t any fun. It was about fifty hours of work a week, and I just wasn’t big enough or quick enough to compete, as hard as I worked.
I had the same situation then that my closest friend had in high school. He was a great guy and a hard worker, but about 150 dripping wet and you just can’t play guard at that weight in class A 11-man in a high school of 2200 students. So he didn’t play his senior year, opting instead to join theater. Got the lead in our production of The Apple Tree. He turned out OK: Went to West Point, bumped around various U.S. bases, taught at West Point, and is now serving honorably in Afghanistan. When he told me he wasn’t going out for football, he said, “Look, I just can’t compete with guys a foot taller and fifty pounds heavier than I am.” Or something to that effect. There’s a point where the hardest effort and most serious dedication simply can’t compensate for what nature gave you. Or didn’t give you.
So I had fun playing in high school, and gave it a shot in college. And that was just under twenty years ago, as this summer was my twentieth reunion, and thus the twentieth anniversary of the summer before I went off to college. In fact, twenty years ago this very day I suppose I was vomiting during college two-a-days prepping for a big trip to Montana Tech in Butte. Along the way I learned to work very, very hard, on the practice field and in the weightroom. I learned camaraderie and developed deep male friendships. I learned how to go to metaphorical war with another young man in hand-to-hand combat, nameless but not faceless. I destroyed my opponent on some plays, and got eaten alive on others.
But was it worth it?
I’ve got good memories, but I also carry the weight to this day, twenty years after I stopped needing it, and I have more than enough aches and pains from football and weightlifting as well. Sometimes I step wrong, and a hip wants to collapse, telling me so with sharp pain. I’m sure that’s from squats. My left shoulder pops a lot, which I’m sure is from the bench press. I sprained my thumb in college when it got caught in some MSU-Moorhead Neanderthal’s jersey. These things hurt from time to time to this day.
Beyond that, I’m not really that into the NFL. Used to love the Vikings. Some of my earliest memories involved watching the Vikings lose repeatedly with my dad, especially when the Vikings offense had two plays: Pitch right to Darrin Nelson, and pitch left to Darrin Nelson. Get stopped for a loss either way. And who could forget Two Minute Tommy Kramer?
But now…life is short, and the NFL often feels like a big corporate machine. Because it’s a big corporate machine. Players come and players go, a team rises and falls the next season, public monies fund stadiums, and Jerry Jones gets richer. Vanity of Vanities! All is chasing the wind. And the Vikings still engage in epic fail. We need our brain-dead leisure and social lubricants, so sports will do, of course. But I’ll spend more time paying attention to my friends than any game on the screen.
But I’m wondering if it’s worth it. George Will had a much-discussed and much-maligned column some weeks ago wondering if the violence of football and the real damage it’s doing to athletes’ brains will end up ending the NFL. He writes:
Decades ago, this column lightheartedly called football a mistake because it combines two of the worst features of American life — violence, punctuated by committee meetings, which football calls huddles. Now, however, accumulating evidence about new understandings of the human body — the brain, especially, but not exclusively — compel the conclusion that football is a mistake because the body is not built to absorb, and cannot be adequately modified by training or protected by equipment to absorb, the game’s kinetic energies.
After 18 people died playing football in 1905, even President Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and gore generally, flinched and forced some rules changes. Today, however, the problem is not the rules; it is the fiction that football can be fixed and still resemble the game fans relish.
I think that’s the right question: For Christians, especially, who value the body as a gift of God which we are called to steward, but also for everyone who thinks that we should treat our bodies with care and respect. Is football wrong because of what it can do to a body?
Maybe technology will save us, as it always promises to save us when we run up against the constraints of Nature and seek to excel them: a new helmet is being developed that’s supposed to be light years ahead of anything in use now. But I think Will is right: The head isn’t the only part of the human body football damages, and players have become so big, fast, and strong that rules changes won’t be able to protect players if a league wants to preserve the action that makes the sport popular.