The Southern Male is born with certain expectations: that he will comport himself at all times with politeness and diplomacy; that he will be deferential toward women and refer to a woman of any age as “ma’am”; that he will keep the covenant of football, handed down from Paul “Bear” Bryant, Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier, and Danny Ford, and from August until February he will forswear the false idols of baseball and basketball and fill his heart with affection for none save those jerseyed, helmeted men of the football field, the dull crunch and grunt of colliding bodies, and that “high and delicious anxiety,” of which Frederick Exley writes in A Fan’s Notes, that derives from the anticipation of how one’s teams will perform on Sunday afternoon.
The first two are easily accomplished (especially if one happens to be a Southern Male surrounded by a household full of women who take courtesy and respectful address as their due) and the third ought to be. Football is a mania in the South, one that is irrational, all-consuming, and, at times, terrifying in the fervor it inspires among fanatics, but one that I managed to be ignorant of during my formative years.
Partly this was due to my being born to a pair of former high school basketball players. My mother, a forward, and my father, a point guard, were inclined to watch and discuss the sport to which they had been so devoted as teenagers. My mother would expound at length about the depth of UNC or Duke’s reserves, while my father could recall being taken out of a game to have his swollen ankle taped in the locker room during a winter tournament with such longing and emotion that it would break your heart to hear it. But no one ever talked about football. If my parents ever did, it was with disdain. They looked at contact sports as a lesser form of competition where a bruiser mentality was more prized than the craft, skill, and fleetness of foot required for basketball. For them, football was a whole lot of pounding and hitting and falling over with intermittent pauses when some hulking soul managed to pound, hit, and fall his way over the goal line. (My father did play Pop Warner youth football as a child, but when I questioned him about his time in shoulder pads, hoping to draw out of him any tactics or plays I might put to use in my own backyard pick-up games, he answered, “About the only thing I can teach you with any fair amount of accuracy is how to roll around in the mud.”)
My grandparents offered no instruction in the sport either. My father’s parents had both passed on before I was ever aware of their presence, but from what I’ve heard of them, they adhered to a particularly severe stripe of Christianity and renounced anything that might take their attention away from glorying the Lord. (Although my father later confessed to me that when his father was out of the house my grandmother, Nina, liked to turn on the kitchen radio and tune in whatever baseball game she might catch in the wilds of Gapway, S.C. “She had a weakness for the Brooklyn Dodgers,” he told me, “and when they moved it just about broke her heart.”) My Grandpa Jack didn’t favor football either, but not out of any religious conviction. He’d picked up a fondness for baseball while serving overseas in North Africa and Italy during the Second World War. He was thrown together with men from Pennsylvania and Oregon and California and every other state besides and found that a mush-mouthed Southern accent did not translate into easy confidences with the clannish Yankees and rangy, taciturn Westerners. But baseball provided a common speech through which he discovered a point of entry among his fellow soldiers. After the war he never left off the habit of watching and studying and believing in the game as a sort of universal language that could explain the world. For my grandmother, Mattie Mae, sports were a luxury for which she had no time. When I at last became aware of football, since no other adult could be counted on to provide me with the information I wanted, I would attempt to interrogate her about the game. She would look up from the stove, where she stood most days for 12 hours or more cooking for her husband, her husband’s field hands, and her grandchildren, and she would raise her eyebrow in as sardonic a gesture as I have come across in this life, and chase me from the kitchen with her spoon.
My induction into the satisfying and frustrating cult of football fanaticism at last began when I was nine. In January of 1990, my father, in a pique of magnanimity, allowed his children to watch the Super Bowl. More than the World Series, more than the NBA finals, the Super Bowl is uniquely American in its proportions and portrayal: it is loud and brash with a weakness for pageantry, it panders to the patriotism and consumerism of its viewers, it promises more thrills than it can possibly deliver, and, at last, it’s a little disappointing. But I didn’t care about that as my father tuned to the game on our black-and-white Zenith.
This was Super Bowl XXIV, which featured the San Francisco 49ers against the Denver Broncos. The 49ers were heavily favored, but then they should have been. They were led by the enigmatic, heroically named, Joe Montana. Even a football ignoramus like me had heard of Montana. He was a two-time NFL MVP, a three-time Super Bowl MVP (Super Bowl XXIV was his fourth appearance in the championship game). I saw his face imprinted everywhere as a child: on lunchboxes, on cereal boxes, on video games, on lenticular stickers that featured the quarterback at rest in the pocket and rearing back to throw a ball depending on how the sticker was moved. Montana stared back at me from the Trapper Keepers my friends toted on the bus. He was omnipresent.
The Broncos were lead by Montana’s antithesis, John Elway. Whereas Montana possessed a steely stoicism, Elway, with his long face, buck teeth, and haircut that could never quite resolve itself into a mullet, always wore the perpetually addled expression of a country boy out of his depth. Later I would learn that Elway had won his own League MVP award, was a five time All-Pro, went to nine Pro Bowls, and held the record for passing and for rushing for a quarterback for seven consecutive seasons. Yet for all that, I’ve never been able to think of John Elway in any other terms than my first impression as a nine-year-old, when the only thing that struck me about the man was a remarkable sense of ordinariness. I immediately marked him as a plugger, a quarterback who, unlike the cool, thrilling Montana, took a workmanlike approach to the game, eating up yards, chewing up clock, coaxing out winning performances from the more talented players around him.
Some part of me must have known that the game would turn into a horrifically lopsided victory for the 49ers, that no matter how heroically Elway and his Broncos played (which they did not) they’d stand no chance against the arching passes of Montana and the loping gait of his sure-handed receiver, Jerry Rice. Some part of me must have known. And yet, there was something about the assuredness of Montana and his 49ers that I found off-putting, and there was something about the doomed heroism of Elway that I must have found noble. I picked the Broncos to win. The 49ers won 55-10.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, my sisters and brother jumped and whooped around me. I sat, stunned. It was my first encounter with the strangely hollowed out feeling a sports fan feels after watching his team lose.
On television, the camera panned to the Denver bench and took in the Bronco players sitting, dejected. Some were slumped; some held towels to their faces as they cried. “Oh, I hate that,” my tender-hearted sister Amanda told me, as she re-joined me on the floor to watch the slow pan of brokenhearted players. “Now I feel bad for them.” I was not sure what I was feeling. I’d never previously watched the Denver Broncos play football (or any other football game). I had no investment in the team, its players, or its success. But as I watched John Elway walk from the field, shoulders slumped, arms dangling, the picture of a soul in defeat, I felt the loss.
I was also strangely exhilarated. Elway took no pains to hide his disappointment. He wore it openly, bitterly, almost proudly. This ran against everything I was taught about good sportsmanship and its edicts of honoring the value of the game rather than of victory. In his march from the field, Elway (who would eventually go on to two Super Bowl victories in the late 1990s) put the lie to every facile homily my P.E. coaches and teachers told me about being a good sport and being graceful in defeat. “Disappointment lingers, it’s our losses rather than our victories that define us,” Elway’s stooped posture seemed to be saying as he made his way down the tunnel to the locker room. He became more interesting to me then, much more interesting than Montana and his celebrating crew, for whom victory seemed to come so often and so easily. That game was my first inkling that an appreciation of football would necessarily also be an appreciation of failure.
Futility is endemic to the game of football. It is there in the inexorable ticking of the game clock. It is there in the violent opposition of two teams fighting either to gain or defend ground. It is there in the costly errors—the interceptions, the broken plays, the sacks, the fumbles—on which the game turns. It is there in the desperate heaves from the backfield on fourth-and-long, the quarterback lining up as a wide receiver in the Wildcat Formation, the teammates holding hands in silent prayer, and the ridiculous and inevitable series of laterals from player to player after a final kickoff. It is even there in those teams that do succeed: the brutal physicality of the game exacts a price, and even the finest teams become so diluted by injuries, age, and forced retirement, that each successive win merely becomes one more pyrrhic victory in a longer war of attrition. But, for the football fan, that futility manifests most in one’s love for a team.
My fanaticism grew, but I was a boy without a team. As grateful as I was to John Elway for the service he’d rendered, the truth he’d shown me with his Super Bowl exit did not run so deep as to transform into worship for him or his team. Nor did I share in my fellow Southerners’ fevered love of college football. Even as a child I had an instinctive dislike for football played by collegiate athletes. College football is a morass of confusing rankings and conferences. Professional football was all that I wanted, and I felt, out of some swell of regional pride, that I ought to align my allegiance and love with a team representing the South.
But to be a burgeoning fanatic in need of a ball club in the South in the early 1990s was a trial. One could root for the Atlanta Falcons, but not even the citizens of Atlanta cheered for the Falcons. The team seemed to have been absorbed into the sprawl of that city and forgotten. There were still more pitiful choices to be had though. New Orleans, a traditionally abysmal club, were known for the Superdome, the great, grey dome with its corseted middle, the site of numerous Super Bowls. That the Saints’ home served as host for so many championship games seemed an odd consolation prize for New Orleans at the time the city could take a vicarious thrill in watching other cities’ champions pass through its avenues. The Saints still more picayune divisional cousins, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, hardly presented a better substitute. Following their entrance into the League in 1976, Tampa Bay had gone nearly two seasons without a win, earning a record of 0-26. It was a history of failure that lingered. Buccaneers fans often wore bags over their heads during home games.
The only respectable choice was the Miami Dolphins, coached by the man with the most wins in NFL history, Don Shula, and led by Dan Marino. But I didn’t like them either. Shula represented the old-guard football aesthetic. He’d first been involved with the game in the brand-building years of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, when professional football began to supplant baseball in the national consciousness. Shula was exacting and distant and ran his team with the efficiency of a totalitarian regime. It was his (along with Tom Landry’s) tight-lipped, always-on-message approach to the game that helped to stamp out the encroaching anti-establishment fervor of the 1970s, when freewheeling bruisers like the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Oakland Raiders reigned. The coaches who came in Shula’s wake preferred his stony method to the anarchic spirit that John Madden brought to the game or even the smiling irascibility of Vince Lombardi, for whom the league’s championship trophy is named. Marino flourished under Shula’s tutelage and became one of the most accurate quarterbacks in NFL history. Yet for all his skill, Marino was surprisingly joyless to watch. He was a surly automaton, executing plays without any sort of spirit or sense of fun. Shula and Marino succeeded (although they never won a championship together), but their legacy is the legion of unsmiling coaches and quarterbacks—Bill Belichick, Andy Reid, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning—who ape their approach in the hopes that it will translate into victory on the football field. Whatever once passed for personality in the NFL died at the feet of Don Shula and Dan Marino.
Long before I knew the word schadenfreude, I took great pleasure in rooting against Marino, Shula, and the Dolphins. (It did not help that my family moved to Florida when I was ten and suddenly found myself surrounded by Dolphins fans immersed in the minutiae of the team and who never wasted an opportunity to impress on me their greatness.) I celebrated the delicious sense of malice that every sack, every fumble, every interception, every mistake on the part of the Dolphins gave me. When they won, I gritted my teeth and bore down on the couch and shouted at the television screen; there was an ecstasy in that, too.
Still, my disgust for the team only carried so far. When a sloppy Chicago Bears team, led by marginally talented quarterback Eric Kramer, beat the Dolphins with a trick field goal, I leapt from my seat and whooped that such a team as the mighty Dolphins could be taken in by such frippery. But when, in the following season, Marino was carted off the field by medical personnel with a torn Achilles tendon, I sat with my hands clenched in an approximation of prayers. I didn’t hate the man, only the way he played football. Still, for the rest of the season, I carried around the feeling that luxuriating in my dislike for the team had somehow caused Marino’s injury. I wasn’t yet aware that Marino wasn’t a victim of my magical thinking, but that as an aging football player, Marino was engaged in a futile struggle against time and the unwillingness of his own body to suffer anymore abuse.
My animus toward the Dolphins abated with the successive retirements of Shula and Marino and the transformation of the team into a loosely confederated band of underachievers. I no longer had a team whose every loss gave me a thrill of joy, for now I was enamored with a team whose wild fluctuations have been a continuing cause of distress.
When, in 1994, Charlotte, N.C. was awarded an NFL expansion team to be called the Carolina Panthers, I had, at last, a team of my own. Unfortunately, loving the Panthers has been something less than enjoyable. The team has never put together consecutive winning seasons. They’ve followed divisional championships and appearances in conference championship games (along with a loss in Super Bowl XXXVI) with seasons in the proverbial cellar. They have devolved from a team with one of the finest defenses in the league to one that routinely averages three turnovers per game. To watch the Panthers play is to watch a team still struggling to find an identity. They have never had a consistent quarterback, running game, or wide receiver corps, and yet I still cling to the hope that some miracle, such as their number-one overall draft pick, Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton (who might possess only some of the traits of a college-star-turned-professional-bust), will befall. That they will become something more than they are.
From where does this hope, this desire to struggle against futility, derive? As a fanatic, I would like to believe that I am inured against sentimentality in sports. I understand that the underdog rarely wins, that so-called intangibles like heart and courage pale in comparison to strength and speed. I am not given to the dewy-eyed wistfulness of baseball fans, who hold up their game as some sort of fetish or totem of national courage and values. Yet, it is sentimentality that gives me hope, because whenever the fiasco of my team becomes too much to bear, I return to my sole moment of football glory for a lift.
It is a condition of the football fanatic that he or she will entertain some idea of playing the game. For me, it was an ambition that quickly resolved into an unreachable fantasy. I was as tall and wide as a teen, but I had no speed or strength or athletic ability. My attempts to join a team either at school or elsewhere were rebuffed by coaches who told me that they’d have a spot on their rosters as soon as I could block, tackle, and run. I was relegated to backyard and street games.
My team was often comprised of my brother, Lucas, and two neighborhood kids, also brothers, Stephen and David. They were not ideal teammates: Lucas found every opportunity to pick a fight, turning every two-hand touch game into a bloody scrum of flying elbows and dropkicks; Stephen was an epileptic and the slightest contact might set off a seizure; David suffered from a gastrointestinal problem that had him running to the bathroom between plays. I was no better. My only assets were that I was tall and fat. I could withstand most tackles, and if challenged by an encroaching defender I could hold the ball high above my head until I found an open man downfield. But we were a team and we played in what seemed like an endless string of losing campaigns. We were bonded in our losses and bore them silently, slapping one another across the back with a grim and exhausted resolve as we watched other kids whoop and sing and dance in victory.
The game that I so often recall was another rout. My team and I hadn’t comported ourselves any better than we normally did, and perhaps we performed even worse. At some point we no longer tried to defend and instead watched the opposing team swoop past us toward the end zone. When our adversaries told us that the score was 70-0, we only nodded in weary acknowledgment.
We played in the street, our end zones demarcated by the street signs flanking either end of the block. Lucas had assured that the friendly touch game had devolved into a bitter, hard-tackling affair, and so we were covered in bruises and scrapes and only wanted to end the game and return to our homes.
We received the ball for what our tormentors loudly declaimed would be the final series. I took the first snap and fell back to pass. A defender coming from my blind side put his shoulder into my back and was dragging me to the ground when I tried to dump off the ball with an underhand spiral. The underhand spiral is a lowly, unused, most often untaught play, and for good reason. Unlike the overhand spiral, which, when executed well, can result in magnificent rainbow arcs that loop downfield into the hands of a receiver, or in quick speedy strikes for short yardage, the underhand spiral, thrown from the hip, rarely rises above shoulder height and travels a minimal amount of yards. It is foolish for any quarterback to attempt such a throw that could be so easily intercepted.
The only reason I knew of the pass was because it was drilled into me and my other classmates at Crystal Lake Elementary by our P.E. coach, a sullen man who snuck cigarettes into the equipment room and muttered whenever he watched us running wind sprints. It seemed an affront to our coach to have to instruct us in the fundamentals of so vulgar a game as American Football. He refused to teach anything of practical utility: no forward passes, no catching drills, no blocking drills. He taught us only how to run in a zigzag formation through orange safety cones and to throw an underhand spiral.
As my tackler dragged me down across the asphalt and into a patch of sandspurs edging the road, I threw the ball and expected to watch it be intercepted. I hoped for it, really, because it would at least mean an end to the game. The ball wobbled in the air and to my surprise, as I watched from the sandspurs with my tackler’s knee pressed down on my neck, Lucas caught it and ran. He ran with more purpose than I had ever seen. He ran with a runner’s posture—straight back, arms and legs pumping. His defender ran with him and then behind him as my brother’s speed held and his own flagged. He ran and ran as Stephen and David whooped him forward. He ran through the end zone, arms raised, jumping and sing.
I shook off my tackler and rose and joined my teammates. Our legs burned. Our arms burned. Our chests and lungs burned. Our bruises burned. Our scrapes bled and ran and burned. But we leapt and screeched and were exultant in our loss.
The opposing team called to us and reminded us that the game was now over, that we’d only made the one score. “Yeah,” Lucas said, as he bent and held his knees and gulped in great heaving breaths, “but we sure as hell earned it.”
Now in the depths of my fanaticism, I find that the hope that sustains me during the lean months when the 17 weeks of the regular season stretch into an interminable ordeal of disappointment is the hope that, even in the midst of a loss, my team will earn some small token—a first down, a solid series, a defensive stand, a score. It is the hope that rises within me when my memory flashes on the sight of my brother running, ball in hand, a streak of boyhood speed, arms raised in a moment of unguarded joy, and I begin to believe that I might once again witness something unlikely and wonderful.
This essay appeared in a slightly different version in Promethean, Volume 38, Spring 2011.