I never cared for football when I was younger. The appeal was a complete mystery to me. Football seemed to lack the finesse and grace of basketball, the americana and “anyone can do it” charm of baseball, and even the pure, violent appeal of martial arts and boxing. It looked to my uncomprehending eyes like a bunch of guys colliding with each other over and over for 3 hours. I didn’t get it.
To be an adolescent male who doesn’t like football in Oklahoma is to belong to a very particular social subset. We were, in our own minds at least, the vanguard- those too bright or strange to be taken in by the prevailing winds, too discerning to just follow the common herd. We were wrong, of course. Our arrogance was a cheap defense mechanism, a convenient substitute for fully formed personalities. For all I know, my entire life would have been quite different had I, as my gym teacher suggested, tried out for linebacker. I declined; it seemed silly to me. In retrospect I may have just been too lazy.
I once was blind, but now I see. This Saturday, I will most likely put on a red polo shirt, dress my 10 month old son in the OU shirt his uncle bought him, and settle in for a lovely evening of yelling at the tiny people on my TV screen. There may even be cheese dip. My 16 year old self would no doubt be appalled. In a way he would be right; It is utterly silly to care so much about a college athletic event. Fortunately, that silliness in no way detracts from the merits of the event itself.
I started to come around to football when I met my future wife, Lisa. She grew up in San Diego and went to UCLA, and is a rabid Bruins fan. She was also an OU grad student at the time, and was a fixture at meteorology department football watch parties (if I had taken geography at the time, she would have been my teacher, which I have to admit I find utterly hot.) The cultural divide that exists (or that I perceived in high school) here between people who like sports and people who are open minded and progressive doesn’t exist in large, liberal, sports crazy cities. What’s more, once I learned the sport of football and understood what was really happening on the field, I came to enjoy it more than any other sport, save for basketball.
Football is the most cerebral of American sports. You baseball stat heads are already typing your angry emails, but hear me out. American Football is basically a turn based strategy game. It’s chess on astroturf. Quick, what do you do on 3rd and 4 at the 25? You rush, obviously…or do you go long and try to knock it into the endzone? Maybe you kick a field goal and settle for 3…any of those options could work, any of them could go horribly wrong. I always assumed that you should participate in sports by identifying with the players; football is the sport where you can identify with the coach. Bob Stoops, our paunchy field marshal, shouts orders over his headset and his soldiers respond with acts of amazing athleticism. It’s unaccountably inspiring. The battle of inches and yards makes the history major in me think of Verdun and the first world war, and for that matter Petersburg and Gettysburg. If one accepts that these primal energies that might make the state of Oklahoma and the state of Texas feel the need to battle each other are real, it is a great blessing that they can be exorcised without anyone getting gassed.
I was wrong to think that football lacks the grace of basketball. Watching Adrian Peterson taught me that. Seeing a running back absolutely explode under heavy pressure is an amazing thing. Dexterity, agility, and grace are the name of the game. QB’s get all the credit and blame, so I hesitate to even mention them (I don’t think they are as important as people seem to think) but the pinpoint accuracy and grace under pressure of a Sam Bradford or a…what’s that OSU dude named? That one guy? The 35 year old? You can’t oversell that. It’s a gift. So is the ability to knock over a 300lb guy going 40 miles per hour. Yes, football is brutal, yes it is the most violent team sport short of Rugby, but it’s also calculated and, in it’s own way, beautiful.
I don’t know if I want Elliott to play football when he’s older. There are enough horror stories about concussions and Parkinson’s and heat stroke to make any parent more than a little wary. There are also myriad tales of character building and life long friendships and free trips to college. I don’t think anyone should play it seriously until they are at least 16; that seems to me to be the moment at which you can trusted to choose to put yourself in danger. Lord knows I did things as a 16 year old that were far more dangerous. In retrospect, I got lucky. The things you can get from unprotected sex can’t be fixed with physical therapy.
If football is truly Oklahoma’s national religion, I count myself a convert. It is a colossal drama, a tense and violent struggle for a meaningless abstract goal. Just like life.