In the fall of 1976 I put on a pair of those silly men-in-tights pants, strapped on enough shoulder pads to double my body weight, fitted a helmet, melted a plastic mouthpiece to form-fit to my teeth, and for two years playing football for the Bell Street Middle School Wildcats was central to my identity.
As a young boy, I was an avid Clinton High School football fan, traveling with WPCC radio, keeping statistics for Barry Whitman as he offered play-by-play for the Red Devils. The 1975 season was a highlight as we went all the way to the state championship. I could feel the thrill.
And I knew I was going to be a part of it someday.
My first day on the field at Bell Street, I practiced with the offensive line. I was in the 7th grade and I’m not sure I even weighed 95 pounds. What were they thinking!?
But within a couple practices I was lining up where I should have been, running post patterns, button-hooks, down-and-ins. Wide receiver suited me, though I knew in my heart I was meant to throw the passes, not catch them.
So, in the Wildcats’ stellar 1977 season (we finished 4-4), I lined up as the quarterback behind Greg Jackson every offensive play, calling the defense as I barked the cadence: “54, Ready, HUT!” I wasn’t Bradshaw, Tarkenton, or Staubach, yet, but like those NFL quarterbacks I loved it.
For two idyllic years, I lived it.
I loved sweltering fall practices, the smell of a sweaty locker room. I reveled in the sideline chatter and locker room banter… stepping into the pocket, looking for my primary receiver, the precision of a “36-power bootleg,” the power of a “44 dive.” I enjoyed the nervous bus rides to games, raucous chant-filled victory returns, cheer leaders in uniform for game days, the smell of a competition in the air.
I even loved pre-practice calisthenics and post-practice “suicide” sprints!
There’s a lot of ego in that football air, especially when you’re a starter, but if you ever hear anyone say football is the greatest team sport there is, it’s because football is the greatest team sport there is. Nothing compares.
In high school I forsook football my destiny and touched Wilder Stadium’s grass only with the marching band, and I marched four years at Furman. I loved that challenge and camaraderie, too. I also played basketball and tennis – but two years of football rule my memories.
My coaches, John Farmer and Claude Underwood, are still heroes, and though I haven’t seen most of my teammates in 35 years, I won’t forget Dean Gary and Ralph Copeland, Todd Davenport and Darryl Suber and Andy Walker, TC Gary and Eddie Choice.
I understand the craze. I’ve lived it. It was just middle school, but I lived football.
So I understand the passion, the power, the pride. I’ve lived in Friday, Saturday, and Sunday football towns (Clinton, Clemson, Charlotte). I’ve experienced the Clemson/Carolina craze and the insanity of Alabama’s Iron Bowl. I truly understand football.
And I’ve just about given it all up.
I told a friend I had an opinion piece due, and was going to write about football or Christmas. He said, “One is a religion, the other is a holiday devoted to buying stuff.”
If only we could muster such a religious, national passion for justice.
Players (starting with our children) are expendable commodities, flaunted as long as they can walk, tossed to the side the next day. The sport has always been tough. It’s become barbaric. Like the sadistic thrill of NASCAR crashes, the hits keep getting nastier, and we just keep buying $150 jerseys and $9.50 beers to keep them coming.
The Hall of Fame looks like a nursing home, walls littered with broken-down giants, million-dollar invalids, and headliners keep making the headlines: “Another Football Great Commits Suicide.”
Since the NFL now owns Sunday, it’s appropriate Bowl Season comes alongside Christmas, our other religious spectacle. But this year, as you’re watching, worshiping, maybe you’ll join me in asking why, and praying for the nation which has made a game into a dangerous, consuming idolatry.
Photo Credit: Ben White