This comment was by Tom Matlack, on Jamie Reidy’s post Bad Sports: NFL’s Saints Pay for Pain
Forgive this overly long comment, an unpublished recollection of my short football career:
The New England Patriots first introduced me to football. They held summer camp at UMass just across town. I rode my bike to the practice fields to stare through the fence in awe at the tight spiral of footballs lofted up in the blue sky. I jumped at the crack of three hundred pound men smashing into each other. These were men to be sure. But their otherworldliness made me want to learn as much as I could about the game before choosing sides in the warfare. The violence I witnessed on the field took courage of a very different from Dad’s Quaker ideals. Yet in the sport I found an antidote to my sense that I had been born a freak. Here was a path to manhood that was much more within the norm: violence controlled by the rules of the game with clear winners and losers. Compared to the free-for-all at home, football made sense to me. It quickly became my point of reference, the moral compass with which I could understand everything else.
After careful deliberation, Alan Page and Carl Eller, nasty defensive linemen who played on the frozen Minnesota tundra, became my heroes. I worshipped the “Purple People Eaters” who were the dominant defensive line of that era. The purple and gold uniforms, the mystique of ancient Vikings, and my cousin Peter’s encouragement turned me from the local team to these far-away mythic warriors. A wall of my bedroom was soon covered in Sports Illustrated pictures taped up to create a huge collage to remind myself, in case I ever forgot, what greatness looked like. For Christmas when I was ten, all I wanted was Viking gear.
At my maternal grandparents’ house in Bethesda, Maryland, Santa brought full pads and a real football. Grandpa Jesse was bald as a bowling ball, and he had mastered the art of moving his scalp to make his enormous ears wiggle. It made me laugh every time. He took me to the zoo when the Pandas arrived from China and showed me how to make a whistle by carving a twig from a willow tree. He loved to fly kites and passed his ice cream addiction to me directly through his DNA. I once asked my mom what Grandpa Jesse did for work (he had a government job) and she told me he put the caps on toothpaste tubes. I was sure that’s exactly what he did and that he was happy doing it. He was a large man who mom told me that had once played football. That made him a god in my eyes.
After all our presents were opened, Grandpa Jesse took me and Dad to the playing fields across the street with all my gear on. Dad threw me a bomb. I held onto the ball for dear life despite the fact that it knocked me flat on my back, momentarily unable to breathe. It was the best Christmas ever.
I was a natural football player, athletic from the day I emerged a giant from my mother’s womb. I had huge hands with which I could swallow up a football thrown anywhere nearby. I came to love Sundays. I would get up early to watch NFL films, which replayed the prior week’s highlights with a now famous baritone narrator reporting the heroics. Then I’d go into the backyard to re-enact critical plays in slow motion, the dramatic music still ringing in my ears. Finally, I’d head inside to watch the week’s games live.
Fran Tarkenton, the hard-nosed quarterback for the Vikings, and Sonny Jurgensen, the toothless throw back who split time at quarterback for the Redskins with Billy Kilmer, were good guys with no strings attached. Watching football was also a way to connect with Dad, who sat in the corner of the wooden box and foam rubber mattress that constituted our homemade sofa to watch his Philadelphia Eagles religiously. Apparently his commitment to non-violence didn’t carry over to sport. By the time I was ten he had read Paper Lion (George Plimpton, 1967), Semi-Tough (Dan Jenkins, 1972), and Stop-Action (Dick Butkus, 1972) out loud to me not once but twice each. These were seminal works of non-fiction in my mind, depicting good and evil in stark and realistic terms by which I planned to live my life.
My best friend in the third grade was a nice Jewish boy name Stuart Hoffman, whose father was a physics professor at UMass. Stuart and I were an even match in chess but more important he was able, and willing, to run fly and curl routes for me well beyond dusk night after night. There was only one problem: he was a Miami Dolphins fan. This meant he cheered against the Patriots during the regular season and when Tark led the Vikes to the 1973 Super Bowl, Stuart had the balls to suggest a $1 bet. We watched the game together at his house, but by the third quarter I was so heartbroken I called my Dad to come pick me up, forking over the bill to Stuart before I left.
Eventually all this reading, watching, and pretending to play wasn’t enough. I yearned to play real football in a real league, not just run around my backyard pretending. I counted down the days until I was old enough to play in the local football league: eleven. The summer before I was assigned to a team, I learned that the league had a maximum weight limit of 150 pounds. At the time I was approaching six feet and well over 170 pounds. I starved myself just to get the chance to play the game I loved. My hippie mom thought I was crazy, but her free-love attitude didn’t allow her to say “no” to anything, even football.
To make weight and insure that I would become an instant star, I set up a summer-long training camp in my back yard. I had watched Jim Plunkett workout at UMass and seen Brian’s Song, about Gayle Sayers and Brian Piccolo, so I knew the drill. I started each day by running lap after lap around our large yard, sprinting certain pre-determined sections of the grass, running backwards in others, and finally shuffling full speed sideways towards the end. Then I’d pick up my football and throw a hundred passes at a target painted on a two foot square piece of plywood at a distance of twenty yards. I kept careful track of the number of bull’s eyes each day, making sure to improve my score. I spent the next half hour running with the ball up and down the yard, stiff-arming imaginary tacklers. When I felt I had almost done enough in the humid heat, I’d get out my kicking tee. There were two trees growing conveniently along the chain-link fence at the far end of the yard. I favored the straight ahead kicking style used by Tom Dempsey, who had club foot caused by a birth defect, when he hit a record 63-yarder in 1970. Once I had made ten field goals, I’d head in for lunch and rest up for the afternoon session.
My first day of real practice there was no dramatic music, or deep-voiced narrator, like on the NFL films. “You can touch the center’s family jewels; just don’t caress them like a fucking girl!” our coach screamed at the quarterback after he fumbled the snap. I was playing defensive end, just like my idol Alan Page. But I soon realized I had no idea how to contain the sweep to the outside. That first day I got slapped on the helmet until coach was just so fed up he made me run laps around the field. All of a sudden, my Dad’s approach didn’t seem all that bad. The long-winded answers of an Oxford scholar and Yale PhD were easier to take than an old man with a tooth-pick and a foul mouth dishing out physical abuse to toughen me up.
Our first game was even worse. I was the largest kid on the field, yet the opposing coach sensed my complete lack of skill. I ran up the field to try to contain the run in my direction, but they just ran sweep after sweep in my direction. Each time I found myself deep in the offensive backfield as the running back cut behind me to long gains. Coach pulled me out of the game, grabbed my facemask and told me in no uncertain terms how worthless I was. “Your only job is to contain the run. Keep the ball inside. You’re a pussy, plain and simple. Get the fuck out of my sight.”
I sat on the bench and thought about the Purple-People-Eaters and my Quaker pacifist parents. I had been obsessed with football as a way to counter-act how uncomfortable my family’s behavior made me. I had harbored dreams of becoming a football star and leaving everything that I didn’t understand about my parents behind. I thought I had found the silver bullet of manhood. But I was wrong. This was even worse than eating soybeans and realizing my mom didn’t shave her armpits. There was never a second game. I took up soccer.
photo by p_x_g / flickr