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Why Football Season is the Greatest Sports Thing on Earth: A Somewhat Incoherent Essay

| July 23rd, 2014

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Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

-Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly

The ritual of Sunday mornings is unique to each American football fan and this one is no different. Mine and the lady’s fancy coffee maker has the pot warm when I wake, usually no later than 6 AM. I accumulate my morning news – NY Times Arts section, Drudge & Huffington because I’m too lazy to not have my politics aggregated for me on both sides, Guardian soccer.  After a shower and a visit to the marble throne I’m on the 7 train from Queens to Josie Woods bar in Manhattan where I proceed with the ritual of push-pinning jerseys to the rafters and selecting which games will go where on the myriad of televisions. (Pats and Eagles fans are sent way, way, far away from us.)

Josie Woods isn’t a great bar. Hell, I’m not even sure Josie Woods is a mediocre bar. But Steph is there. Maciej is there. Reverend Dave is there when he’s not contracting insect-borne illnesses on the dark continent. Sometimes Noah shows up! Brian and Wayne and Alicia and Vinny used to be there. Josie Woods is the canvas on which the portrait of my Bears fandom has been laid these last fourteen years. The Art Institute in which that portrait has been displayed? You’re looking at it.

Every Sunday on the last barstool to the left is cherished. How could it not be? I can still recount every tear I’ve shed, both in joy and sadness, in that corner. And while age and maturity and the growing seriousness of this site have allowed me to harness the rising tide of emotion each Sunday, I still feel it all, in the moment.

Football has the shortest season. Football has the least number of games. The Wall Street Journal calculated that those football games total eleven minutes of actual football playing. So a majority of NFL teams will engage in 176 minutes of football action. For context, every Major League Baseball team will have eclipsed that total with ease by the end of their first series.

Every moment is more significant. Every snap draws more attention. Every game leaves a larger mark. The most nerve-wracking minute in a football fan’s life is the minute right before opening kickoff because they know everything can change once the ball goes in the air. Every Monday morning is either elation or depression and that elatiodepression builds for an entire week into the next contest. By Wednesday the NFL fan is waking up with night terrors, screaming “Don’t throw it there, Cam, ahhh!” (It’s okay, honey. Sleep. Sleep.) The games themselves are unique to the other sports as well.

THE FIELD GOAL BLOCK

Think about the field goal block for a moment.

Your team starts a drive at their own 20. 3 yard run. First down pass. 4 yard run. First down pass. 10, 11 plays. Down the field with ease. Run. Screen. Draw. Tight end in the flat.

Red zone. Tougher to move the ball. Holding. Left guard. Shit.

Run a few plays, gain some yards. Touchdown has gone by the side of the road but three points are there. Make the three and leave the field with confidence from the drive. Line up for a field goal. Long snap. Kick.

Blocked into the sky. Caught by defensive end. Oh lord, he’s running with it. (Raises pint glass to lips.) 81 yards. Touchdown.

Six or seven minutes of genuine pride and excitement destroyed in a moment. Somewhere, in some other bar, in some other city, a different fan base suffered those six or seven minutes and now are raising crystal glasses of Veuve Clicquot.

In a stunning baseball moment, what can happen? A home run? In hockey or soccer, a goal? On a basketball court, a four-point play? Unless these things happen in a game’s dying moments they will never feel emotionally insurmountable. Football history is littered with games where one moment changed everything and often those moments are buried within the game.

In the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl I never read in one of the five hundred prediction columns this would be the opening play from scrimmage:

(14:53) (Shotgun) 18-P.Manning Aborted. 66-M.Ramirez FUMBLES at DEN 14, recovered by DEN-27-K.Moreno at DEN -8. 27-K.Moreno tackled in End Zone, SAFETY (56-C.Avril). Penalty on DEN-18-P.Manning, Illegal Motion, declined.

I watched the Super Bowl alongside two Denver Broncos fans. One turned to the other after that snap and quietly whispered, “I’m going out for a smoke. This is not going to go well.” He knew. We all knew.

TIME IS THE REASON WHY…

…every NFL Sunday is a perfect three act play.

Structure snobs believe strongly in a three-act structure when it comes to dramatic writing. The best description may very well be this:

ACT ONE. Get the guy up a tree.

ACT TWO. Throw rocks at him.

ACT THREE. Either he climbs down the tree safely (comedy) or falls to his death (tragedy).

Wednesday through Saturday we set up our characters. And not in a David Mamet way – minimal action, suggestive dialogue. We set up our characters like Eugene O’Neill – sprawling stage directions and long, detailed speeches about time at sea. This quarterback has a tendency to throw these routes late and this cornerback has a tendency to jump those routes and thus there’s A GOOD CHANCE THAT WILL BE THE KEY TO THE GAME. Writers who do this, myself included, are not just filling space. Pre-game analysis is an attempt to make the often irrational rational. Imagine being handed 200 puzzle pieces but no image to construct.

Then the game. Rocks. Drama. The tailback tears his ACL. The left tackle can’t handle the edge rush. The quarterback has a career game. The kicker makes the two longest field goals of his career but misses an extra point. Football overloads the viewer with information because unlike almost all other sports it is impossible to digest in a single viewing. Fans only see what television shows them and one’s eyes can only fix upon one action at a time.

When the whistle blows final, well, it all starts. The Parade of Reaction & Overreaction. The Twitter squabbles. The anger directed at the overly negative Tribune columnist and the hate email directed my way for NOT pushing the panic button in Week Three. (Of the 40 or so emails I’ll receive on a Sunday evening at least 3/4 of them are doused in the day’s alcohol.)

Bad performances are systematic of a larger problem. Buzz word: exposed. Good performances sell a few hundred jerseys that will more than likely end up at the bottom of the closet by Christmas. A win makes that Monday morning commute just a tad bit easier (I’ve heard) and a loss leaves one hitting the snooze two or three additional times because asleep there is still a chance to dream of victory.

AND THEN IT ENDS.

A bad team can get not so bad and that increase in quality can be viewed as success. A decent team can make the playoffs and that playoff run can be viewed as success. A good team can win a playoff game and that playoff victory can be viewed as success. This is what Pat Riley referred to as “the innocent climb”. Each of those fan bases burst into the offseason.

If we can just hire that coordinator, we’ll go from 6 wins to 8 wins.

If we can just convince that free agent to come, we’ll go from 8 to 10.

A home run draft and a few playoff wins are not out of the question!

No league in the history of man sells hope better than the NFL. They sell it those large tubs you can purchase cheese puffs in at Cosco.

puffs

And fans, all fans, buy it. Just ask yourself this question: is there a single team in the NFC that doesn’t believe they can make the postseason in 2014? The answer might, might, MIGHT be the Minnesota Vikings and they have a new head coach, a rookie quarterback and will be playing the upcoming season in a temporary, outdoor home.

One of the reasons there was a strange outrage around United States men’s national team manager Jurgen Klinsman saying our boys did not have a chance to win the World Cup is because an intrinsic quality of the American sports fan is the belief that this could be the year no matter how implausible the thought may be. (Or for Cubs fans, wait till NEXT year!) No American sport prospers from this ideology more than professional football.

Football season is the greatest sports thing on earth not only because everyone believes at the start of the campaign a championship is possible. It is greatest because each week is its own beautiful, three-act experience and a majority of that experience takes place off the field, in the hearts and minds of its fans. The optimism/nervous anticipation of Friday and happiness/sadness of Monday morning are as much part of the NFL experience as game days.

In that sense it is truly the fans’ game in ways no other sport in this country could hope to be.

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