Sunday, August 26, 2012

Not Quite Ready for Some Football

I spent last Friday night with my dad. We went to see the Minnesota Vikings American football team play the Buffalo Bills in a preseason game. These days, unlike in my youth, I am not a big fan of football. Many of you can count as many reasons to not like the game, but I will watch football with my dad. Not just watch, but appreciate some of it’s finer points.

There are two things that I continue to appreciate about football. The first is that football is one of the few places in our society where a Black man can come close to being recognized and paid for his efforts on par with his White counterparts. There are still hurdles of biases that most players must overcome, but the results on the field are hard to argue. Some try to run a subconscious and sometimes conscious sabotage. The stumbling blocks are not unfamiliar and not unique to football, but that sabotage often backfires in an atmosphere where any kind of anger or animosity have a very welcome physical response in kind that is likely to be rewarded on the field. However all the factors figure, the field is more even than most aspects of society.

The other thing I like about football is that it is how dad went to college. He paid his way into school on an athletic scholarship. (The photo on the banner of this blog is dad from his college playing days.)

There was a time as a kid, when my favorite sport was whatever sports season was in full swing. In the winter, I wanted to grow up to be a professional basketball player and then, later a professional hockey player. In the spring, I wanted to become a professional baseball player. In the fall, it was football. Those fantasies added to any fun that came with being out with the other boys, to play in the fields and playgrounds or just play in my imagination. Later I had fun playing on the team dad coached, a volunteer job he held for 29 years at Holy Spirit School in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Like with so many of the boys who became men on a journey boosted by their learning from dad, football was not so much fun after 8th grade when I was too old to play on his team: when football came to mean less about personal and social life and more about how important football was to our elders.

It was not that we did not learn about football. Those who played for dad carried with them a reputation of skill and how to play well and safely. We also learned to practice and play with pride, with respect for teammates and opponents, coaches and officials, and that ideally, we would carry those ideal back home, to school and on the streets of our community. And I knew that even as a kid who would not get his growth spurt for a couple of years, I could still bring down a running back who outweighed me by 50 pounds.

But unlike experiencing the game alone or with someone else or the television commentators, talking about what happens on the field that honestly critiques the game and not the players, talking about the players knowing what they had to do to get there and like they are the physical and emotional beings they are, and hoping that their experience in the National Football League will help support them and their families during the rest of their life time.

Friday, we watched, not “ready for some football,” like Hank Williams, Jr., or the masses of onlookers that drive the pseudo-capitalistic machine that paid Williams for that song that sounds more like the soundtrack to accompany the guy with the beer on the sofa than the majestic athletes on the field. I am not sure if I have a song for those athletes, the ones who have been encouraged to weigh 300 pounds but are still quicker and faster than any of us watching, the guy who will be injured giving his best to please the crowd who will forget him a minute after he leaves the field, the tears of joy from a mom or dad who is seeing their son on the NFL’s field for the first time or that exceptional player who goes home every night to the love of a woman and maybe a child–whether that week they are in the same city or not.

After I left for college, my youngest sister Jennifer became dad’s football partner. Today, she is the biggest fan, still as cognizant of all the social, political and cultural shortcomings, and still, even as a resident of Chicago, a Vikings fan. She is the true lover of American football. It is very charming, the two of them, intelligent discourse on a brutal game. But this Friday–his time, I got to hang out with dad. Thanks dad for taking your boy to a game.

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