I’d never touched a football before I turned ten. Didn’t have a favorite team. No Cowboys posters on the wall. But in the first week of September in my last year of high school, I sat in the locker room at Rhodes Stadium just outside of Houston, with my ankles taped and my wrists taped and my arms and my legs extended in down-dog. Giddy like a bee, or a newborn kitten.
It was our last season, the only one that matters. We took the field in waves, ball carriers and quarterbacks first. Next came defenders, and everyone who couldn’t catch. The kicker and his backups made up the third wave, already leaning toward spring for that other holy fútbol . That left the rest of us in the room, splayed out like dead things waiting to dance.
We huddled at the exit, palming a finger-worn doorway. We jogged through the awning, under the blow-up, onto the turf . We mumbled the Pledge of Allegiance, palming each other’s shoulder pads during the National Anthem, slapping the hell out of them on the brave , until the captains swaggered forward for the coin toss—and then we huddled up, shouting motherfuck and fuck you to set the mood, all under the lights, all under the crowd.
We took the first snap.
We spent ninety minutes colliding like dogs, broken up with rare moments of grace: a plié across the sideline, an extension to fondle the shitty pass. Exhilarating, all of it; but absurd, all of it. Pointless, at the end of it, but beautiful if you’re in it.
And we did it until it was done. Until it was done with us. We found intramurals, adult leagues. Fantasy drafts. But we didn’t get it back.
Lately it’s been in vogue to disparage the sport. Possibly because we have unraveled the layers of the game, deconstructed some of its iron-clad lore—but maybe just because of the way the thing was designed; it couldn’t help but show its ass eventually.
There’s the question of the brutality, the long-term damage. There’s the question of sponsoring domestic violence as routine. There’s the stout homophobia and the misallocation of national attention and, maybe, most significantly, the deification of men—some of whom have no business being anyone’s role model, let alone their God.
If you’re a devotee hearing these issues discussed in mixed company, there’s denial. My personal response is always a clench of the gut. The clipped inhale. Because there’s no denying any of it; I have yet to hear a credible refutation. But it’s also hard, sometimes, to sip your beer and agree. There’s the conciliatory yes— and then also your but .
Because it was different, if you were there. You think if you could just show it to them, they’d believe you.
Or maybe this is just to say I’m finding it harder and harder to justify; to quantify that but.
It’s hardest when I look at my brother, R. He, too, lives in Texas. He’s growing up in a place that puts pigskin on a pedestal higher than God. A place that could, ultimately, give a shit about boys like him, unless they’re out on the field, running a ball, in which case there’s nothing on Earth that could be holier.
But when we talk about football, often, we don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about the repercussions. We don’t talk about after .
R: You see this highlight? You see this move he put on him?
Me: I saw it. You sent it to me.
R: I’m putting that on someone next season.
Me: Sure. Okay. But if it happens to you, I’m calling 911.
R: You’re sleep. Not in your life. But look at this one—that’s sick.
Me: You’re right, it’s not happening. You’re right, that’s pretty sick.
I recently moved to a new city. On the eve of the preseason fans don face paint along with their usual wares; whole platoons of children strut around rocking their jerseys. It’s strange to watch what you thought was small-town mystification grab a whole city by the heels. You look up, and it’s everywhere.
But it wasn’t until I was in the chair with my barber—a woman with tattoos of, among other things, notable Saints players—that the full effect of football’s social dominance hit me square in the beans. Her enthusiasm struck me because I’d evicted myself from that world; easing back into talk of tackles and dominance and projections and stats wasn’t a seamless transition.
We started off with small talk: She asked if I watched the sport at all. Smiled when I began the test with the correct answer. Moving on: my favorite team?
I told her I didn’t have one, I watched whoever was winning.
It was then, for the first time in a decade, that a hairdresser clipped my ear. She apologized immediately. Chalked up to a long day. We moved on to other topics, the changing weather, the price of gas. After another lull, she asked me, grinning, where I planned on watching The Game.
Here’s a literary mystery: No one’s written the Great American Football Novel.
There’s no obvious reason for this. Every yard on the field holds a lifetime. Football’s a narrative within many narratives, same as any other sport; you could call it our nation’s very own literary device. It is a void and it is a mantelpiece. The standard and the otra. We’ve even got in-house heroes: Brett Favre. Aikman. Moss, Faulk. Sayers and Ditka. Bradshaw and Elway. Lewis. Manning. White and Marino and Deion.
But something else occurs to me: In order to write the Great One, or even a Very Good One, then, statistically, objectively, your protagonist would have to be black. Or at least he probably wouldn’t be white.
I suppose the possibility of a black man as the star of the Great American Football Novel is about as dim as the possibility of a football novel to begin with.
Who’s to say that everyone on the field isn’t living their own Odysseys already?
I was living somebody else’s. The same way a lot of us are, maybe even more so when we’re younger. I was stuck in Ben and Sean’s stories. They were my confidantes on the team, these two guys I looked up to. They were our protagonists.
They were both the same age, generations apart when it came to cool. While Ben was effortless—tall and lanky and goofy—Sean was his opposite: short where the other was tall, curt where the other was affable. Ben had skin like dull oak. Sean wore his light, like creamed coffee.
They scored most of our points. No one else on our side did shit. We were a suburban school, hot on academics, but broke when it came to athletic depth. Which is also to say we weren’t overburdened with black people. Part of it came down to district demographics, but chalking it all up to that would leave out layers of intent: the boosters, the grooming, the drawing boards in the coaches’ office. Even if Sean and Ben didn’t look the part, initially—hampered by the rest of us, dropping screens and scuttling tackles—by the third game in the season, there wasn’t any question who we leaned on. Ben caught the ball, and Sean ran it in.
Sometimes I got to touch it. Mostly I blocked for my friends. I didn’t like blocking, but I did it well; I picked people up and set them down elsewhere, while my friends looked more and more like the heroes our team needed them to be.
Ben was short, stocky. A thoughtful asshole. The first boy I knew to go into town and come back with a half-sleeve (angels up and down his arm, cradling his mother’s initials), and also tight pants, revolutionary for Katy, Texas. He had the quickest feet I’ve ever seen. During one practice, in the heat of August, he pointed out a player on the defense—someone decent at his position—and told me exactly how he’d put him on his ass. Then he slipped on his helmet, took his stance, caught the ball, and did it.
If Ben was steel, Sean was butter. Jokes were his way of life. When he finally made it around to cracking on you, you couldn’t get mad, because that’s who he was. He was also the laziest human being I’d ever encountered.
But! When he caught the ball!
I’d have to draw you a picture to help you understand. Or maybe I could just say that every catch was the climax of a very short play, a little Lorcian rink-a-dink, one you couldn’t recognize until you finally saw it. Sean plucked the ball from the sky like a daydream. He took care of the rock like most parents do their children: No one else was touching it, you had to work to even look at it, and if you did sneak a peek he was probably already on his way past you, out of sight, out of mind. Despite the sloth, despite the things we sometimes hated him for, Sean could catch the hell out of the ball, and no one was taking that away from him.
R: Look at this one. You see what he did here?
Me: Knees don’t do that. Knees aren’t supposed to go there.
R: If he’d come correct he wouldn’t be the one on the ground.
Me: How long you think anyone will remember that?
R: Doesn’t matter. Long enough. The guy on the ground will.
Me: The guy on the ground is done. His career could be over. This was the last day in the league for the guy on the ground.
R: You’re not making any sense—no one makes it in the league. But look at this one. Look what he does here.
We lost the first few games, but then we started winning. We started winning because Sean and Ben started being themselves. When Sean ripped off a twenty-yard sprint, our defense remembered their cues. Ben stretched out for a pass behind the end zone, and all of our kicks went in.
There’s this thing that happens in sports—when it’s going well, the only future is the one right in front of you. The next play was what mattered, because that’s what led to the next one. And when all the plays had run up, we had practice to look forward to. And after practice, we had the game, because the game was what we worked for; and who cared what came after the game, after the rainbow we’d forsaken every other prospect to reach?
Ben and Sean moved the ball up and down the field, because that’s what they knew they could do. They knew that, if nothing else, was possible. And because there wasn’t a readily available model of any other brand of black achievement (not in our town, not where we were coming from), it was widely assumed that after the season (our glorious season!), our local stars would be transplanted from the field of the last game to the field of some college or another. They would go on to play college ball and be at least moderately successful.
Ben, for all of his laziness, had a momentous season. He broke our school’s record for reception yards. Sean, as predicted, followed suit, running in and by and around his pursuers. We made it to the playoffs. We won one game and got stuffed in the second.
Most of us got started settling into future prospects. Ben and Sean didn’t go on to play college ball. They didn’t, as far as I’m aware, go much of anywhere.
And that didn’t bother us. They were celebrities in our lives. Where they were going after, and what they were sacrificing to get us there, wasn’t something we ever thought about. That was tomorrow, and any athlete will tell you that tomorrow is a lie.
One night about a year ago, a friend and I slipped into a bar in Houston just after the game-day crowd had dispersed. The conversation turned to the people sitting around us, and whatever film was plaguing charts that weekend, until we ended up at the police shooting the week before.
Which shooting specifically doesn’t especially matter—and that’s sad, that I don’t even have to tell you for you to get the gist—but, my friend concluded, it was the most black people he’d seen on the news in his lifetime.
We thought about that. We sipped from our drinks.
Except, he said. Except for Katrina. Maybe. But it’s definitely been the most as of late.
I told my friend he was wrong. He’d forgotten about sports.
Ah, he said.
The silence that followed was a little deeper, a little longer. We ordered another round.
If I’ve experienced any real joy in my lifetime—pure, unfiltered bliss—it’s been on the field. If all of this stupid sport’s faults emerge from this metaphor, this summation, then surely all of its merits do, too.
Let me tell you about it: a cool night in November. Crisp, Southern cold, just enough to make you flinch. Halftime of a game I haven’t played in, and I am a junior, and the match is so fucking tight—close enough to punk both sides into believing. In an arena seating something like ten thousand, every seat is full and everyone is standing. A wall of white on one side, a sea of blue on the other.
All of a sudden, a collective roar.
After one boy has leaped over someone else’s child, pure silence—an entire town willed to nothing by a moment of art, a glimpse of ballet. And then, again, the roar. When he hits the ground running. When he’s slammed into the sideline. When he jumps right back up.
Maybe I’ve gotten close to what I felt then. Maybe drugs could inch me close. Maybe those seconds after sex are closer. But a coach looked at me then, just after the jump, the two of us representing entirely different levels of involvement, and, as if we really understood each other, he asked if I’d ever seen anything like it.
I told him I had not.
This, he said, was magic. There was nothing else like it.
R: Next season will be the big one.
Me: Next season’s always the big one.
R: Don’t be spiteful.
Me: I’m being serious. I’m just thinking about afterwards.
R: I am too. But not everyone makes a problem out of a game.
Me: I’m not making problems.
R: You’re looking for them.
Me: I’m waiting. I’m waiting for your next season.
R: You should be. It’s gonna be wild. Y’all don’t even know yet.
I know the price is too steep. Sometimes, though, it almost feels worth it.
Around this time last year, my father and I drove to a scrimmage way out in the middle of nowhere to watch my little brother, who is taller than me, who is funnier than me, who has it in him to believe in a thing I will not always believe in. My folks live in a small town just beyond the city. For whatever reason, the destination in question was even more remote. A smidgen of Nothing in the Everything of Texas.
We got lost twice. Both teams were already stretching when we finally reached the field from the backroads—and I hardly had time to tell my brother to be careful, to not get his ass beat, before he told me , with a flick of the wrist, to go into the stands and watch the master do his thing.
And it came again, that giddiness. For the first time in years.
My dad and I sat with our elbows on our knees. The sky was a chalky red. When halftime came, he slipped me a dollar to get us some snow cones, and on my way back to the stands I saw a couple of kids tossing their own ball around. Other parents sat behind us, most of them white, but the color of their subject was the team in front of us. Everything was the team. Who’d end up starting that season. Which opponents needed scouting. Which weekends they were having family down, and whose child had just recovered from a traumatic injury. After a particularly gruesome collision, the lady behind me, in a straw hat and white sandals, asked if it was my brother who’d made that hit.
I won’t say I was happy or conflicted—just warm—when I told her it was.