Sir Andrew said “fight on my men, I am wounded but not yet slain. I shall lie here and bleed awhile, then rise and fight again.”
Inspiring words spoken by Hall of Fame head coach Marv Levy to his Buffalo Bills after losing to the New York Giants in the 1990 Super Bowl. This quote was then posted on the wall of the Bill’s locker room where it became their war cry, as Levy led them to three more consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Though they have since been referred to as “The Lost Rings”, four Super Bowl berths in a row remains a feat unmatched by any NFL team in the history of the game. Marv Levy was admitted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2001 and he is well deserving to have his bust placed within those hallowed walls.
Each year as the summer nights grow crisp and cool, the surge within the blood of this country stirs and hearts beat quick with anticipation. We don our brightly colored jackets, hats and jerseys, then venture out into the autumn night to cheer on the most American of gladiators, the football player.
“Football” everywhere else in the world is the common term for what we as Americans refer to as soccer. Yet football here looks like nothing else, the mighty cathedrals these warriors call home rival sports venues anywhere, but that is only the beginning. “Football” players around the world run onto the field of play with jerseys, shorts, shin guards, possibly gloves and a set of cleats.
Football players here are men of Biblical proportions. One look at a six-foot, seven-inch, 300 pound defensive tackle makes the David and Goliath story seem shockingly real. As if their proportions aren’t astounding enough, most have the physique of a body builder or power lifter, then add forty or so pounds of pads and other protective gear. This creates a barely human looking beast and your mind begs the question; “Is the suit for his protection or the other guy?” A brightly colored helmet bears the mark of his loyal tribe and the mask that covers his face finishes the look with that of a caged animal.
The only thing more frightening than the sight of one of these behemoths up close is seeing just how fast they can move. They spring into action from the cadence of the quarterback and the resulting sound can be unsettling for the un-indoctrinated. They grunt and growl like lions on the hunt, and they move after the ball carrier with the same manner of cunning and quickness. The impact of hunter and hunted is a twisted mesh of gnashing teeth and pads smacking together that reverberates all the way to where you sit watching in awe.
The seasoned football fan is past all of the initial shock of such sights and sounds, they now thirst for it with howls and clenched fists. The riotous shouting alone is not enough for them, so they bring along a plethora of noisemakers. Anything they can beat and bang on since they know their vocal cords will eventually give out in the chilled night air.
I must now evoke the words taken from the introduction of an ages old VHS tape I have at home. I don’t know who wrote the script but the narration is by the late James Coburn, and to this day it still puts a lump in my throat. Forgive me for paraphrasing since the intro is segmented by sound bites.
Football is game that fills our autumn nights with a rhythmic pulse. Millions watch the Super Bowl each year and sometimes its difficult to separate the sport from the spectacle.
Football is game born in the grassroots of America, and it is a game played with pride.
This is a portrait of Football America, a seamless garment woven of ritual and emotion. Football is a game played with the exuberance of youth, it is a game played with a warriors heart.
Football has a scope as rich and diverse as America herself and it stretches from sea to shining sea.
Football is a game that glories in its toughness, with a willingness to endure and play on when other games would not. Football may have started as a pastime, but it has grown into something more. Something that is uniquely American, listen, and you can hear it growing ever stronger.
It seems hard to believe, but before I was a car guy, before I was playing with toy cars (or at least around the same time) I was fascinated by football. There hasn’t been a Super Bowl played that I missed watching on television. I can recall getting a football helmet as a young child as one of my most memorable Christmas experiences. I went though more tape and paper cutting out various logos to adorn the side of that helmet so I could imagine being the many different players I watched on TV.
A childhood friend also got a helmet and a ball and we used to stage entire seasons in his back yard. We would throw the game winning passes, score the touchdowns and thrust our fists into the air in mighty triumph. We could laugh and cheer and pretend to hear the roar of thousands of fans. We would even do our own slow motion replays, and I can tell you falling and diving in slow motion can be tough to pull off. None of the reality mattered to us, if we wanted any of that all we had to do was cross the fence and play with my brother and some of his friends. They were all older and bigger so needless to say we got all of the agony of defeat over there we could stand. Over there it was just a back yard filled with pain and disappointment, but across the fence it was home field advantage. There was the roar of the crowd and the narration of the great plays just like we saw our heroes do on Sunday.
Once I grew older you found out that pain and fortitude are major parts of the game. Football practice was a hell on Earth you never knew existed, and it quickly separates those who love the game from those who just thought about it. Forcing you to be tired enough to reach down to your most base instincts. To learn the fine art of being able to pound your team-mate, help him back up and then try your best to cleave him asunder a scant few seconds later…and all of this happens while you are still a middle schooler.
This phase of the game is often referred to as “pee-wee” football, but the only reference you will ever hear of that at practice is either you need to use the restroom after you’ve put all that junk on, or you have been told by the coach to knock that particular fluid out of the guy across from you. This is also the first taste of the glory that comes from the “friday night lights”.
Early on you were issued a “game jersey” and expressly forbidden to wear it to practice. The game night finally comes and you pull on your squeaky clean uniform, clean off any dirt and grime from your helmet so your logo is plainly seen. You tape up your cleats to keep them from coming untied and you run onto the brightly lit field to the sounds of young cheerleaders and your screaming parents. Those sounds fade rapidly as you marvel at the painted lines and hash marks. This is where the big boys play and you have finally arrived, all the pain and exhaustion of practice becomes a distant memory, for tonight you ARE the gladiator. Your opponent across from you might well be your classmate and friend on Monday morning, but tonight he is the mortal enemy. Tonight he shall be cast to the lions and trampled under your spiked heels. Let his parents and girlfriend mourn, for this night he shall suffer pain and humiliation at your hands.
Things don’t always go as planned, and many nights it’s the game clock that moves in slow motion and wont speed up for at least a mercy killing. This thirst for victory, this desire to rise above those tasked against you is the inner boy who never seems to leave the man. How often on television do we see these giants of the gridiron shed both tears of joy and elation while a few yards away another crumbles to his knees and weeps the pain of defeat.
“It’s only a game” is a phrase that has been uttered more times than I can count, but for any who have worn the armor of the gladiator and known the glory of gridiron combat, it will never be “just a game.”
It doesn’t matter if you only played a season or half your lifetime. Even those who now bear the scars and wounds of their time in the arena, think back about those vivid moments and tell of them with verve and passion. The fleeting moments when they played the game and felt like something more than human. Superheroes, warriors, to be part of something larger than you ever were alone. To have done things in the heat of adrenaline and raw desire that you never could have done anywhere else. To remove that uniform begins to feel like taking off a part of yourself.
Maybe that is why the helmets and jerseys on display in The Hall of Fame seem like the ghosts of the warriors you watched play so long ago.
Even now in my old age, I sometimes dream about the path that might have been. This is why so many of us watch the game with such eager desire, because some fleeting part of us still wishes we could pull on the armor of the football warrior and still go out to battle. We cheer and we cry and we live and die with our colors brightly displayed, because the little boy inside of us still wants to grow up to be them…over and over again.
Long live Football America, and the sweet breezes of autumn that brings our warriors onto the field once more.
T. August Green