Last fall I posted a blog entry entitled, “The Warriors of Autumn” in which I poured out some feelings on the game of football. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting crisp, and once again the season of the gridiron gladiator is upon us.
I think for many who have been football fans since the days of youth, we passed through several phases. When we were very young we played sandlot games, and if we were lucky there was a Pop Warner or Pee Wee league to be part of. Later may have come a city recreation league, and then on to the first experience to be cut; junior varsity.
Those who weather the first storm usually move on to high school, and for most that marks the end of their organized football playing days.
We watch and cheer with pride for those who excelled past our own achievements, as they climbed to greater heights. Onward to the ranks of college, and possibly to mount the national stage and bask in the glory of a Bowl Game. Then a very fortunate, talented, and select few will ascend to the level of professional, and stand among the legends of The National Football League.
Maybe this is why we form such staunch loyalties to an NFL team. We remember when we played Pee Wee and our helmets were adorned with the image of a bird, a star, a leaping cat, or a warriors lance. Those images remain a part of us, and on an emotional level, we hold fast to the dream of taking the field and marching to victory.
As time takes its toll on our physical abilities, the reality eventually sets in that we will never stand in those hallowed places and hear the roar of the crowd, at least not as players. However, that personal realization does nothing to stem our love of the game, and while baseball is still regarded as the national pastime, it will never tap the primal instincts like the game of football.
The ancient Greeks prized the image of the physical athlete, and their art showcased the human form in many ways. The Spartan soldiers were the finest trained warriors of their time, and in that era the goal was achieved through physical prowess and teamwork.
The first Olympic competitors were those who excelled at various athletic skills, and their feats were rewarded with laurels from their rulers and their fans, a tradition that survives to this very day.
I can only imagine the ancient Greeks would look upon the modern football player as a prime example of physical artwork, especially since many of them display a level of fitness unmatched by other athletes.
Consider the combination of skills the gridiron champion must possess, the speed of a track sprinter, the footwork of a soccer player, the raw strength of a wrestler, the grace and agility of a dancer; all employed in a game that combines the toughness of rugby and the hard-hitting impact of hockey.
In the time of ancient Rome, the art of the warrior and the skill of combat were put on public display in the Coliseum. The deadly games of the Roman gladiators turned the horrors of war into a bloodsport that the public could watch in relative safety, and the more they watched, the greater their thirst became.
Maybe some remnant of that human nature drives us to love football the way we do. Here on the hundred yard arena, housed in stadiums that shame the Coliseum in every way but age and history, we gather and howl our battle cries for our chosen warriors. Thankfully, there is no bloodshed aside from the skinned elbows and the occasional busted lip. We show our humanity in hushed silence whenever a warrior falls and doesn’t get up, and we cheer when he finally rises to his feet, even if he plays for the opposing team.
Yet with the next snap of the ball, we stand and pump clenched fists into the air as a stout lineman delivers a block so crushing that the defender’s feet point skyward, and in his despair he watches the fleet-footed running back stride past like a gazelle in flight. As the defender gathers himself to his feet, trying to shake off the daze of being pummeled by a moving freight train, he watches with agony as his opponents celebrate in the end zone, and the deafening roar of the crowd pours salt in his proverbial wound.
Unlike the finality of war, here on the hundred yard arena, the warrior draws a deep breath and the contest begins anew in another sixty seconds.
Whatever connection there may be between the gladiator and the football player, one thing is certain, there are few sports that capture raw human emotion like the game of football. There are no series to play out, no round robin to determine a seed placement, only the drama and tension that comes from the one time shot of win or go home.
There have been so many football games down through the years that were decided by feet and inches, by the grip of a ball to outstretched fingers, and the pounding heartbeat of a player as he races the relentless ticking clock. Football is game that can deliver the pain of defeat with devastating swiftness, but it also rewards its victors with a level of elation that borders on euphoric. On the hard turf of the hundred yard arena, heroes are forged, spirits are lifted and broken, and stories of legend are written.
Every field of play has its stories to tell, but a visit to the hallowed halls of Canton, Ohio is to step back in time and taste the moments of victory that made football what it is today. Take a walk through the room filled with the bronze busts of the enshrined champions, and look upon the tough, chiseled faces of the men who gave their hearts and souls to the game they loved. They leave behind a legacy to every young child who pulls on a jersey and steps across the sideline stripe into a world like no other, a world where giants are made and friendships are bonded, all around the laced pigskin we call football.
Some will climb to the pinnacle of the sport and those left behind will cheer them on. So it has been for years, and so it will continue to be. But we weep not, because from the player to the coach, to the fan in the cheap seats, all the way to chair in front of the TV, our passion for the game burns bright each year with the turning of the leaves.
-T. August Green