Last week my 27-year-old son said, to no one in particular, “Nine days until camp.” I knew he meant training camp for many football players. He was once 290 pounds, a First-Team All-Conference Offensive Guard at a Division III college. He is now 205 pounds and runs marathons and Tough Mudders, and may yet do a Triathlon or half.

But he will never play football again. Not in nine days. Not ever.

Nor will I, or anyone I know well.

“You should play tennis,” I’ve been advised. “You can do that for the rest of your life.”

Yes. I can do many things, badly, until I completely fail at sustaining the life God gave me. But having to regulate the force of my body in one sport is cognitive dissonance to us who simply knocked people down in another.

There are a lot of us, we the unskilled. And we offer intense devotion. Our options are limited. And age simply removes even that capacity.

Yes, I could pretend to “run” like so many of my high-effort, no-speed body-movers once called “joggers” who are now self-named proud “runners.” I guess I could play softball. But I cannot do nothing and pretend I am doing something. Like fishing. Or golf. Or even, heaven help me, soccer.

No, our bodies are slaves to our hearts, and our hearts do not just pump blood. They afford the emotional nutrition needed to feast on any effort. So, in full recognition that they simply delay inevitable death, I do Old Man things — like high-resistance recumbent bike pedaling for 90 minutes a day, every day, burning 700 calories (on the wishful-thinking readout box). And there’s the Bow Flex rod, bending, pushing, pulling. And the ultimate feel-good exercise, the elliptical — until I break it. Again.

My life is trending low-impact.

And my joints are ever stiff (stretching is for those who care) and ever sore. But I am not dead yet.

Because God has given me these lame efforts, and everything else I do. I cannot shake the recognition that Jesus was just a guy, and probably had the aches of a woodworker, and the nicks and bruises. Each “tweak” we (and He) have are just the realities of the inscrutably complex gift of life. It’s given completely free of charge, but it exacts its own price, in these losses. The death of football in every football player’s life is especially hard to bear, because, unlike in the season, there is no simulation.

You can hit fungoes by yourself to no outfielder in particular (as if I can hit a baseball). You need but one other human to play tennis. You need a set of clubs and a ball to play golf. And you just need a few mates to pass around the soccer ball.

But you cannot run a football play without a bunch of other humans, in extreme coordination, responding to other humans and moving in full devotion together. Playing toss is not playing football.

On every play, most football players feel and deliver some pain: completely unsustainable for almost every human over 30 (the NFL is full of freaks, not you or me). So this brief, early place of playing football is for the young. And the window for it in our lives is tiny in a full life. And that is a powerful truth. No matter how much we can do, in any part of our lives, we ultimately can do less and less of what we love as we (hopefully) get older.

There is no athlete who does all that is possible, earns all that is imaginable, wins every time. In fact, all of us are mostly incapable. No matter how young or old. And if we triumph at anything, the next thing is in front of you, and that next thing does not cares about what you have done. 

In a few weeks, those young, intense humans who are in the time of playing football will put on the plastic armor and crash terribly into each others’ bodies in the great joy and connection that is the brief life of a football player playing. The rest of life is there, too, but that football life dies. Its brevity and conclusiveness may be why it is so loved by those whose football life is dead.

I often (often) look down and think that I have my cleats on. I pause for a second and a flashback of launching into another human with complete abandon overwhelms me for an instant. I sometimes twitch the phantom snap break into the muscle memory of the explosion of a play. For that millisecond, memory—an instant of beauty—is the only reality.

God has given that to each of us in everything. The holding of a newborn, just delivered. That newborn’s first-seen smile. The first kiss of your life’s love. The bliss of exhaustion when you have completed a task. Unrepeatable human realities that I know Jesus experienced, that God gave him—when they happen, and when they uncontrollably replay, without trigger, in our day-to-day, because, well, they do.

Because life is a gift. It is all a gift. Whether football or fishing, the joys we experience are not earned, they are given to us. Just like the memories we cannot shake.

Football starts in a few days. Thank God.