When Football Is Over, It Begins

Last week my 27-year-old son said, to no one in particular, “Nine days until camp.” […]

Duo Dickinson / 7.15.19

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.

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8 responses to “When Football Is Over, It Begins”

  1. Pete says:

    As a lifelong apologist for the superiority of soccer over American football (let’s vote – everyone in the world gets a ballot) this is a marvelous, heartfelt and cogent defense of the other opinion. Thank you for this remarkable piece.

    • Duo Dickinson says:

      Many thanks – I am only here because my paternal grandfather came to America to play professional soccer in the Brooklyn immigrant leagues in 1903. His devotion to that, and later building things has a completely incoherent basis in my own life as a football-focused architect as he died the year I was born, never having attended high school. THANKYOU again

  2. Pierre says:

    I’ve read a lot of pieces in the last few years that describe the incredible violence of American football and the racialized labor exploitation inherent in the NFL and college systems in stark terms, and analyzing what it says about our culture that so many people love it in spite of, or indeed because of, its violence. I appreciate that this piece comes from a different perspective – it hasn’t changed my overall opinion about the sport, but it helped me understand better why some people are so devoted to the game.

    • Duo Dickinson says:

      THANKYOU There is a reality to football shared by many contact sports (hockey, rugby, lacrosse) but no other human activity I know of sets up the full intensity of extreme preparation, and has the protection to allow full body extension without debilitating injury for the vast amount of time played: but this means that of 22 men about 15 or 20 sacrifice themselves on every play so another can have the glory of the tackle or the gain/score. It is a game of sacrifice more than hatred: despite the undeniable violence. I love it so.

  3. Brian says:

    As a former player, current coach and youth league commissioner, this is the best treatise on football I have ever read.

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