Thursday, November 7, 2013


Jack Kerouac won a scholarship to Columbia University, but he ended up giving football up for a couple of reasons: he didn't think the coach used him properly or enough, he met Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, and not least of all he had his leg broken in a Freshman game against Saint Benedict's Prep, a Catholic, boys, day school in Newark created to help working-class ethnic kids get an education that might get them into colleges.

I played for St. Benedict's a decade later and one of the traditions there was for team members to throw money in a hat, and the guy who knocked the other team's star out of the game got the money. I remember feeling like that wasn't cool. The team had a few ringers on it, twenty-year old running backs who were given post-grad scholarships after they finished high school elsewhere, and for that reason we were never eligible to win real championships. But The Newark Star Ledger named us "undeclared champions of New Jersey" because the team almost always crushed their opponents.

In my junior year, playing defensive end (I was easily distracted when trying to catch the ball) our team was so good on offense we ran up scores that embarrassed the teams we played. A lot of it was just intimidation. One of our guards had a bridge for his front top teeth which he'd take out and then give his opponent a toothless grimace when they first lined up, etc. Most of our players were Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans and Polish-Americans, all proudly dismissive of fear or pain.

But then in one game we met a team that wasn't intimidated, and had better strategies, and I watched as the senior stars' eyes glazed over and they gave up. I played my heart out, and I'm sure some others did too, but it felt like I was the only one. I was so saddened by the loss, they beat us something like 42 to 6, the reverse of our usual scores, that in the bus on the way back to Newark the unusual silence comforted me.

And then one of our biggest stars, I think it was the quarterback, spotted a car next to the bus with a family in it, and doing what these guys often thought was hilarious and I found childish, he dropped his drawers and mooned the unsuspecting kids peering out the window at us. That got everybody laughing and, for the rest of the ride back, mooning the passing cars.

By the time we got to Newark I had decided not to go out for football my senior year. I worked after school and on weekends for my father after football season, for room and board as they used to say, and had other jobs at night to make actual money for myself, this way I could make more.

But though the football stars I'd once thought were so cool and tough I now saw as juvenile and too quick to give up when their toughness was truly challenged, I kept watching football on TV because I understood the game and appreciated the great plays and players. But at some point, the game changed for me.

I used to love throwing my body into the air to try and wrap my arms around a runner's legs or ankles to bring him down. But suddenly, or maybe it was gradually and just felt like suddenly, the equipment became so supposedly protective, it became routine to try and bring a runner down by running into his head with your head! And at the same time, it seemed, the players mysteriously, or not, grew gigantic, so that the combination (equipment and giganticism)  made it more like a demolition derby or tank battle than the game of skill and finesse I'd dug when I was young.

So I stopped watching. And now it seems like there's a story in the news almost every day exposing the brutality, exploitation, racism, bullying, self-destruction, debilitation and all around stupidity of a sport the ancient Roman gladiators probably would have found excessive.

Yeah, soccer (the real "football") and baseball can be pretty boring in terms of scoring, but along with basketball and every other sport, even rugby, none of them endangers, exploits and brutalizes the players anywhere near as much. But it's big business (I once wrote an essay about how professional football was a corporate game etc.) so my guess is, it ain't leaving. And I have plenty of family and friends who will keep watching it. Not me.


Anonymous said...

The Frontline show on brain damage was frightening. Even HS students are vulnerable. Bill Lannigan

Lally said...

we were always told to use our shoulders and all the practice was about that, avoiding the head and using our shoulders, which was damaging enough...I think I shared with you that when I had a shoulder injury at 50 the doc who checked the x-rays asked me whether I just played high school football or had played some college too...because he could tell all those decades later from the x-rays!...

Anonymous said...

Nice piece, Michael.