Once a year about a billion people watch about a hundred men play a game for about 4 hours.
For most it’s just a TV show. For some it’s a video game. For a relatively small group it’s a distant connection to youth. It is technically a football game, but the hype and ignorance overwhelms a simple game enough that it becomes a distinct reality only resembling what the one million young men in America play every year.
At any given time, but more often in the crescendo of Football’s hyperbolic Last Annual Act, the Super Bowl, I remember the last game of my Junior year in Snyder, New York in 1971. Three months earlier I had become, surprisingly, a 2-way starter on my high school football team.
But my coach was excruciatingly fair. He had started me over seniors and better athletes who played less well in practice – some of those better players were lesser than me in August because, following the traditions of the era, athletes went to preseason in every sport to get in shape – not working out before the practices start.
I knew I sucked, and simultaneously, at 16, far more than any other thing in my life, I wanted to play. My only option was to get better, So all the summer before practices began I wore 5lb ankle weights 24/7, lifted for hours in the Downtown Buffalo YMCA and ran on the ancient oval banked track suspended above its basketball court.
I came in ready. 180 pounds of fearful rage I knocked older, better, larger players down, and I started at center and nose guard the first three games. As a senior rounded into shape, I lost the nose guard gig when I could not play thru double team blocks.
Then, by the seventh game, a much better, larger sophomore athlete became the starting center when I missed a few more blocks than he did in practice. So for the last game of the season I was relegated to playing on every special team – those receiving or dispensing kicked footballs. My coach was excruciatingly fair.
I was broken and angry. I had tried my best and was legitimately inadequate. I had failed after thinking I had succeeded. I was 16 and effectively living alone in Buffalo and I did not succeed at the thing I cared most about in front of a team I was devoted to, for a coach I wanted, desperately, to please.
I was not injured. I threw myself into every practice with every ounce of fury in my 180 pound frame. And it was not good enough to keep what I had once earned, because others were simply better than me at what I wanted to do more than anything in the world.
So I was motivated to make the tackle on the second half kickoff on that November Saturday afternoon 45 years ago. I was absurdly slow but the rage against revealed incompetence propelled me down the field first, the returner had the ball drop into his hands 5 yards in front of me. Instead of “breaking down” – widening my legs, lowering my hips and getting under control to react to the moves of the returner I accelerated into him.
And bounced off of his frame, falling to the turf – screaming the loudest F-Bomb I have ever oathed before or since.
The returner was tackled 5 yards later. It meant nothing. We won the game convincingly.
I had failed on a single play after being inadequate on the thousands of plays prior to help the team and please the coach. I had failed.
The next summer was perhaps the most intensely focused time in my life: rendering me as good an athlete as I could be in that moment. I played every play of every game my Senior year save one – and the opponent scored while I was out so I went back in.
I was captain, I set the school record for tackles in a game, and even though we lost every game my senior year, I remember the failed tackle in 1971 more often and more clearly than any other memory from that time of extremity.
Any sport comes down to each human playing it. Each of our memories are the game for us. The non-player fan remembers images – pictures in the mind. The rest of us, a small group compared to the hundreds of millions of fans who “know” the sport, remember the emotions, the pain, and some good moments.
But the unshakeable memories are when you fail.
These are deep scars: completely irrelevant to anything anyone does after football.
Why do they stay with us?
It’s not about football, it’s about extremity in youth. The first breakup. The rejection from your first choice school. For some, just the first bad grade.
But football failure memories are a distinct subset because the memories are woven into physical pain, amid the completely interwoven love and devotion to those around you, in a very public scene. The extreme failure event hurts in front of everyone, and hurts those who you care deeply for, when you are too young to have much perspective.
It would be like a love relationship breaking up by having your ex punch you in the face in a stadium filled with your best friends screaming your inadequacies over the sound system.
Pain in youth seems to be wired into the hard drives that store our memories – and our software refreshes those memories regularly, capriciously and undeniably.
My son was a very good college athlete at a very small school. He started for three years, played over 1000 plays. He played well enough to be honored on his team, in his league and nationally. In his last 2 years his team passed over 750 times. He successfully kept angry young men off his quarterback for all but one, single, play.
He took the wrong step at the wrong time, and the opponent planted his friend – the quarterback. Hard. It was in the first half, it did not change the outcome of a winning game.
And he remembers it like it happened a minute ago.
And he will for the rest of his life.
Even though we both love this sport deeply, the love is tinged with shame. For everyone who does anything with passion in youth, the failures are remembered more often and more clearly than the successes.
If you could break the veil of bullshit surrounding the Super Bowl and grab any player off the screen and look him in the eye and ask what he remembered most from his time playing I am sure great things would be recounted – these are super humans who have done extraordinary great good things.
But, if he was honest, he would also tell you how he had failed.
Because we all fail.