Gladiators

I had always enjoyed watching football.  If the two teams know what they are doing, if they are playing with a modicum of unity, there is something fluid about it.  You might almost say it is something like a violent ballet.

When I returned to the United States that was something that had not changed – the American passion for football.  It is even bigger than the European passion for soccer, because there is more at stake – much more money involved, for one thing.  And the football craze goes down through the ranks, from pro to college to high school and on to the dirt lots where kids pile into each other in  mock combat.  European high schools, at least Greek high schools, lack the aspect of organized sport – to their detriment, I think.  If they adopted it, it would pay for itself; I’m sure of that.  The kids play organized sports, but for autonomous teams completely unaffiliated with their schools.  It gives them no purpose, nothing to cling to and say is theirs.  It becomes, as a result, much more of an abstraction.  Who cares who wins?  Then it boils down to the individual, not the team.  Most kids who play soccer in Greece dream of being a pro.  They don’t really give a damn whether their team wins or not as long as they look good.

Ideally, it is not so in America.  Team play is emphasized.  You can’t win if just one player is a hot shot and all the rest stumble around aimlessly.  I am not naive, however.  Football in American is big business, there’s no doubt about it.  But we’re talking about high school ball here; once you get past that level the situation gets infinitely more complex.

I was more than surprised when my fourth son, who recently arrived in the States to complete his final year of high school, expressed an interest in joining the varsity football team.  For one thing, apart from passing a ball back and forth at a park a few times in Greece, he had never played football in his life.  He knew very little about the game.  It would be enough of a culture shock, thought I, to enter the entirely foreign (to him) milieu of a high school in the United States.  There were other sports that were easier to learn.  At first I tried to dissuade him.  He would have none of it.  His fervor caused me to pause in my remonstrations.  He really, really wanted to do it.  All right, then.  I switched gears and determined that if he desired it so strongly I would support him no matter what.

See, here’s the thing.  My own experience with playing high school football was, shall we say, slightly less than satisfactory.  I loved the sport, as I say – to watch, and to play in informal games at the park – but I had no desire whatsoever to play it on the high school team.  My father insisted, however.  He had been a good player at his high school.  To prove it we had pictures of him in his football uniform, smiling and confident.  He felt that football built character, and he was right – but what he didn’t grasp and I had no way of explaining, immature and oblivious to most everything as I was in those days, was that it only builds character in those who choose to pursue it, not those who are forced to pursue it.  A huge difference is apparent; motivation is of supreme importance.  I had none.  Dutifully, however, I went to practice.  I had made a few feeble, half-assed efforts to get myself into shape before practice started, but as I didn’t really give a damn I didn’t follow through.  As a result, physically I was woefully unprepared for the practice regimen.  By the end of the first day every inch of my body ached; I could barely stagger home and throw myself on the couch.  The days to come didn’t get any easier.  My ankles developed agonizing pain.  I had to get them taped up before practice, and even then they hurt like hell to run on.  The trainers begrudged the time and tape it took to fix them up each day, preferring to concentrate on the star varsity players.  I was a sophomore, you see.  Not only that, I was on third-string, or even farther back if farther back existed.  I was totally unimportant in their eyes.  Be that as it may, I somehow stumbled, staggered, panted, bruised, groped my way through the practices and stood on the side during the games all year long, never wanting to be there, desperately wanting to quit, hanging on only because my father saw no alternative to me playing football as he had.  Before the last game of the season, something snapped.  We were doing warm-up drills.  Two players faced each other; one was supposed to run through and the other was supposed to hit him in the chest and drive him back.  We were starting fairly close to each other so there wasn’t time to build up enough momentum for a really solid hit; it was a pre-game drill, after all, and the coaches didn’t want anyone to get hurt.  I figured the hell with it.  I charged into the other player with all my strength; I hit him solidly and drove him backwards, almost knocking him to the ground.  Afterwards I was dizzy and saw stars, but I heard the coach say something like, “That’s the way to do it, Walters, why didn’t you show me any of that before?”  That was the only time I got any sort of appreciation or praise the whole season.  You would have thought they’d give me some sort of award just for hanging on, for enduring, when I hated it so much.  But you see, I didn’t deserve that either.  What would have shown real balls would have been to refuse to play in the first place.  And the next season I was offered a paper route, an entrepreneurship, a chance to earn my own money, just before football season started, and I accepted.  My father was disappointed, but as having a job and making one’s own way in the world was another of the principles upon which he expostulated, he could hardly remonstrate overmuch.

All that to say that when my son expressed an interest in football I was determined not to press him one way or the other, but when he was adamant I acquiesced.  He’d been training for a long time with pushups, pull-ups, sprinting, distance running, and so on, just on the principle of general fitness, so he was much better prepared physically for practice than I had been when I did it.  The first step was the preliminary physical.  Okay, no problem.  He passed with flying colors.  Then the first real obstacle presented itself – he had to have health insurance.  That which we had had in Greece was valid only for the European Union, so we had nothing.

In consternation we headed to an office at which a woman helped us fill out forms to apply for California government aid insurance.  Not only was the process demeaning – they take for granted in advance that you are some sort of reprobate and you’re not going to be honest – but it would take far too long.  He needed insurance within a matter of days.  The school offered one other option, some sort of policy that was for school sports only, offered by a private insurance company but affiliated with the school system.  It was expensive, but fine, if that’s what had to be done.  I had just borrowed from relatives extensively for plane tickets to get here; where to come up with the money almost instantly?  One of my other sons came to the rescue, and the insurance got paid.

Practice started, all went well, but then a week or so in my son complained of heavy headaches and dizziness after a particular hit.  Just about anything brought on a headache.  He couldn’t run; he couldn’t do any exercise at all.  The way the insurance was set up I had to take him in at our expense to have it checked, and then it would be reimbursed.  It used up most of our cash, but no matter.  He was diagnosed with concussion, had to sit out a week, and needed two follow-up visits to get cleared to play again.  The whole experience made me ruminate on the catastrophic state of the US medical system.  It’s too damned expensive, that’s what it is, but considering what is happening in Greece, which has a medical system which provides affordable care to all its citizens but is falling apart at the financial seams, I have no quick solution to offer.

Cleared once again to practice and play, my son resumed regular workouts.  Since then he has had his ups and downs, but he’s learning the rudiments of the game quickly.

Why do I spend so long expostulating on the game of football?  Because it’s an integral part of the USA which I have not had significant exposure to for many years.  American football means nothing to the rest of the world.  It is only an important sport in the United States.  Why hasn’t it caught on elsewhere?  The expense might be one reason, of the equipment, coaching personnel, and stadiums or playing fields.  But apart from that, it is even more quintessentially American than baseball, which has in fact blossomed as a sport in certain other countries such as Japan.  You won’t catch the Japanese playing American football, though.  Could it be because of its violence?  It is, in fact, somewhat of a war game, but from back in the days when armies would confront each other face-to-face on the field and blast away with their weapons and then charge.  War too can have its own kind of weird, dark beauty – when you are watching it.  That’s why war films fascinate us.  We can participate vicariously.  We can imagine ourselves as the good guy.  We can make all the right decisions, the heroic ones, without really making them, because it isn’t really happening to us.  Check out how people second-guess the players after a football game and you’ll see what I mean.  Let’s see how they’d do if they were down on the field.

Anything done well can appear elegant, but then only when you try to do it yourself do you realize the effort and expertise necessary to do it well.  So it is with football or any other sport.  You watch others do it; it looks effortless; you determine to do it too.  Only then do you find out what it costs.  It reminds me of once when I was playing a football game in the park with teams put together with whoever was standing around.  People standing around have not learned to work together.  It happened that I was the quarterback, and I envisioned myself as a hero; I would step back and throw a perfect pass just like they do on the NFL games I watched so often on TV.  On the first play I went back to pass and a whole gang of kids charged – God knows why we were playing tackle football without any protection – and they all hit me at once and I went down hard.  It turned out I badly sprained my ankle.  I couldn’t walk; I had to be helped home.  I couldn’t walk for days, in fact.  Hard reality had confronted my daydreams, and my daydreams had been found wanting.  So it is in many facets of life.

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