Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game

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9780143127642: Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game

Acclaimed essayist Mark Edmundson reflects on his own rite of passage as a high school football player to get to larger truths about the ways America's Game shapes its men

Football teaches young men self-discipline and teamwork. But football celebrates violence. Football is a showcase for athletic beauty and physical excellence. But football damages young bodies and minds, sometimes permanently. Football inspires confidence and direction. But football instills cockiness, a false sense of superiority. The athlete is a noble figure with a proud lineage. The jock is America at its worst.

When Mark Edmundson’s son began to play organized football, and proved to be very good at it, Edmundson had to come to terms with just what he thought about the game. Doing so took him back to his own childhood, when as a shy, soft boy growing up in a blue-collar Boston suburb in the sixties, he went out for the high school football team. Why Football Matters is the story of what happened to Edmundson when he tried to make himself into a football player.

What does it mean to be a football player? At first Edmundson was hapless on the field. He was an inept player and a bad teammate. But over time, he got over his fears and he got tougher. He learned to be a better player and came to feel a part of the team, during games but also on all sorts of escapades, not all of them savory. By playing football, Edmundson became what he and his father hoped he’d be, a tougher, stronger young man, better prepared for life.

But is football-instilled toughness always a good thing?  Do the character, courage, and loyalty football instills have a dark side?  Football, Edmundson found, can be full of bounties.  But it can also lead you into brutality and thoughtlessness.  So how do you get what’s best from the game and leave the worst behind?

Why Football Matters is moving, funny, vivid, and filled with the authentic anxiety and exhilaration of youth. Edmundson doesn’t regret playing football for a minute, and cherishes the experience. His triumph is to be able to see it in full, as something to celebrate, but also something to handle with care. For anyone who has ever played on a football team, is the parent of a player, or simply is reflective about its outsized influence on America, Why Football Matters is both a mirror and a lamp.

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About the Author:

Mark Edmundson teaches in the English Department at the University of Virginia. He is a contributing editor at Raritan and the prizewinning author of numerous works of cultural criticism, including Why Read?; Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida; and Teacher. His essays have appeared in Harper’s, Oxford American, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The American Scholar.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Mark Edmundson

INTRODUCTION

SONS AND FATHERS


I grew up watching football with my father. Starting when I was six years old, maybe seven, I watched Sunday games with him in our cramped apartment on Main Street in Malden, Massachusetts. It was 1958, 1959. We rooted for the New York Giants.

My father loved getting ready for the game. He pushed his king-dad’s chair into the middle of the living room, sat down, and tested it. Fine! Then he was up to work his hassock into place and to get his side table where he wanted it. He placed his smokes—Camels, non-filters—on the tabletop along with his matches and his ashtray. “My cigareets,” “my asheltray,” he called them. Who could say why?

My father was always on the move. He worked two jobs— both at restaurants, both eight-hour shifts—and when he got home from the second one, at the Chuck Wagon, he needed to pace for an hour or two before he could get to sleep. But on Sunday, game day, he calmed down, a little. For my father dearly loved the New York Giants. He loved Gifford and Patton and Katcavage and Robustelli and Modzelewski and Grier and sometimes he loved Sam Huff. All week he looked forward to Sunday afternoon when the Giants came on live.

King-dad chair centered, hassock in place, side table set up: My father was ready to watch the game. But hold it, there was one more thing! His chocolate bar! Every Friday, payday, when my mother shopped, she bought my father a king-size Hershey’s chocolate bar with almonds. My father relished that candy bar. He ate it slowly, deliberately, savoring it through the course of the game. He took a nibble, chewed delicately, stared off into space, then looked with sweet gratitude at his Hershey’s bar for being as wonderful as it was. The chocolate bar! He gave orders. I ran to get him his Hershey’s bar and sat down by his feet and waited for the game to begin.

Then came the music, the NFL theme, piping through the massive body of our black-and-white TV set. My father, who had a wonderful ear, began to sing in wordless harmony. Football was about to begin! To my mother, who was working in the kitchen, cleaning up the Sunday dinner, which my father had cooked, he issued one of his favorite lines: “Hon,” he said in a tone of mock tenderness, “they’re playing our song!”

And then we watched football. Or at least we tried to. The picture was black-and-white and the reception sometimes miserable. During certain games I had to stand up, go over to the TV, and monkey with the antenna. My father gave commands. No, no. Work the rabbit ears. Flatten them out. No, no, no: straight up, straight up. No, no, no, no: three o’clock. Not nine o’clock, three. As I moved the ears, my father crouched closer to see the next play. Sometimes his nose nearly kissed the screen.

“I think that you’re just going to have to hold it there!” A human hand wrapped tight around the aerial could sometimes improve the picture, bringing it from sandstorm in the desert to cloudy day near home. So there I would stand, hand clasped around the aerial, staring into the screen, tilting my head almost upside down, looking into the action, with my glasses sliding down the bridge of my nose. “That’s a little better,” my father would say. “That’s almost good.”

But mostly I was spared the acrobatics and contortions; mostly my father and I sat and watched football together. Through football my father explained the world to me. And in time he made me want to play. I wanted to be like the guys on the screen, the heroes, the mythical men. Even then I knew it was a ridiculous wish. I was big enough, but I was soft and fat and good at school. I wore glasses. I was last kid picked, or next to last.

My father believed in almost no one. He disliked politicians: He called John F. Kennedy, who was then our senator, Black Jack. He had no time for newspaper writers or big-name authors. He never went to church, never opened a Bible, and never said a word about God. He thought his bosses were fools. In time he came to love Johnny Carson—and Richard Nixon too. But when I was a small boy, football players were the only men my father admired. He loved Jim Brown and he loved Yelberton Abraham Tittle, Y. A. Tittle.

As much as my father adored his New York Giants, he still loved it when Jim Brown got on a roll against them. To my father, Jim Brown was the greatest football player ever—there never was one like him; there never would be. When Brown stepped on the field my father’s love for the Giants dissolved. (Sam Huff, their fierce linebacker, became “Huff the Bluff.”) Then the game was all about Jim Brown. Play after play Brown took the ball and plunged into the middle of the line. For a moment everything was still; there was an unmoving knot of snarling, pushing men. But then the pile moved—not much; a foot, maybe. Almost miraculously—it didn’t seem like he’d been touched—a Giants player flew off the front of the mass. “There goes Huff!” And then another Giant came off, faster this time, like an electron shot into space. The pile broke and New York Giants, and a few Cleveland Browns, scattered like crumbs. Staggering slightly, alone in what had been the middle, was Jim Brown. He was free and he was pumping down the field for ten, twelve, fifteen more yards, until a couple of defensive backs hopped on him from behind and a couple of the linemen who had been shaken off the pile managed to get up and get downfield and there were finally four or five Giants on him. It took that many men to tackle Jim Brown.

Jim Brown: nine years in the game, set and kept the career rushing record for more than three decades, until he was surpassed by a player who had been in 50 percent more games than he had. Jim Brown: gained more than five yards per carry, an astonishing feat. In theory, if you simply gave Jim the ball every play, you would get a first down in only two attempts. There would be no third down drama. Jim Brown had the feet of a ballerina when he dodged tacklers or skipped along the sidelines, but he had the muscle of a bull. He never ducked a hit: He ran over his enemies. When he finally was tackled, he rose with slow dignity. (Brown called it “getting up with leisure.”) “He’s like a king out there,” my father said. “He’s a king!”

When Brown was on one of his rolls, carrying the ball play after play, it was like watching a powerful fighter land blows on a heavy bag—except as he landed the blows, the bag crumpled; the bag caved in. That was the other team, that caving bag. Brown seemed to play with no furor, no hatred for the opposition— though who could know what he felt inside? He simply did what he did. Sometimes my father was in such awe of Jim Brown’s performance that he called my mother from the kitchen and said, “Hon, you gotta see this. Lookit, lookit, lookit this!”

My father was teaching me something then, and it was about grace and toughness and manly dignity. This was what it meant to be a man, a formidable man who played with fierce confidence and, when his helmet came off, spoke with sureness and modesty. You could tell that Brown was intelligent and thoughtful, but more than that he brought an aura with him: an enhanced sense of being, a glow.

A lot of the neighborhood dads admired Jim Brown. I’d been at my friends’ houses during games and I knew, though some of them were so loyal to the Giants that they couldn’t give number 32 all he deserved. But in other houses, I heard something else too. There I was reminded that Jim Brown was a black man, and
sometimes I was reminded in ways that were less than decent. My neighborhood was reasonably tough, working class (though far from a slum), and full of hard-edged Irish and Italian guys. “Look at that jungle bunny go!” “Man, that nigger can fly!” Years later, when I was watching a Patriots game, a Boston defensive back intercepted a pass and ran it back over half the field for a touchdown. My friend’s father whooped with delight: “Put a tail on him. Put a tail on him and put him back in the jungle. Look at that little monkey go!”

I heard stuff like that all the time, but never from my father. My father probably didn’t know more than a few black people—he was friends with a beat cop who’d been a star athlete at Malden High, Harold Jay, and he worked with a few black guys at his restaurant jobs. No racist word ever passed his lips, at least in my hearing or my brother’s. He was the only white man I knew well that I could say this about. My father looked at Jim Brown as a fellow human being who had been born with gifts and then gone on to develop them and achieved a level of excellence that had to inspire awe. Lookit! Lookit! Lookit!

Watching football brought my father out of his frustrations and resentments and let him feel true admiration. Watching the game liberated him. In most of life he was irritable, prone to harsh judgment. But not when he was watching football; then he was another sort of man. He saw something greater than himself on the screen and he loved it—and he tried to teach me to do the same.


---


The football-watching ritual meant a lot to me, and one day my father showed me that it meant something to him too. My father was usually generous with his chocolate bar. At any time during the game I was free to ask, “Dad, can I have a piece?” He knew that I didn’t care for the bullet-like almonds inside the bar, so he crafted me a piece of pure chocolate. I could ask again, especially if the Giants were doing well, or if Jim Brown was running his thoroughbred race up and down the field. But I had probably better not ask three times.

One Saturday morning I crept sock footed into the pantry and found the bar on a top shelf. I slid it down, opened the wrapper, smelled the intoxicating scent of chocolate—my father had told me that the whole town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, smelled that way, and I wanted to go there and get a dose. Then I broke a piece of pure chocolate out from between the rocky almonds and dispatched it. Why was this so bad? My father always gave me a piece of chocolate during the game. Today I was taking payment in advance. Come to think of it, my father almost always allotted two pieces of almond-free when a contest was on.

By Sunday morning of game day the chocolate bar was no longer a chocolate bar. It was a collection of chocolate-covered almonds inside a crumpled, clumsily secured dark wrapper. The chocolate-covered almonds were not attractive, no. They were misshapen and sharp edged: They looked like black rocks.

Game time came, the game began, and my father, for whatever reason, did not call for his chocolate bar. (My father loved to call for his amenities. When I hear the Christmas carol about Old King Cole and how he “called for his pipe and he called for his bowl, and he called for his fiddlers three,” I think of him.) Was he doing this to torture me? Did he know? When he was angry my father did not hold back. He roared. If I didn’t scram fast enough, he delivered a whack.

I had been tempted to recite my chocolate sin in confession that Saturday and receive absolution for it. But by two o’clock, when I was kneeling in front of the priest in the confessional at the Sacred Heart, the chocolate bar was still semi-intact and might have been passable. And even I recognized that there was a certain absurd ring to “Bless me father for I have sinned. My last confession was one week ago. Since then I have lied three times, sworn twice, fingered the almonds out of my father’s chocolate bar, and eaten a lot of the rest.”

At halftime my father called for his bar. I went to its hiding place and drew it down, opened the wrapper, and laid the wreckage out. Then I walked to the living room. I put the remains before my father with both my hands. He looked at the mess, and without a word, took it and placed it on the tray table beside his ashtray and his smokes (“asheltray”; “cigareets”).

At the second-half kickoff he picked an almond and popped it in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. The second half went on, my father, consuming his chocolate-covered almonds, intent on the game but unusually quiet. Most of the time his word count overwhelmed the announcer’s. It was usually a landslide victory, Wright Edmundson over Chris Schenkel. I sat in silence, waiting for the storm.

Early in the fourth quarter—the Giants well in the lead and Jim Brown off terrorizing the Redskins or the Eagles—my father made his move. A hand dropped down in front of my face—a fist, really—and I jumped. Now it was coming: the holler, the clout, the tearful run to my bedroom. But the hand opened. In front of me was a bit of chocolate, a mite but completely almond free. “You missed a piece,” my father said.
My father loved Y. A. Tittle, maybe even more than he loved Jim Brown. When he watched Jim Brown he felt that he was watching a deity. Brown had thrown himself into the crucible of the game and emerged as something like a man-god. But he had begun with amazing gifts. There was only one way to regard Jim Brown, and that was by looking up.

With Tittle it was different. With Tittle it wasn’t a matter of awe—Lookit! Lookit!—but of something else. Tittle was an artist of the gentle, perfect pass, dropped into the receiver’s hands like a soft Wonder Bread loaf from the sky. The ball floated toward the spot and at exactly the right moment it descended to Gifford or Jimmy Patton, who scattered away like he’d swiped it off the shelf. Tittle had a big arm and could boom the ball down the field when he wanted to, but to my father Tittle—or YAT, as he sometimes called him—was an artist of the perfect short, soft pass.

My father’s response: I could catch that! Even I could catch that! My father’s pass catching credentials were modest. He had been a track star in junior high school. For a while the neighborhood kids had called him Flash. In high school, he had done some high-speed maneuvering on foot to evade various pursuers, some of them, I gathered, in blue. But an athlete he was not. When we began watching football he was only about thirty years old, but a steady training table diet of fried food, cigarettes, and a few beers (three to ten) whenever the opportunity naturally arose and sometimes when it didn’t had taken most of the run-and-jump out of him. Occasionally he’d chase me around the park in a game of one-on-one football, but in three or four minutes he’d collapse on a concrete bench mumbling about cutting back a little on his smokes. (This was the era when doctors touted cigarettes in ads on the pages of major magazines. They said that tobacco was highly relaxing.) My father did sometimes quit. Quitting is easy, he said, I’ve done it a half-dozen times.

My father was no athlete. But still he said, “I could catch Tittle’s passes.” “Do you think so?” I asked him. I was truly interested. When I was very young my father told me stories about his past adventures. These often took place in the old west and featured encounters with Indians and various desperadoes. He had, I learned, a long-running feud with Geronimo, the fiercest of the Southwest chiefs. A few times, my father had been ambushed by Geronimo and his braves. At least once, my father had been captured. After being adopted into...

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Book Description Penguin Books, United States, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Acclaimed essayist Mark Edmundson reflects on his own rite of passage as a high school football player to get to larger truths about the ways America s Game shapes its men Football teaches young men self-discipline and teamwork. But football celebrates violence. Football is a showcase for athletic beauty and physical excellence. But football damages young bodies and minds, sometimes permanently. Football inspires confidence and direction. But football instills cockiness, a false sense of superiority. The athlete is a noble figure with a proud lineage. The jock is America at its worst. When Mark Edmundson s son began to play organized football, and proved to be very good at it, Edmundson had to come to terms with just what he thought about the game. Doing so took him back to his own childhood, when as a shy, soft boy growing up in a blue-collar Boston suburb in the sixties, he went out for the high school football team. Why Football Matters is the story of what happened to Edmundson when he tried to make himself into a football player. What does it mean to be a football player? At first Edmundson was hapless on the field. He was an inept player and a bad teammate. But over time, he got over his fears and he got tougher. He learned to be a better player and came to feel a part of the team, during games but also on all sorts of escapades, not all of them savory. By playing football, Edmundson became what he and his father hoped he d be, a tougher, stronger young man, better prepared for life. But is football-instilled toughness always a good thing? Do the character, courage, and loyalty football instills have a dark side? Football, Edmundson found, can be full of bounties. But it can also lead you into brutality and thoughtlessness. So how do you get what s best from the game and leave the worst behind? Why Football Matters is moving, funny, vivid, and filled with the authentic anxiety and exhilaration of youth. Edmundson doesn t regret playing football for a minute, and cherishes the experience. His triumph is to be able to see it in full, as something to celebrate, but also something to handle with care. For anyone who has ever played on a football team, is the parent of a player, or simply is reflective about its outsized influence on America, Why Football Matters is both a mirror and a lamp. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143127642

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Book Description Penguin Books, United States, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. Acclaimed essayist Mark Edmundson reflects on his own rite of passage as a high school football player to get to larger truths about the ways America s Game shapes its men Football teaches young men self-discipline and teamwork. But football celebrates violence. Football is a showcase for athletic beauty and physical excellence. But football damages young bodies and minds, sometimes permanently. Football inspires confidence and direction. But football instills cockiness, a false sense of superiority. The athlete is a noble figure with a proud lineage. The jock is America at its worst. When Mark Edmundson s son began to play organized football, and proved to be very good at it, Edmundson had to come to terms with just what he thought about the game. Doing so took him back to his own childhood, when as a shy, soft boy growing up in a blue-collar Boston suburb in the sixties, he went out for the high school football team. Why Football Matters is the story of what happened to Edmundson when he tried to make himself into a football player. What does it mean to be a football player? At first Edmundson was hapless on the field. He was an inept player and a bad teammate. But over time, he got over his fears and he got tougher. He learned to be a better player and came to feel a part of the team, during games but also on all sorts of escapades, not all of them savory. By playing football, Edmundson became what he and his father hoped he d be, a tougher, stronger young man, better prepared for life. But is football-instilled toughness always a good thing? Do the character, courage, and loyalty football instills have a dark side? Football, Edmundson found, can be full of bounties. But it can also lead you into brutality and thoughtlessness. So how do you get what s best from the game and leave the worst behind? Why Football Matters is moving, funny, vivid, and filled with the authentic anxiety and exhilaration of youth. Edmundson doesn t regret playing football for a minute, and cherishes the experience. His triumph is to be able to see it in full, as something to celebrate, but also something to handle with care. For anyone who has ever played on a football team, is the parent of a player, or simply is reflective about its outsized influence on America, Why Football Matters is both a mirror and a lamp. Bookseller Inventory # BTE9780143127642

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Book Description Penguin Books, United States, 2015. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book. Acclaimed essayist Mark Edmundson reflects on his own rite of passage as a high school football player to get to larger truths about the ways America s Game shapes its men Football teaches young men self-discipline and teamwork. But football celebrates violence. Football is a showcase for athletic beauty and physical excellence. But football damages young bodies and minds, sometimes permanently. Football inspires confidence and direction. But football instills cockiness, a false sense of superiority. The athlete is a noble figure with a proud lineage. The jock is America at its worst. When Mark Edmundson s son began to play organized football, and proved to be very good at it, Edmundson had to come to terms with just what he thought about the game. Doing so took him back to his own childhood, when as a shy, soft boy growing up in a blue-collar Boston suburb in the sixties, he went out for the high school football team. Why Football Matters is the story of what happened to Edmundson when he tried to make himself into a football player. What does it mean to be a football player? At first Edmundson was hapless on the field. He was an inept player and a bad teammate. But over time, he got over his fears and he got tougher. He learned to be a better player and came to feel a part of the team, during games but also on all sorts of escapades, not all of them savory. By playing football, Edmundson became what he and his father hoped he d be, a tougher, stronger young man, better prepared for life. But is football-instilled toughness always a good thing? Do the character, courage, and loyalty football instills have a dark side? Football, Edmundson found, can be full of bounties. But it can also lead you into brutality and thoughtlessness. So how do you get what s best from the game and leave the worst behind? Why Football Matters is moving, funny, vivid, and filled with the authentic anxiety and exhilaration of youth. Edmundson doesn t regret playing football for a minute, and cherishes the experience. His triumph is to be able to see it in full, as something to celebrate, but also something to handle with care. For anyone who has ever played on a football team, is the parent of a player, or simply is reflective about its outsized influence on America, Why Football Matters is both a mirror and a lamp. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780143127642

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