A FAN’S NOTES, The Rumpus Sports Column #30: The Football Hold

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Hey Football Fans,

Have you been watching a lot of NFL preseason games lately? Or have you, like me, mostly been watching breastfeeding?

The two spectacles aren’t entirely dissimilar. In the past several weeks I’ve learned that breastfeeding resembles professional football in certain particulars. For instance, one of the terms often associated with tough, physical NFL teams is “smashmouth,” as in, “This offensive line knows how to play old-fashioned smashmouth football.” This is a term with a certain evocative appeal. But lately, when I think of “smashmouth,” I think not of hard, angled facemasks crashing together but of the bouncy, gentle collision that begins every breastfeeding session—the moment of contact between my infant daughter’s lips and the moony shape of my wife’s breast. Before the baby latches, her nose digs into her mother’s skin. It’s a kind of non-violent smashing, a vital urgent inward dig. The child will assuage her hunger. She knows now how to get what she needs.

At times during the first two weeks of our newborn’s life, the struggle for that sweet smashmouth seal between breast and tongue led to extended fits of pique that were harrowing (because, as the baby howled, we knew—my wife and I both knew—she was hungry, she needed a thing so basic we’d never thought to question our ability to provide it in a time of need).

My wife began to use the “football hold” while breastfeeding. Essentially, this means holding the baby in a one-armed clutch, the way a running back holds the pigskin when he breaks into the open field and begins to pick up speed, protecting the ball by tucking it up close to his rib cage with one hand, leaving his other hand free to ward off oncoming tacklers; imagine now, if you will, a seated woman, still as she can be, bare-chested, holding a baby essentially the same way a running back holds a football (although hopefully the woman doesn’t need to stiff-arm anyone with her free hand). The football hold can be a good position for a nursing baby, it turns out. It all depends on the angle. And the child’s mood, the time of day, the level of hunger, a hundred other things we, the new parents, can’t name and don’t know about. What works one day won’t necessarily work the next. Breastfeeding can be grueling, emotionally draining, a pitched battle at the line of scrimmage.

Football? NFL preseason? I don’t know. There’s been a lot of talk about Brett Favre’s ankle. Is that decrepit adrenaline junkie honestly trying to make it through one more season of the violent game that made him famous? “My mind’s telling me one thing, but my body’s telling me something else,” Favre said recently. Once, long ago, the grizzled veteran was a smooth infant drinking at his mother’s breast. Now he receives ankle lubricant from a sports surgeon, hoping to make it through 16 more games, maybe the playoffs too. And we actually cheer him on for his insane quest. We like watching men get beat up on a football field because we like it when they pick themselves up off the turf. It’s a neat story of resilience. It distracts us from how vulnerable our children are. It’s a big loud colorful multi-camera-angle distraction from our own mortality.

There’s buzz about the Falcons this season. The Jets are ascendant, it seems, though I hate to say it. We all love the Saints, but most likely that storybook has ended. It’s funny to think of the players on these football teams as babies. Before they ever saw a football spinning through the air, they saw a bottle or a breast. The breast was the shape they clutched at, many of them. In Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino writes, “We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon.” Why is the image so comforting? We can’t remember, exactly, but we like to think of a time before we held up our hands as shields.


Brian Schwartz teaches writing at New York University. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in print publications on both coasts, and online at Ascent and Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. More from this author →