I’m a woman whose loves include gin martinis, the New Yorker, Breaking Bad, old soul music, and football. Before this starts sounding like a personal ad—ok, fine, too late—let me explain. In terms of football, I’m in the minority. Most of my close female friends fall asleep, talk incessantly, or get in their car and drive to the mall when subjected to a long, luxurious Sunday afternoon of NFL games. I, on the other hand, synch the New York Giants schedule to my Google calendar, organize Super Bowl parties (complete with a Super Bowl drinking game, the rules of which are too complex to describe here), and own a ceramic Christmas ornament in the shape and likeness of a Giants jersey. Every Sunday from late August through early February, when I hear the ebb and flow of the crowd’s roars, the refs’ insistent whistles, the incessant lullaby of the sportscasters’ commentary, and the crash and grunt of an offensive line trying to protect the quarterback from a blitz buzzing through the speakers of my much-too-small-screen TV, I’m lulled into a womblike place in which I feel somehow totally relaxed and electric with excitement at the same time.
Part of my love of football is that it happens in the fall. (As a kid, I loved fall anyway, because that meant my long boring summer was over and school was starting again.) Part of it is the same-but-differentness of each game, the predictable unpredictability of sports. But mostly, it’s the direct line to my father. Calling him after a big game to bemoan or celebrate, or casually emailing him to ask him exactly what a flea-flicker is (I still don’t have it straight), bonds us in a way that I treasure. Knowing that when we’re down in the fourth we’re both pacing, two states away, barely able to look at the television, softly cursing Eli while secretly fanning a tiny inner flame of hope that he’ll get it done like we know he can, gives me comfort in the way that only familiar reliability can.
I was lucky enough to have been co-raised by my dad: an athlete, coach, and athletic administrator to whom sports were as natural and important as breathing. Basketball and golf were my dad’s sports (he both played and coached), but throughout his training in college and grad school, he learned, among other things, the rules and strategies of football. When I was a preteen, every Sunday during football season my family would drive to Springfield College, the campus of which was about a mile from our house in Springfield, Massachusetts (we were Giants fans because my Dad hailed from Connecticut, eschewing the then-stinky Pats), to watch the Division II Springfield Chiefs play. As the college’s Assistant Athletic Director, he’d get to stand on the sideline with his best friend Charlie, the team’s trainer, while my mother and Charlie’s wife, Linda, would sit in the stands cupping hot chocolates, their laps covered in SC-maroon blankets, and catch up on the athletic department gossip between plays. Charlie’s daughter, Jen, and I would stand behind the cheerleaders for a while, then run under the bleachers to mimic their cheers (“S/P-R/I-N-G-F/I-E-L-D/ Oh yes/‘cause we are the best!”). Sometimes we’d run away from the game and wander inside the field house, waved in by the security guards because they knew who our fathers were. After an hour of watching pairs of college kids play racquetball, jumping on the forbidden workout machines and gymnastic mats, and staring at the cute college boys playing a pick-up basketball game, we’d run back outside and speed towards the frenzy of cheering and whistles to check the score and check in with our moms.
At home, Dad taught my sister and me to throw, catch, punt, run routes, and throw fakes in the front yard. He bought us a “girl-sized” football, which looked like a real pigskin, but was small enough to get our hands around, and a miniature white plastic placeholder for our kicking drills. Dad always gave us the clearest instructions and delivered them in the most encouraging tone. To throw a spiral: “Grip the ball so your ring finger and pinkie are in between the first three laces, lead with your opposing foot, take two steps, and release. Follow through! Extend your arm and point towards the ball as it goes away from you. If you want it to spiral, flick your wrist just as you release the ball.” Of course, we threw our share of “ducks” (passes that go end-over-end instead of twisting like a bullet), but jumped up and down when we threw spirals (“Nice pass!” my father would say), not caring that they were accidents.
I loved football. Even though Dad had also taught me to swing a bat, field a ball, shoot free throws, block lay-ups, tee off, and do the elementary backstroke, nothing got me more excited than catching a 30-yard pass (my heart still leaps when I hear “Go long!”). But the more I loved it, the more I realized that I could never really love it: I was a girl, and girls don’t play football. (Well, except in their front yards with their dads.) For all my spirals and punts, I never tackled anyone, never blocked a defensive back, never leapt into the air in traffic and came down with a touchdown, a safety desperately clutching my jersey (no flag!). I never even threw a real football, and feared that if I tried to catch one, its sheer size and force would cause a partial lung collapse. I was destined for a life of unrequited love, which made me indignant (“But that’s not fair!”), and confused (“But why can’t we play?”), and, finally, heartbroken.
I eventually swallowed my indignation and sadness and accepted that my involvement in football would be limited to watching football on Sundays, tossing the ball with my sister or dad in the front yard, and occasionally playing co-ed flag or touch football in gym class or at summer camp. It was during this latter exercise that I began to see that I could love football in a new way—because I was a girl that could catch a football, I became the team’s secret weapon. Most other girls groaned and looked at their nails when the gym teacher split the group into teams—some of their faces even registered terror—while I smiled and squinted, sizing up my team’s chances of obliterating our opponents. The quarterback would always be a guy, so I’d approach him after the initial huddle and tell him that I was going long and to throw it to me in the end zone. I knew no one would cover me, and I knew I would catch the ball. Inevitably, he wouldn’t listen to me for the first few plays, then throw it to me out of desperation on third-and-long, a thicket of hands in his face. And I’d catch it, and we’d score. And still no one would cover me, thinking it was a fluke. Then I’d do it again, and we’d win, and for a second, I’d feel victorious, wondering if my elation matched in some tiny way that felt by, say, Mark Bavaro, All-World tight end.
I never play catch anymore, beyond tossing a Nerf on a beach. Football isn’t something I do, it’s simply part of who I am, a part I’ve busted out when talking to men at parties and on first dates (typical reaction: a quizzical, “You like football? Really…”, which bought me a few more minutes of conversation or even a second date). I’m the go-to girlfriend for women who don’t like or get football. The friend who fled from watching an Eagles game (I honestly don’t blame her) called me to talk her down. When my UK-born best friend and college roommate asked me what the Super Bowl was, we exchanged our respective sports expertise (she’s a Celtic supporter) over a couple of gin and tonics. Now she calls me when the Giants win. And I’d call her when Celtic won, if I ever watched soccer.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.
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