The Game Could Wait


Last year, my son was born with meconium aspiration syndrome. It’s a common medical condition in newborns, but a terrifying one. My wife and I awoke in a dark hospital room after falling asleep for several hours, our only rest for two days. She was lying in bed after eighteen hours of labor; I was balled up in a corner chair. A doctor and nurse stood as shadows and said where our newborn was, what he was hooked up to, and when we could take him home—in a week.

It was difficult to see Julian attached to machinery, and even more difficult not to have him in the room with us surrounded by the balloons and relatives we expected. My wife had to breastfeed with several clear tubes constantly knotting around Julian’s legs, afraid that the slightest movement would pull his IV from his skin. There were two tiny oxygen tubes that never quite stayed in his nostrils. A female nurse who in my memory resembles Tom Arnold watched us, nodding. When the IV did fall out on day three, my wife argued that he didn’t need to be pumped with antibiotics, the doctor surreally agreed, and we drove home at 9:30 at night in a cold downpour with little Julian in the back seat.

This experience was a minor setback and not a long-term trauma. Before leaving the hospital, I overhead a hive of doctors discussing a newborn with “a serious heart condition,” and I’ll probably never forget the haunted expression on the new father’s face as he paced the halls with his shoes untied. But the whole experience did deepen some paternal emotional chamber inside me, especially when absorbing stories about children and heartbreak from coworkers, friends, and family. Where before I may have shrugged it off or given a cursory “that’s too bad” when told about a child’s neglect, abuse, or even death, now these things keep me up at night while I try to co-sleep with Julian in a twin bed set against a white wall decorated with red construction-paper hearts.

The most recent “please don’t tell me that” story to turn me into an insomniac for several nights is the death of football player Adrian Peterson’s two-year old son. It bothers me in a hopeless way, makes me feel I can’t do anything other than hold my son and try to give him a good night’s sleep by hushing him if he wakes, which he typically does three to four times a night. We are a family of nap takers.

For those who don’t watch football, Adrian Peterson is arguably the best running back in the NFL. In fact, Adrian Peterson, number 28, is arguably the best in the world, out of billions of people, at carrying a football to the opposite end of a field while eleven other men try to tackle him to the ground. His style of play is energetic and brutal—he seems to enjoy being hit, somehow churning his legs for extra yardage when other running backs would trot out of bounds. I’ve been a follower of his for roughly six years.

Peterson’s son, with whom he had no relationship and who he wasn’t even sure was biologically his until recently, was murdered by his mother’s boyfriend. His mother’s boyfriend destroyed the boy with his hands. I wish my imagination were weak enough not to imagine what happened in that house, what that little boy felt below that man.

The case has received national attention not only because of Peterson’s clout among football fans, but also because just days after the news of the two-year-old’s death broke, Peterson confidently and with “no doubt” announced he would play in Sunday’s game (“I’ll be ready to roll, focused”), a move that caught some, like myself, emotionally off guard.

The criticism is visceral and really very simple: How can he play football after a human being he brought into this world has been murdered? A child! How can someone so easily mouth clichés (“Football is something I will always fall back on. It gets me through tough times.”) and religious fallback (“One thing I always bounce back to is that the good Lord never gives you more than you can bear, than you can handle. So I’m built tough.”) without publicly acknowledging just how awful the situation is? When Peterson speaks, there’s something strangely detached going on that I can’t quite put my finger on, but it’s truly troublesome.

Having a child carves you out. Stories like this line the walls inside, and keep you up wondering why, how, what the fuck is exactly happening here? It makes me look at Julian doing something absurdly simple like eating a diced grape and want to toss confetti. And I understand I don’t know what Adrian Peterson feels and have no knowledge of his grieving process, and even if I did, who am I? He has other children, and I don’t question him as a father there. But it’s the juxtaposition of a child’s murder and a father’s professional decision to play football that bothered me, no matter how distant they were.

Largely, I think Adrian Peterson identifies completely as a football player. He’s paid millions of dollars to play in no more than twenty games a year, and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be Adrian Peterson. But there’s something even deeper going on here, because if Peterson did decide to not play, to sit with his thoughts, it would also mean we, as fans, as fathers, as parents, would also have to sit and further process the situation. It would mean the game could wait. It would require us to access our emotional chambers and reflect at a whole new the-world-is-black level. Quite simply, it’s easier to just move forward. It’s easier to just play the game. This is something we Americans do best.

panthers-vikings-footballThis past weekend, I did nothing extraordinary with Julian but stack wooden blocks, go for several walks, and yes, watch football. I thought about the days in the hospital, how much worse it could have been. I thought the cliché “We are so lucky,” which holds true. Sometimes, when the camera scanned the crowd and showed applause, Julian would clap. I couldn’t stop thinking about the dead little boy, the people in the stands, the lonely mother, the commercials selling trucks and beer, and how downright bizarre it all was.

On October 13, 2013, 63,963 people attended Mall of America Field in Minneapolis and watched the Minnesota Vikings lose 35–10 to the Carolina Panthers. The giant bearded mascot, Ragnar the Viking, rode a custom-made purple motorcycle with painted flames onto the field. At least one person held a sign that read “Stay Strong 28 ALL DAY!” Mike Tolbert, from the Panthers, scored a touchdown, gyrated his hips, and spanked an invisible ass. At halftime, junior cheerleaders, girls aged three to fourteen, danced onto the field to Avril Lavigne’s “Here’s To Never Growing Up.” Adrian Peterson carried the ball ten times for a season low 62 yards.


Featured Image Credit: Ann Heisenfelt

Second Photo Credit: Jim Mone

Shane Jones is the author of several books, including the novels Light Boxes and Daniel Fights A Hurricane. His previous essays have appeared online at Tin House, Salon, The Millions, and Flavorwire. In 2014 he will publish two books: Paper Champion (CCM) and Crystal Eaters (Two Dollar Radio). More from this author →