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Grateful Odes To The NFL’s Return

By Assorted Pajibans | Miscellaneous | September 8, 2011 |

By Assorted Pajibans | Miscellaneous | September 8, 2011 |

Although Steven Lloyd Wilson stole our thunder yesterday with his own most eloquent eloquence regarding the wonder that is football, here are four more viewpoints on what made us NFL fans and why we are happy that the labor dispute ended and the season is finally here.

I was born in Dallas and went to high school in the suburbs. I watched my dad’s obsession with the Cowboys and attended countless high school games. Then I chose to go to Texas A&M, a huge football university. As required by the cult that is my school, I attended every home game and many away games. I stood during every minute. 100 degrees in central Texas and you had to stand, sweat, yell until you were hoarse and wave that towel like it was your job. In the upper reaches of Kyle Field, you could feel the stands sway with the weight of 50,000 spectators. We were the symbolic “Twelfth Man” on the team. I made out with my date any time that cannon fired a shot, signifying a score and to this day, the sound of large ammunitions make me pucker up for a kiss.
But if you asked me what I knew about football at 21, I would have said they throw it or run it and you have to get it into the end or kick it through that thing to make points. For someone who grew up immersed in the culture, my knowledge of the game was breathtakingly shallow.

Then at 40, I began watching it with my friend Jaretta, someone who grew up understanding football on a deep and technical level. She explained what was going on and I was getting it. There were flags and missed field goal attempts and the plays? Saint Lombardi in heaven, I had no idea you could achieve the same goal in thousands of different ways—every play just a bit different from the next, both in theory and execution. And in understanding it, it looked different to me. I spent weeks learning the penalties. Jaretta quizzed me each Sunday: was false start an offensive or defensive penalty? How close should you be before attempting a field goal with some assurance of success? What kind of strategy should they use here? I learned the conferences, the divisions, the playoff system. I analyzed foot placement, hand placement, inches on a grass field, all of it adding up to a win or a loss. I even watched the combines and found them fascinating.
Maybe it was a matter of finding the right teacher: God knows my father and multiple boyfriends had tried in vain over the years to explain the game to me. But as soon as they started explaining even the system of downs, my eyes glazed over. I don’t know why. Perhaps I wasn’t ready. But now I greedily ate up all the football knowledge I could find, and I loved it.

Of course, I missed football something terrible over the summer and the possible lockout loomed large. A game I finally understood enough to truly enjoy, and it might have been ripped away because of contract disputes. I knew I had it bad when I looked down at a garden bed I was working on and got choked up. Grass was encroaching on the flowerbed and I thought to myself, “That’s an automatic five yards, grass. AUTOMATIC FIVE YARDS.”

I needed football. I’ve come to believe it is the most sublime game ever devised by humans, and the fact that the NFL is back has made me absurdly happy. I can slurp on beer, yell for my favorite team again (go Pack!) and continue to learn. Never threaten to leave me again, NFL. I love you now. I understand you now. There’s no going back.

- Snuggiepants the Deathbringer

Way, way, back in the 16-bit Age (what? I measure time in the Gaming Console Epoch scale), I arrived home after school in that two-to-three p.m. dead zone of television programming. Soap operas, Maury Povich, Law & Order re-runs, so on and so forth.

My earliest exercises in the profound pleasure of procrastination were birthed in these times. Homework was welcome to go right ahead and bury its head in the backyard alongside chores and hygiene, for it was time to indulge in the operatic overtures of the National Football League.

NFL Films with Steve Sabol.

Pure poetry. Like the opening of act 3 of some Wagner opera, replete with the tension of a screeching string ensemble, NFL Films inundated the senses with a bombastic approach to historical storytelling. You could feel the dirt and mud under your fingernails, the smell of sweat, and the pain of every crushing hit. Kellen Winslow wants to call himself a soldier? Try taking a head slap from sack-master Deacon Jones. Try going over the middle of the field while Jack Tatum zeroes in on your vital organs, or bust a run through the middle of the line while Jack Lambert’s gap-toothed grin is salivating. All of these brutal dances choreographed in slow motion, close-quarters cinematography.

And there was always Sabol to guide us over the chaos with historical context and interjection. He was football’s Mister Rogers, full of anecdotes from years of personal experience as a camera down at field level. To call him impartial would be unfair; he was biased, but biased in the sense that he believed in the glory of football as the ultimate challenge of team sport.

What NFL Films lacked in fancy graphics and the over-glossed panache of current football fare, it made up for with a vault of footage deep enough to hide biblical relics from Indiana Jones. It pre-dated the digital age and the ease of Youtube’s “anything, anytime” abilities, and the more noteworthy highlights have become synonymous with the NFL tradition. When you think about a quarterback getting hit, you can see Leonard Marshall shifting into fifth gear before attempting to split Joe Montana in twain at the chest. When a running back powers over a defender, there’s images of Earl Campbell flattening a Los Angeles Ram defender on his way forward to churn the chains of the down markers.

The summer doldrums, the reporting check-ins with Ed Werder whoring himself all over the country for some snippet of Brett Favre leftovers and Rachel Nichols’ ventriloquist act, finally give way to Week 1 each and every year. I take in the Fantasy Football leagues and free agent frenzies with a grain of salt every year, and cringe in those early afternoons I get to spend back at home watching the tube. Punk-asses like Jim Rome and Colin Cowherd are a dime a dozen; it doesn’t take skill or talent to act like a jerk on national television.

But the legacy of NFL Films and Steve Sabol? That, my friends, takes the same perseverance, integrity, and dedication that champions of the NFL past have exhibited.

- Dan Saipher

That I would be a football fan was a given. My mother’s father played. Her brothers played. My father played. My mother, I’m sure, would have played if such a thing was even possible when she was growing up.

But I knew that I would play football when I first saw somebody get blown up. I don’t remember when I first considered the destructive possibilities of the human body. Any number of players could have been responsible. Andre Waters. Steve Atwater. Ronnie Lott. Mike Singletary. Lawrence Taylor. Offense got all the glory, but defense had all the fun.

As a kid, I didn’t really have a team. The closest NFL team was the Cincinnati Bengals assuming they count as an NFL team. But they bored me. A finesse team with ugly uniforms. Plus, my mother is the most obnoxious fan on Earth, so that wouldn’t work.

So I bounced around. The 49ers were building a dynasty. The Cowboys … existed. The Bears had a ferocious defense that brutalized the Patriots in the Super Bowl. If I had good sense, I would have picked the Steelers. They were geographically reasonable, there were plenty of Steeler fans in Dayton, Ohio and who doesn’t look great in black and yellow? I could have spared myself two decades of suffering.

Instead, it was a crew of misfits and their loudmouth coach caught my attention. Buddy Ryan was the architect of the defense that returned the Bears to Monsters of the Midway status. Sarcastic. Mean. Gleefully sadistic. It was like someone had given a fan a coach’s whistle and set him loose on the NFL.

And, by hook or by crook, he put together a wrecking crew of a roster. Randall Cunningham. Keith Jackson. Mike Quick. Eric Allen. Waters. Seth Joyner, The Linebacker from a Town Called Hate. Wes Hopkins. Bobby Taylor. The superhuman, doomed Jerome Brown. And, of course, the Minister of Defense, Reggie White.

Buddy Ryan’s Eagles didn’t play games. They waged war. He released a slavering pack of hounds who didn’t aim to stop offenses so much as create widows and orphans. That defense set out to sack and pillage, to lay waste, burn crops and salt the Earth that nothing may grow for again for a thousand years.

Body Bag I & II. The Bounty Bowl. The Pickle Juice Game. Buddy Ryan’s Eagles played games that were epic in their ferocity and grow larger in legend over time.

But, for all that, it was an offensive player who made me an Eagle fan for life. Keith Byars was a Dayton native. An Ohio State legend who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting (fuck you, Doug Flutie) and went to Philadelphia as a first round pick.

At Ohio State, Byars had a teammate named Pepper Johnson. Johnson, a linebacker, would eventually stand with Byars at his wedding. I’ve met Johnson. He’s a good dude. His neck is bigger than your thigh. But he was drafted by the Giants and the two teams hated, and hate, each other.

It was inevitable the two men would clash on the field and the most memorable event occurred on a broken play. Byars went downfield on a pass route. Cunningham, the Eagles’ phenomanal quarterback, slipped away from the Giants’ vaunted pass rush and headed up the sideline. Johnson, 230 pounds of bad humor and ill intent, was bearing down on Cunningham when Byars, Johnson’s friend and college teammate pealed back and OH MY GOD, DID YOU SEE THAT HIT?! HOLY SHIT. JOHNSON GOT DESTROYED.

The best hits, the most destructive, on a football field are blindside shots. One man is running upfield without watching for an oncoming opponent. Time it right and you’ll catch the man right under his chin, lift him off the ground and send him flying. There’s a loud CRACK ad then an “Oooooh” from the bench and the crowd.

Pepper Johnson went flying. Randall Cunningham got the first down. And that’s how Keith Byars made me an Eagles fan.

- Jason Harris

The NFL lockout scared me.

It’s not that I couldn’t have found something else to do. I could have read, written, exercised, played video games, watched movies, or done any number of activities I enjoy that might have made me feel as if I had been just as if not more productive during that weekly Sunday ten-hour block of time that spans four months of the year - not counting Monday nights, the occasional Thursday games, and the playoffs, of course.

Speaking of playoffs, it’s not fear of resorting to watching that paltry substitute that is NCAA Division I college football on Saturdays instead with its paper BCS champions and mockery of a rankings system. Yes, I probably would have watched a few more of those games, but that’s not worthy of fear; it’s just sad.

It’s not the loss of ritual, although certainly I am a creature of habit that finds value in that sort of thing. It started long ago with watching the games with my father, and from there it blossomed into weekly attempts at prognostication against point spreads.

As for my rooting for the Dallas Cowboys for over twenty years, that is not simply ritual; it has become a reliable and inseparable part of my identity. Certainly I can live without the agonizingly powerless nature of that stress for a season, though. Only one out of 32 NFL fans can end the season happily with a championship, so winning is not what keeps the vast majority of fans around while they gnash their teeth over another season that came up short.

It’s not the loss of entertaining personalities, as plenty of other viewing options offer that. That said, how could one not be entranced by the many great post-game press conferences over the years highlighted by frustrated and incredulous coaches like Dennis Green and Jim Mora?

What I would miss is the same basic thing as all NFL fans. It’s that ability to walk into a bar and find instant camaraderie with that stranger watching the same television screen. It’s that outlet for us to have friendly, communal trivial competition without the lines of politics or whatever else that divides us and hopefully without the need to shoot each other in a parking lot after the game. It’s the silly fantasy football game that - despite its silliness - is my primary method of maintaining ties with so many of my best friends that are scattered across the country. It’s the water cooler banter on Monday morning that briefly gives me the sensation of being a level peer with my bosses as opposed to a subordinate. It’s the high-impact thrills of the most popular game in the U.S. that draws a crowd like the Roman Colosseum did two thousand years ago without the lions and the death. (O.k., there are Lions, but they are the Detroit variety.) It’s the pageantry of the Super Bowl that attracts viewers like no other event and represents my earliest memories of what a “party” is. All this and more, the NFL is one of the ties that binds us.

Welcome back, NFL. You don’t just have my attention. You have my fanaticism.

Please don’t scare me like that again.

- C. Robert Dimitri

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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