It’s September again, so as baseball stirs from the summer slumber of half-awake games to sprint towards the end, the brutal engine of football grinds into gear for another autumn.
I met a girl once, she walked into our suite in college as a football game wound down to half time. It was a blowout, 27-3 or some such at the half, just enough to be almost out of reach but just close enough for the miracle to lurk in the back of the mind. She asked why they’d even bother going out for the second half. It wasn’t a joke, she wasn’t making the easy sideways stab at the score, she pressed on with the insistence that it couldn’t possibly be worth the chance of injury to even step on that field with no chance of winning. If she was on the team, she wouldn’t bother going out for the second half. If she was a fan, she wouldn’t bother watching it.
There’s a distinction there between what makes someone a real fan, and what makes someone merely a spectator. But there’s also something unique to football, linked to a notion that to play is to suffer. No one ever wonders why a baseball team bothers trudging out to the field after the seventh inning stretch down a dozen runs. But then, no one ever accused a slugger of running up the score for stroking a three-run homer over the fence when already up by ten runs in the seventh. In brutality, we find mercy.
Neil Gaiman argued in American Gods that people don’t really gamble for the winning, they gamble for the losing. It’s sacrifice, old as blood. It’s the losing that gives the texture, not the winning. There are a handful of ways to score as the clock runs out to win the game, but there are an infinite number of ways to fall short. The greatest ending to a Super Bowl wasn’t one of the finger tip catches as time expired, but the sight of a receiver stretching the ball out and coming up short by inches. We want to believe somewhere that the universe is just, that the more we suffer, the more magnificent eventual victory will be. But there’s a niggling suspicion that the world isn’t just, that falling inches short is all we’ll ever have. And football is a game designed for that suspicion.
In baseball, there is always more time, but in football that clock mocks any illusions, ticking ever downwards. There’s an illusion to control, those alluring sidelines that can stop time. As the time diminishes, the desperation increases, the throws become more insistent, into triple coverage just for the chance to play another down. The mind starts calculating permutations. If we can get ten yards here in six seconds, and another ten in five seconds, there’s still one second on the clock for the field goal. In other sports, games that aren’t close tend to taper off at the end, but in football there’s a sense that the less close a game is, the more fevered its last minutes become. No gentlemanly slow acknowledgement that it is over, but a primal thrashing of a wounded animal, refusing to slip away in silence.
All football movies are the same movie underneath, with some set up, maybe a montage, but always about the game at the end. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but there’s always far more excitement than has ever happened in a single game. It’s like the difference between a painting and a photograph. At face value, a painting is just a primitive photograph, it’s mechanically no different, it’s just performed with a slower and less accurate tool. But a painting is more than that. A photograph is a moment, frozen. But a painting is the facsimile of a moment, it’s the artist’s rendering of a thousand moments grafted into one. Bad painters try to paint one moment, but great painters paint all the moments at once, layered into a picture that could never have been photographed. That’s the magnificence of a football game in a movie. It’s the distilled emotion we’ve witnessed in a lifetime of games cast as one game.
Sports are the last bastion of reality we have in entertainment. Not because they matter in some grand sense, but because we act like they do. Other than an occasional spurt of interest in politics, sports are the only thing with permanence. What we are watching is happening right now. It can’t be scripted, it can’t be rewritten after the fact. The joy and agony we feel is not the product of a finely plucked script, but of genuine events. And so even though we always lose more than we win, we keep watching because the pain at least is real.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.