My love of football started in high school. In the 1960s, Coaches Stuart Tripp and Tommy Lewis led Ayden High School Single-A football teams to many winning seasons and state championships. Following our teams, many in our small town took buses filled with athletes, cheerleaders and fans to faraway places. It felt like living the “Hoosiers.”
As a cheerleader, I started learning the game. A cheerleader needs to know the difference between a “Hey hey, let’s go!” cheer for the offense and a “Push ‘em back,” for the defense. We learn first-hand “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
In the fall of 1964, my freshman year at East Carolina, from a row high up in the stadium, I watched the finesse of the single wing offense Clarence Stasavich had introduced. It was an exciting time seeing the football program grow and expand.
Carl Davis, in his book, My View from 20 Rows Up, reminds me that “in 1963, ’64 and ’65, Coach Stas took the Pirates to three bowl games and won all three.”
I married a broadcaster who “called” play-by-play for local football games and got to see a lot of football. WGTM, in Wilson, broadcast Fike High School games in the Carlester Crumpler years. He was tall and lanky and could run like the wind. Fike won three state championships in a row. Busloads of fans followed them wherever they played. We never got tired of cheering.
In 1966, the NFL-AFL Championship game was played between the Green Bay Packers (35) and the Kansas City Chiefs (10). We saw it on television just after we came home from our honeymoon. The next January this matchup was re-named The Super Bowl.
For years there were Super Bowl parties with cheese balls and chili. Many games were not so good, but the advertisements most always were. Many good times happened with football in the background.
When our son was in the eighth grade, he played on his middle school football team. He was a big boy and played center. About the third game, he came down from his room carrying his shoulder pads and said, lip quivering and nearly in tears, “Mom, I am not mean enough to play football.”
The coach had encouraged him to growl at the person across the line of scrimmage from him. Richard is not a growler; he did not last long on the team.
When the family started playing Fantasy Football, I loved football even more. The first few years, we would put post sheets around the room for us to keep up with player selection. We bought the ESPN preseason magazine with up-and-coming players, studied and I had pretty good luck on my “Rev-It-Up” team.
Wes Welker and Joe Flacco did well for me. It was the first and only time I knew most of the NFL players. Our granddaughter named her team the “All Crims.” She selected only those who were under indictment, had been convicted or were otherwise just plain bad news. Michael Vick was on her team.
If baseball is America’s pastime, football is America’s obsession. It’s big money for colleges and for franchises in the NFL. Television revenues alone line pockets and bring fame to teams, schools and players.
Our “contemporary Gladiators” provide great entertainment, as if we are at the Roman Coliseum. There is risk in playing, but many think the reward is worth it. I am becoming less sure of that.
By the early 2000s, we were learning more about concussions and long-term brain damage players were suffering. By 2013, protocols and targeting rules addressed a growing problem as players grew bulkier and the game got more brutal.
We were watching the Bills- Bengals game when Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field. It was an awful reminder of just how quickly life can change. Hamlin was drafted in 2021. His cardiac arrest that nearly ended his life will surely affect his career.
Thankfully, trainers knew CPR. Thankfully, there was a defibrillator available. Thankfully, the game was called off. We realized we cared more about the young man than we did the game.
We learn perspective in the face of great pain and suffering. The young men who play in the NFL find great opportunity they likely would not have anywhere else. A few years, a few wins can provide a good life, at least until the experience of the bruises, broken bones and targeted head tackles begin to take a toll. It seems reckless to find sport when injury is so prevalent.
In Andy Griffiths 1953 breakout record, “What it was, was football,” Andy said, “just as fast as one of ‘em would get hurt, they’d take him off and run another one on!”
The Georgia-TCU championship brought up another consideration. Georgia, No. 1 in the nation, against TCU, No. 3. It should have been competitive, but Georgia trounced TCU 65 to 7. The New York Times calls Georgia a “Blue Chip University,” a “football finishing school” sending 15 players to the NFL in April of 2022.
Where money reigns, mercy slips away. Priorities of sport, especially football, come with responsibility of safety, fair play, mercy and appreciation for those who risk themselves from Friday night lights to the Super Bowl. If we are to keep football in play, we have a few issues to address.