The teams assemble at the 50. The ref points to the visiting team captain: Call it in the air. The visiting team captain calls “tails”, and waits for the coin to hit the turf. But the coin hovers, spinning at the top of its arc—suspended first a second too long, then three, then ten. The players stand watching it, mesmerized. This is not a trick of the wind. This is not some drone quarter, operated by remote control. This must be, the visiting team captain thinks, a breach in time. The ref doesn’t have a rule in the book for this; he’s satisfied to let it play out. It continues for several minutes. The fans grow restless. They hurl things onto the gridiron: trays of nachos, souvenir drink cups, bobblehead replicas of the home team’s quarterback, a giveaway for the first 15,000 lucky fans. Hours pass; games in other cities reach halftime, the fourth quarter, and enter the books with a winner and loser (excepting the tie in Pittsburgh). Fans file out, cursing their ruined Sundays. Players return to locker rooms to wait for updates. They keep warm, riding stationary bikes, lifting weights, booting kicks into nets, slamming bodies into blocking sleds. The commissioner stops by to say there’s nothing to be done: each game must, per league bylaws, start with a coin toss. Once the process has begun, it can’t be interrupted. It’s like giving birth, the commissioner adds, strangely. By the following week, a new crowd has filed in, a new visiting team has arrived—but the visiting team captain refuses to leave. The league has halted all play until the situation can be resolved. On television, an ex-ballplayer and a newspaper columnist pontificate about what the hovering coin might mean. The show is designed to draw ratings through fireworks, so the discussion is conversation by combat. The newspaper columnist is convinced the coin is emblematic of everything wrong with the sport: players are too coddled and greedy, games too boring and bloodless, and this “interruption” is a form of “karmic punishment.” The ex-ballplayer disagrees, saying that the coin is just “one of those things” and the columnist suggesting otherwise wouldn’t understand because “he’s never played the game.” The columnist takes umbrage at this; he makes a huge show of repeating that word, “umbrage”, until it almost appears to float on-screen in a giant, cucumber-shaped cartoon bubble. The two nearly come to blows, which might have goosed ratings to network-pleasing levels. Instead, the show, as well as the remainder of the season, is canceled. Thousands of people—stadium vendors, administrative staff, assistant coaches—are laid off. But the visiting team captain still hasn’t left the complex. He hasn’t shaved, he hasn’t showered, he hasn’t changed out of his uniform. Most of his meals are delivered by his team’s official fast-food sponsor—until finally, the notorious conglomerate runs out of burgers and/or patience, and reneges on their endorsement deal. The visiting team captain’s family wants face time, but he tells them he needs total focus for the coming resumption: he can’t risk the distraction of seeing them. Two full seasons go by like this. The visiting team captain is forced to confront the reality that the short window of his sporting life may be closing: time may have finally caught up, and sacked him. But soon, the inevitability of this ceases to bother him much, if at all. He stares at the football he holds in his hands: the oblong shape of it feels suddenly alien, and he seems to have briefly forgotten its function entirely. He imagines the pigskin has some ritual or ceremonial use, as in the life-or-death ball games played by the ancient Mayans, and he gets down on his knees to worship it. On the phone, his wife challenges him to recall the names of their children. When she puts them on, he calls them Lampshade and Aluminum Foil. They choose to believe that he’s joking, but are never quite sure. More years pass. When the visiting team captain falls ill, he refuses to be transported to a hospital: he must be treated in the locker room, by team trainers, some of whom have to be flown in, mobilized out of happy retirements. On the day the visiting team captain dies, his protective pads are all in place, his helmet is still banded to his chin. In the decades that follow, the sport he once played becomes a distant memory, as do all sports: the rapid warming of the planet has rendered athletic competitions essentially impossible. They’ve been replaced by convincing video simulations, indistinguishable from the real thing, and likely more addictive. But soon, there are few folks left to participate even in these events. Mitigation efforts fail. The icecaps melt. The oceans move inland. The stadium floods. Finally, the coin decides it is tired of hovering, and begins to fall. Just before it sinks to the turf, a fish swims by—one of the last who hasn’t choked to the gills on a diet of plastics—and snatches the coin up into the receptacle of its waiting mouth. With no wasted motion, the fish continues swimming—past the 40, the 30, the 20, the 10—and into what was once the end zone. But there is no celebration. No refs to raise their arms and signal the points. The visiting team captain is not there to witness this, and the home team captain isn’t either. There are no fans to scream obscenities between bites of nachos. There are no sportscasters to overhype the moment. There are no more coaches, no more journalists, no more cheerleaders. There are no more lost careers to lament, no more families to forget. Now, there is only time—and plenty of it.
Sometimes I wonder about the way memory emphasizes certain parts of a moment at the expense of others. September 8, 2002, the Houston Texans played their first game ever. It was against the Dallas Cowboys. I remember Texans tight end Billy Miller reaching across the goal line for the team’s first touchdown. David Carr, the rookie making his first career start. I remember the final score: 19-10. And I remember watching the game in my grandmother’s bedroom. She was drifting toward sleep, but let me keep the game on. It was a school night, and she said not to tell my parents that she was letting me stay up late to watch.
But what I didn’t remember—not until years later—was that the game was just a little over a week after my grandfather died.
I’ve never been good at understanding time. My last year of undergrad, I wrote a poem called “2003” about my grandfather’s death, and it wasn’t until years later when I was told by my dissertation committee that I should consider a stronger title—it’s now got the same name as this essay—that I realized I’d had the year wrong anyway. In that poem, I wrote about what happened two days before my grandfather died. He’d just been taken to a nursing home and one morning he was staring at a blank wall. The nurse asked him what he was doing, and he told her that the Cowboys were playing. She asked him how the game was going, and he told her the Cowboys were losing. He paused.
And they have to win this one, he said, or it means I’m going to die.
It was the fourth quarter. The Cowboys were behind.
My family didn’t tell me that story then, so I didn’t have that context when, one week later, I watched in awe as the new team from Houston beat the Cowboys. I was a Texans fan from day one—even though a lot of people in my family were Cowboys fans, Dallas felt so far away. At 12, the only world I knew was Texas, and Dallas was this distant place up north. Of course I’d be a fan of the team from Houston. My civic pride for the city an hour away topped a family history of Cowboys fandom.
The way I realized that my grandfather died in 2002 was that I googled his name, where I found a photograph of his grave on a website devoted to photographing graves. It’s not that the grave is of any particular interest to the general public—it’s just that the website believes in creating a fully complete directory of graves in the United States. I’m both grateful for this discovery and afraid of it, of the way a website knows more about my family than I myself do.
But it’s there, the picture:
My grandmother’s name was on the grave before she was in it, a blank space over where her date of death would be one day. I know this is common, but it was still weird, as a teenager, when my grandmother and I would visit the grave and she’d stand there in front of where she’d be one day. Sometimes she’d joke about it, and every year the jokes became less funny.
I don’t have a sports anecdote about my grandmother’s death. We used to play football in her yard, but it’d been at least a half-decade since the last time.
I live in Iowa now. This weekend, the Texans and the Cowboys play again, and it will be the first time I haven’t been in Texas when the two teams played. I don’t know if that matters. At one point, maybe, but childhood’s another year away every year, and the connections to that place, to that game—it all feels like it’s slipping away. I won’t even watch the whole game, another first. RedZone will show the highlights, which likely means I’ll see a lot of the Dallas Cowboys and none of the Houston Texans. Dallas is better this year, and the Texans just un-benched a quarterback that they’d already benched.
Sometimes, though, I think about the final days of my grandfather’s life again. It’s Thursday right now. Would this have been when he stared at that wall? Would tomorrow be the day? Memory’s a hazy little thing, and I don’t want to call my mother up and ask her when did my grandfather think there was a football game happening. Maybe she won’t even remember what I’m talking about. Maybe it wasn’t really a moment, a thing, for her.
Before I moved to Iowa, I spent eight years in the Dallas area. First grad school, then just kind of…there. I used to go to a bar, and on Sundays everyone who worked there would put on their Dak Prescott jerseys and one guy would scream, as loud as he could, COWBOYS NATION, over and over. It was so loud.
And those final moments of my grandfather’s life. They were, maybe, so quiet.
I wonder what the fourth quarter of my grandfather’s football game was like. If the Cowboys moved the ball down the field and had a chance at a game winning field goal, or if it was hopeless by that point. I wonder who the quarterback was. The opponent. If it was the Super Bowl or just another game. And if they’d won, what then? Would the same game have played out the next week? The next? Could the Cowboys have won inside my grandfather’s head forever.
first day of practice
and she is there.
against a pane of glass:
through a forest:
she skates like forgetting,
she shoots to remind you.
is the instant
all the water
inside the kernel
and turns itself inside-out.
you make the team and she
crushes you into the boards:
a captain’s welcome.
her gale-force winds
push and punish your sails:
the captain takes no survivors.
it is a kind of love
everything of you.
it is a love
like skating suicides
forth and back and
forth across the
she is the other side
she is your
she, like this game,
is your greatest love.
The pervasive fog of cigarette smoke and high-volume bursts of profanity-laced laughter made for a dodgy neighborhood-bar ambience at the hangout of my early teens, but it was parentally approved. Poinsettia Bowl was where my family briefly bonded in common pursuit. When my brother was recovering from knee surgery following his high school graduation, his doctor recommended bowling to strengthen his leg muscles and hasten rehabilitation. We did little more as a family than eat dinner together, so my mother jumped at this opportunity for shared activity. Ours was a functional but uncommunicative and lightly strained family—bowling might serve as an ACE bandage to fortify increasingly fragile bonds.
We lived in Solana Beach, one of a chain of five small connected coastal towns 20 miles north of San Diego. It may as well have been 200 miles, as we went to the city only for special occasions and infrequent trips to Sears or J.C. Penney’s. Our sleepy communities were beach destinations, offering little more, but Poinsettia Bowl in Encinitas, five miles from home, was a lively roosting place for locals. It was 1956, and our timing was spot on. Introduced to America in the 17th century by Dutch settlers, bowling blossomed among blue-collar populations in the 1950s and ‘60s. More than twenty million Americans bowled during its heyday, and bowling alleys proliferated around the country. Remember Laverne and Shirley, Squiggy and Lenny? Much of their “happy days” existence revolved around bowling.
My brother, the impetus for our newfound togetherness, was the least interested. At 18 he had other priorities, and when his knee healed and physical therapy ceased, he stopped bowling. Within the year he joined the Air Force and left home, returning only for brief visits. But my parents and I—13 and not yet embarked on a social life of my own—took to it right away. For my dad, whose other pastimes were pursued in solitude—surf fishing at dawn, listening to classical music, tippling secretively—bowling offered male bonding, beer-drinking and back-slapping. My mother enjoyed anything that brought the family together and got her out of the house, meeting new people. I loved the game itself and quickly became proficient—a natural, some said. I took pride in my skill, in consecutive strikes and converted spares, in steadily rising scores, while lapping up accolades from onlookers. After that first summer we augmented our weekend family outings with competitive team bowling. I joined a women’s league, and my parents bought me a shiny new bowling ball with marbleized blue and black swirls, matching shoes and bag. We played together on a mixed doubles team—a family friend as our fourth in lieu of my brother—and finished the season in first place.
I might have abandoned the bowling alley as my teens progressed, but I was tethered to it by bucks and boys, money and men. This was during the transition to automatic pinsetters and before electronic scorekeeping. We scored manually on paper score sheets for casual games, while league play was publicly documented on transparencies projected onto screens. I found my lucrative calling when my father recruited me to keep score in the men’s league. I knew the game and could add quickly, print legibly. Soon I was in demand, keeping score a few nights a week. While my friends were babysitting—something I dodged unless desperate—I was having fun and earning good money. The players kept me supplied with cokes and snacks, and the winners tipped handsomely at the end of the evening’s three-game set. My own version of bowling for dollars.
Most of the men were much older, and the teasing and flirtation were constant but benign. I took it in stride and sloughed it off, except with some of the younger ones, with whom I happily reciprocated. I was shy and awkward, not popular at school, but at the bowling alley I was in my milieu and one of few girls amid a bonanza of guys. I had a fixation on the Polloreno brothers. Bobby, the oldest, was a friend; his wife and I bowled on the same team. Larry was dark and dangerous, with sleepy eyes and a sly, seductive smile. Ten years older than me, and to my dismay, he, like Bobby, treated me like a little sister and was wise enough to deflect me when I threw myself at him. “Call me when you’re not jailbait anymore,” he said.
Ernie was the youngest, a senior during my sophomore year in high school. Not outgoing like his brothers, he had a sweet, quiet manner. He was my secret crush for that entire year as I interjected myself into his path at every opportunity at the bowling alley and at school. He was friendly and kind but clearly not interested. Once when Bobby and his wife had me over for dinner, Ernie was there too. I thought they were trying to fix us up, and I was so nervous I couldn’t eat or put two coherent words together. He didn’t get close enough to break my heart, but it ached nevertheless; I suffered pangs of self-pity and pains of self-doubt.
I’d always craved my brother’s attention and approval, even when he no longer had time for me. I took his absence in stride and was happy when he joined us over the holidays the first year after he left. To my mother, however, we were like a three-legged dog, limping and incomplete. When, the next year, he informed us that he wouldn’t be coming home for Thanksgiving, my mother announced that she wasn’t going to spend the day cooking for just the three of us. Instead we would go to the bowling alley for their buffet dinner. I felt slighted, dismissed—without my brother, were we no longer a family worthy of a home-cooked holiday meal? Was I so insignificant that all pretense could be abandoned? Holiday meals had been uncomfortable affairs for years, just the four of us, no friends or extended family, pretending a turkey made the day special. But now even that sham was dropped. What about me? I wanted to shout, but I didn’t. Instead of expressing my indignation, I withdrew to nurse my hurt feelings in solitude. I don’t remember our spurious Thanksgiving dinner, though I’m sure I grumbled at not having leftovers for turkey sandwiches the next day.
The bowling alley had been a refuge where we could go through the motions of being family without having to confront troubling issues, but eventually bowling’s therapeutic benefits wore off. My dad continued bowling, an escape from home and a haven for his drinking. A teammate dropped a bowling ball on my mother’s foot, crushing her little toe. It was years before she was able to wear closed shoes, and she would never grace the lanes again. I continued to bowl and to keep score for spending money, but school, friends, and a late-blooming social life now took precedence.
Bowling went off the collective radar, as well as our own, declining for a few decades, but it’s made a comeback over the past 20 years, the way fads die and are reconstituted. Perhaps it’s part of the nostalgia for the fifties that has revived cheese fondue, hula hoops, and high-waisted pants. I’m hoping for doo-wop music. New bowling and entertainment centers have emerged, bright and modern, aimed at a wider middle-class demographic and touted as wholesome family recreation. They’re no longer smoke-filled, beer and sweat-smelling dens of iniquity.
Over the years, with fond memories of the game and the social milieu, I’ve entertained fleeting whims, thoughts of picking up bowling again, wonder if I could rekindle my skill. But the urge passes. It’s safer to leave it in the past and not risk hefting and heaving a 14-pound ball with my bad back.
In that Little League softball game between Washington and Texas, Washington puts up a surprising series of runs that allows them to finish out the game. They still lose, but not by mercy. The players high-five each other, baking under the sun. ‘Good game,’ they all say.
Tongues were out and everyone’s had at least one dot of paper on it, if not two or three.
A few hours before gametime and plenty earlier than the dots-on-the-tongue mess, Boo was standing in the parking lot of our complex, beer in hand, yelling “RE–BULLS” in mockery of both Ole Miss and their fans, who lumbered past our apartments in the shadow of Bryant-Denny Stadium. None of the visitors returned the call.
Of the twenty or more of us in those small apartments, at least fifteen had been drinking since noon in prep of a 6:00 P.M. bout; Vick noting that he liked Coors Light because the cans looked pretty. Made sense.
Seemed like everyone from the tiny hometown, more than an hour north of Tuscaloosa, traveled for the SEC game, likely thrilled about some affordable tickets, more likely pumped to get fucked up or chase girls or both. Romeo even gave me his student section entry after he’d scored another for a reasonable price and a far better view.
Even if it was 2000 and Alabama had already lost three games prior, it was fortuitous that I had a fine vantage point of the field even though I got my student ticket scanned about one whole damn minute before kickoff. Mid-October games, even in the downside of the Dubose era, had good weather and good crowds, but I was alone and didn’t need a seat. I stood for the whole thing and cheered as much as anyone else there. After the 45-7 win, which even saw some Eli Manning action, I took the seventy-five yard stride back to the row of one-bedroom apartments where me and two other best friends lived, where me and the rest of the redneck, small towners had begun to amp up the party, if you want to call it that.
And that’s also about when everyone was sticking out their tongues to one another in display to say that we were all on the same trip. Well, to a degree. Brothers and sisters in arms, I’d guess.
It was the sort of full-on dark now that college kids know in their bones, the dark that tells them: if you’re going to fuck up, now’s the time to get going. We cordoned off, seven or so of us going to the Strip, eight or more drinking in one or two of the apartments. Good thing, too. Goodman pretty much saved a guy from burning the complex down – or at last dying of smoke inhalation – as he lay passed out on his couch and food smoldered from his nearby kitchen. We ain’t all bad.
Shortly after those heroics, me and Goodman loaded up and drove across town to another party, to another, nicer set of apartments – Yorktown Commons, you know the ones – and smoked one on the way. What was over there, across MacFarland in such traffic? Why leave the joy of Bryant-Denny’s neighborhood? Cocaine, likely. Fun,
guaranteed. When Goodman and I parked the car and got out, we already noticed the trees were swaying way more than the wind was blowing.
Back on the Strip, Vick, Scott, lots of others were in packed bars. I’m talking can’t-even-get-to-the-bar, asshole-to-elbow crowds. Mitchell held a bottle of beer atop his head, jumped up and down, and let it pour all over him out of being too damn hot. Vick buck danced up a pole, so they said. Wayne had splintered by himself somehow or another. Anger or madness, you pick. We didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to be all alone, yelling at a washing machine in a laundry mat, loud enough to draw the law and surly enough to see the bad end of the cuffs. Sure glad I didn’t wind up with him. He was turned loose in the morning; a long ways off from that point, though.
Goodman and I swooped back across town, back to my place, that one-bedroom apartment that made Bryant-Denny look like a parked spaceship on nights like this. Everyone else was making their way back, too, mostly from the bars, but who knows where else. Nick, who’d never done much more than a twelve pack of beer and a shot or two of whisky at a time, looked at me with all the earnestness he could muster, held his fingers in a rigid yet bent manner as if holding tightly to the controller of some invisible video game, and breathed his command: “Do your hand like that. You ain’t never felt anything that good.” I think he was right.
I went inside, looked at the clock: 2:18 A.M. After a thirty minute episode of some cartoon, I looked back. 2:19 A.M.
Greg had gone to the nearby store, brought back a V8 drink, a liquid that sparkled to life as you poured it down your gullet. It was an experience, mystical and life-affirming. The drink got passed around a lot – more than any whisky I recall – and most had religious beliefs resurrected as the vegetable mash-up provided an answer to life or at least to how to get to a good bowl game. When Vick drank it, he smacked his lips twice and matter-of-factly deadpanned, “That’s pretty good.” Life’s just simpler for some.
A young lady walked by with two male friends, all headed home from the bars. I’d bet The Booth, but The Tusk seems just as likely. Vick couldn’t help it: he yelled for them to come over. Cordiality at its best. They were hesitant, and I can’t blame them. Scott, Vick, and Nick all had their football prowess leftover from their days on the high school field. No one told them a secret, though Vick did ask for breakfast in a roundabout way that just ain’t gentlemanly in this year of our Lord.
Finally at some point, Greg drove us to Kentucky Fried Chicken, back when it was called such and acronyms weren’t all the rage. Downtown, the sun was streaking the sky. KFC was the best breakfast in a mile radius from us, maybe more. We didn’t even know the
restaurant had trees, but damn we could hear what sounded like all the town’s birds, all singing. It wasn’t irksome in the least, albeit maybe the same birds that had annoyed us out of sleep a night or two before. With the windows down and no music from the car, oddly enough, it was the most beautiful thing we’d ever heard. As beautiful as anyone could hear as they wait for five chicken-and-biscuits. It might as well have been the Million Dollar Band playing the fight song after that last Ahmaad Galloway rushing touchdown nine hours before.
Not the best night ever. Nah, not at all. But top twenty five? I’ll give it that, sans hyperbole.
Nothing else would’ve brought that many like-minded and disparate folks together in one spot, at one time, in a string of one-bedroom apartments like a football game, all trying to stop time. Not in Tuscaloosa, not this crowd. It was the Ole Miss-Alabama game that did it, singularly.
Or maybe it was just that we had plenty of acid.
I am a football for Fate
who knows how to kick my back
That damned soul is never late
when there's a chance to attack
Sometimes it is my darling wife
who pushes me with a header
whenever there's a trivial strife
and I fall off the top of the ladder
My son dribbles with dexterity
and I can't but have to comply
I am a prey to his agility
I run or else I would die
I am a football in my office too
My boss shoots a penalty
and usually makes me go through
long hours without any royalty
But I have no qualms about it
It's life and everyone faces this
You get a mix of sweet and shit
a plate with a punch and a dulcet kiss
The earth is a huge football of course
which spins and moves with revelry
with the kick of an unseen force
guided by a supreme referee
And everyone here has to face
the kick and roll and forceful head
in every country every place
either for love or for bread
In 1972, the year Title IX passed, I received my high school diploma in a field house where only boys had competed. On the basketball court, young men boxed out, then dribbled to the hoop for a jump shot. Behind the backboard, young women in short, pleated skirts and varsity sweaters shook their pom-poms—but only if they were pretty, slim, and popular.
I don’t remember being troubled.
A few months after my high school commencement, American swimmer Mark Spitz wowed the world, winning seven gold medals at the Munich Olympics. Although Olga Korbut, the Soviet gymnast, won three gold medals, only 14.6 percent of Olympic contestants were female.
I don’t remember thinking that odd.
In 1976, I received my college diploma on a campus of women, administered by women. In classrooms—music history, harmony, piano performance, choral methods, and education—women professors dominated. The female president of the college officiated the ceremony.
I remember thinking my education extraordinary.
In the 1980’s, a female colleague and I built a high school choral program. We recruited students, conducted Mozart masses, coached madrigal ensembles, and established a theatre troupe. Student membership topped 400. Our show choir competed nationally. Our concert choir won awards. USAToday named our production of Cats best high school musical in America.
Male colleagues said, “Two women have no business running a program that size.”
I remember sensing envy.
My colleague and I cast my daughters as Tevye’s children in Fiddler on the Roof. My colleague choreographed the numbers, coached the actors, and designed the light scheme. I rehearsed the singers and conducted the orchestra of professional musicians.
I remember wondering if my daughters considered two women directors the norm.
A few years later, when my daughter Gwen entered high school, she swam, ran track and field, and competed in cross-country. She played basketball in the field house where I graduated. Then, she applied to colleges and universities where recruiters wooed her with Division I scholarships.
I remembered zero athletic scholarships for women in my class.
After Gwen graduated in 2009 from the University of Wisconsin, a woman at USA Triathlon recruited her, taught her to ride a bike, and mentored her into a spot on the Olympic team.
In the Rio 2016 Games, where females made up 45 percent of the Olympians, Gwen battled the ocean, flew down hills on her bike, and staged a dramatic foot race to claim Olympic gold.
My heart and I whooped as she ascended the podium, her face glistening from Brazil’s heat, humidity, and the glow of triumph. The crowd hooted. Then silence for the strains of USA’s anthem. Gwen’s hand rested above her gold medallion. More applause, cheers, tears. Hurrah!
I remember thinking Gwen’s victory an affirmation.
The first time they explain offsides to me, I don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. I’ve never watched a game and never heard the term, despite growing up in ice rinks. Maybe the thick helmet protecting my skull from errant sticks, the ice, and other heads, is also blocking me from this concept, preventing its entry to my brain.
Surely I’ll figure it out. I can skate, so they put me in the game.
I still don’t understand when the coaches go over it the second time, or when my fellow players yell it at me the 37th time, or when a succession of refs blow their whistles and point at me 859 times.
I figure out that whenever the refs stop the game, it’s my fault, even when I’m sitting over on the bench between shifts: It’s me. I’ve somehow managed to be offsides even when I’m not on the ice.
They try to be patient. They break it down slowly, as if I’m a five-year-old. Through the metal cage latticed across my face, I watch my coach’s mouth move. I nod my head at her. Yes, I say, Got it. Then I waltz onto the ice right past that blue line approximately 14 minutes before I am supposed to.
The blue line is a boundary, a threshold I should not cross, an electric fence. I try to hang back so I don’t get zapped. But then I find myself out of position in different ways, not skating up when I’m supposed to, bungling plays we’ve gone over in practice and I’ve proven I can help to enact. Apparently, it is a matter of timing. And relativity: me, my stick, and my skates already inside the offensive zone watching my teammate control the puck at center-ice so competently, wow.
It’s frustrating, not just because the refs have to so often stop play and set up new face-offs, but because I otherwise have potential. Nothing NHL level, but I’m getting the hang of the other parts. You could even say I’m excelling, aside from my fatal flaw. Call it “self-sabotage.” “Fear of success.” Maybe I am “getting in my own way.”
It seems like my problem is that I’m always early. But really, it’s that I’m late. Maybe if I’d suited up in all this padding ten years earlier, I could have actually learned this. Maybe I would have been even better at this than the sport to which I devoted thousands of hours of my athletic youth. Maybe I’ve been doing the wrong thing at the wrong time in all the years (and in other areas of my life) leading to this.
I am anxious, over-excited, too enthusiastic, and glad to be part of a team. I take deep breaths. Concentrate. My desire to figure this out is more of a goal than a goal itself.
They install a password in the blue line. I guess it correctly every time.
I get contact lenses that amplify my vision by 1000 percent. I get hearing aids so powerful I can detect every blade slicing across the ice. I can hear the puck cursing. I can hear the fingers of the ref’s wife texting her from their couch to see if she can pick up some pizza and maybe some salad, too? on her way home. I can hear the blue line. As I get closer, it says, Don’t do it.
I can hear all of this but for some reason, I can’t hear everyone screaming, Clear out, clear the zone, get out!
I visit a hypnotist. She dangles a puck back and forth in front of my face. You are onsides, she repeats. Onsides. This may or may not be an actual term, what the hell do I know? I appreciate that she’s trying to implant an opposing ideology and I hope it works.
I gain admission into a prestigious Ph.D. program called “Ice Hockey and the Applied Science of Offsides.” My teammates pay my tuition. I’m failing out.
After class one day, one of the professors pulls me ‘off to the side.’ She quietly suggests I get tested.
The doctor analyzes the footage and runs some diagnostics. Afterward, on the examination table, she tells me she’s never seen a case like mine. It is a rare condition she doesn’t even know how to classify. It’s like a blind spot affecting the ice hockey part of my brain and perhaps a few other critical parts, too. Mostly, I’m fine, but she bends down and looks at me with compassion. I’m sorry, she says, you will always be offsides.
She turns out to be right. It’s not like everything that has happened in the world is my fault. Just a lot of it. In fact, I’m probably offsides right now, here at my desk with no skates, both early and late, never in the right place. But I’m trying so hard. I’m here! I’m ready for a pass. Pass it to me. I’m open.
FIFTEEN FOOTBALL MINUTES
When I was a kid, I knew time
Moved slower on football fields
But even then, assumed it perception,
A failure on my part to understand
Space and time. Tonight while
I watch the second tick and stop
In a box at the bottom of the screen,
I pray for more time, the clock
To grind to a stop, for out-of-bounds
Or fast-spiked balls, a quarterback
Literally controlling the universe,
Bending physics to give themselves
Another shot to stay alive, to throw
Or run or kick into history, to hold
Not only the win in their hands,
(In our hands. The fans let moments
Sift through our fingers at the beginning
And then clutch our fists in solidarity
In the end) but to succeed, for a minute
At stretching life a little further, at
Driving toward hope between ten
Seconds and two.
IN APPRECIATION OF RICHARD SHERMAN
For years I’ve echoed you in triumph
—don’t try me with some sorry receiver—
because even at corner, your hands
were fast and your legs faster. I love
fire and poison combusting into joy
the way you play football like chess, angled,
defensive. Now you host Thursday games
and I watch more for your commentary
Than the game itself. The night the Broncos lost
your eyes, widened with anxiety and frustration
mimicked your words, “Learn from your mistakes!”
It’s been a hard time for all of us, Richard.
I have lost things I cannot count or explain,
even though my Cowboys are having
a winning season. Teammates and friends can be so
complicated: it was like for a moment, I dropped
back in the pocket to see the field
and there were no holes in the coverage
and instead of handing it off or getting rid of it
I allowed myself to be sacked for the loss.
Then I rewound. I watched your face, your hands shaking.
Learn from your mistakes. Come on, man.
Learn from your mistakes. Sometimes I need to learn
To let go before I take the hit. Let go.
Portrait of Ballet as a Fistfight
—it’s all beautiful lines, angle/control
The extension, the bowed back, the feet
Always bleeding into wooden blocks
Disfigured, lovely. When I was a girl
I was so flexible I could swallow
My own heart and still smile.
Ballet is camouflage for a woman
Like me, someone who can throw
A punch or stick a landing. I called
My sister today: she’s a kickboxer
And I needed to know if our genes
Are feral. She’s never hit someone in the wild.
Lace up the toe shoes and wait for extension:
This is how you count backward from ten.
This is how you watch a spot on the wall
In pirouette so you don’t get dizzy.
This is how you uncoil the tightness
(It lives electric in your fingers) and while
Your sister learns to protect herself
You dress in the soft hues of femininity
With ice in your paralyzed face, “relaxed,”
Blood rushing through your ears—
— first position.
Crack open the femur of an offensive lineman and you’ll see concentric circles, like tree rings. They aren’t earned annually, like trees. Instead, hours, months, and years spent in a 75% squat, pushing people across the sand at fast speeds for long intervals of time. Our legs look great. Underrated, at the very least. Usually though, no one knows who we are unless if we mess up. Even then, most people are wrong about us.
This is gonna hurt is something I’ve been told more than once while bent over outside with a bunch of other large men, but especially footballl. The pain doesn’t feel like a hurt, it’s more of a burn. Yet every time I stepped on the football I assumed the same position—the one designed to put you in so much pain that you can’t help but quickly explode after the ball is snapped—every single play for ten years.
The lineman’s stance is one of the most defining parts of American football. Lineman are put in their stances for hours and hours, so they get it right. In college, we called this stance and starts. In high school, we called them bird dogs. No one knew why they were called bird dogs, we just never stopped. Bending and creaking, each elongated coil came with the hope that doing so will fulfill football’s promise, not far off from the country that gave birth to the game: if you work harder, you’ll win.
People love comparing football to dance, yet in my decade laying and coaching I never encountered a football ballerina. Yet, most people who’ve played the sport would understand levels. By that, I mean the height of bodies in relation to the ground. In football, some of the tallest players on the field are responsible for making the levels happen, painfully altering their bodies—sometimes for life—for the sake of successfully performing a routine.
To get in a stance, you’re gonna want to start with your feet just wider than shoulder with. “shoulder with the part” becomes one of those phrases people say all the time but no one will really know what it means. So it’s a lot like lyrics to the national anthem. There’s probably going to be a stagger on your feet depending on where you’re lined up. The stagger should rarely ever be greater than your big toe at the midpoint of your anchor foot.
Stances will vary from team to team and they certainly vary from offense to defense. Offensive and defensive lineman are different people. Even at smaller schools like my high school where everyone had to play an offensive and defensive position, you’d literally become a different person. Offensive linemen are the teddy bears, the goofballs, the fats. Defensive lineman are big, too, and objectively more athletic. They have more of an attitude, a bully mentality. An offensive lineman goes into every play with a gameplan and an assignment, the defensive lineman is a reactor, adjusting to life’s literal punches.
Most linemen use a three-point stance. Almost every offensive lineman will do this unless they go out of a two-point, from elbows. Some defensive linemen will get into a four-point stance. The extra weight on the ground can lead to a faster takeoff but you risk losing control of your body.
To get in a three-point stance, set your feet to shoulder width. Then, put your elbows on your thighs. Use this chance to look at where the defensive linemen are lined up in front of you and to linebackers behind them. Now, pick up your eye. That’s what they tell you at every age from middle school to college. The hand that goes down depends on you. Sometimes lefties and righties prefer different hands on the ground. Some players will alter their stance depending upon a direction. There are teams that dictate which hand goes down for a lineman, it could be depending on which side of the center you lined up at, for example.
Your hand goes on the ground in the spot your eye would fall onto the grass. Directly under it, unless if you’re playing defense. Then, the phrasing is, now imagine that your eye fell a little bit in front of you. More weight forward for those faster, chaotic takeoffs.
In practice, they’ll keep you in this position for literal hours, until you hear “up.” I understand why, but I also don’t understand why. Something about iron sharpening iron, and flames forging metals. Everything feels heavy when you’re down there. Your feet, neck, and quads burn the most—they burn baby, burn. The rest in between reps only gets briefer. Feet. Elbows. Hands. Down. Stay down. Minutes later…up.
What makes this burning around my legs worth it are the young men growing, grunting, sometimes screaming as we remain in our stance. No space: in sport, in art, in queer spaces, has replicated the camaraderie and acceptance I felt for being the size I was better than the linemen I played with in college. High school was great, too, but in college, our line averaged 275lbs, we were huge. No other sport is more welcoming to fat people, especially kids. This is the only place we’re welcome, and they don’t know what to do with us when they’re done with us, like horses.
A lineman’s first step will vary between offense and defense. A defensive lineman will often shoot their hands right away. Cause chaos, get their first, foil the plans of the offensive lineman in front of you, and of course, react. The offensive lineman reaches their hands back. In in my hometown, the phrase was always reach for your guns. In college, my o-line coach said holster your hands, because that’s where gun holsters go. I appreciate the phrasing from the college coach, but the fact that the language of gun violence enters this already violent and painful game doesn’t sit well in my stomach. Is this the best we can do?
This is what sports folk mean when they talk about “the trenches” in football. It’s because we’re all so low to the ground and almost every play involves a pile up in some way. It’d feel nice, but facemasks and shoulder pads and spikey shoes don’t feel good on whatever body parts have nerves in a pile situation. Birddogs don’t truly end, they fades into new drills. Some teams will go right to their sled. Others might focus on first steps practicing against live bodies.
I can’t describe the unimaginable soreness one feels when getting into a stance for the first time and holding it for so long after not doing it for a while, or ever. The kind of soreness where you need to grab onto the sink to help you squat down onto the toilet, the next morning. That feeling would repeat every year no matter how many times you squatted and practiced your stance in your bedroom. It wasn’t until I started working from home that I realized the impact that my stance and years of staying down there had on me. It wasn’t the cracking bones or the soreness that got to me. Sitting in an office chair, I felt my bottom half turn into more of a two-seater. Standing for long periods of time became tough and I started to rely on my back more for everyday activities, throwing it out in due time.
In my stance, especially during bird dogs, I felt so connected with the Earth, more powerful than what I actually was. That’s why I always wore fingerless gloves. Feeling the grass made playing so much more bearable. Plus, fingerless gloves make it so much easier to hold.
I’ve gotten down into my stance a few times and it feels natural as ever, but not quite right. I’m sure an assessment would find some technical flaws in it, but I more so think I need someone else in control to keep me down there, to molten the fire that grows in your legs when you’re down that long. I should probably try doing this outside. It doesn’t have to be a game to feel the intensity of your stance, it’s just my way of engaging in levels.
River Road isn’t River Road anymore,
And that grass expanse is a proper parking lot.
No one would dream now
Of eating fried chicken and canned beans there
On the oversized trunk of an oversized Oldsmobile
Before starting the mile-long walk
You always knew I wasn’t going to finish.
Somewhere around the quad I’d ask
The question that you dreaded.
You’d groan that I was too big for this shit
But lift me over your head all the same.
We walked miles on Saturdays,
Across campus and up spiral ramps,
To seats that required binoculars,
But you always splurged for a program,
Hotdogs, and Cokes in souvenir cups.
I gave you hell about the cheap seats,
Parking so far away,
And only ever seeing three quarters of a game,
But you knew where the value was:
So we never rushed our pre-game picnic
And always left before the post-game traffic could catch us.
I wish I could tell you how much force it takes to break a man’s arm, how many pounds of pressure it takes before you can hear the crack of bones, but I can tell you it does not compare to this pressure in my chest: the spaces left empty between you and me.
I wish I could tell you about all those back alleys and truck stops where I’ve spent the last twelve years snapping men’s wrists, dancing away from knives pulled on me by larger, lesser men. The smell of beer mixing with the tables wiped with bleach, like the only way to clean whatever eats away at us is to kill what the body bleeds out.
I wish I could tell you that your grandpa was a liar: that the pills weren’t mine, that the nights never stretched out into years, that every letter sent was a lie—a piece of me hidden away in your mamma’s dresser drawer. For your grandpa to say I’ve been a bad father is to let me off too easily; for him to say I’m a coward or a criminal is to oversimplify the pain that’s been coursing through me since the day you were born. Because men like your grandpa know that money is power and it is also love. I’ve spent too many years believing the opposite is just as true.
But I tell you now that every man’s body is a machine and that every machine is made for a certain kind of work. What I can tell you now is that every man’s body is a machine and that mine is made to drive lesser men’s fists into immeasurable pain, into sounds of thunder as knuckles crash into tables. And boy, maybe I’ve never tried drinking oil but I’ve spent years learning how a body is a machine and all machines must be maintained, must be made new again after the pain of their labor. And I don’t measure my strength in weight but in miles driven down forgotten highway nightmares with half-asleep nods and jerks behind the wheel that are pushed away with any uppers won or stolen off of weaker men than me: I swallow them dry as the road erodes into dark horizons, into the nights curled up alone in the back corner of Wal Mart parking lots.
I tell you that every man’s body is a machine and sometimes even machines are built to destroy each other. What I can tell you is every match is at its best when there is no movement, no action. It’s like jazz: it’s more about the notes that aren’t played; it’s the steps not taken in a dance; it’s the up and over, the wrapping of my fingers over that burly fucker’s fist. What I can tell you is that once they tie that leather strap around us we will be a shared body, a shared pain, a shared success and failure that will only know one master.
I tell you that when I get into that ring—when I turn my hat around, when I flip that switch, when I become the machine I was always meant to be—you will know that I am not a man and I’m not your dad. I am a goddamn champion.
So sing the song, boys, hit the bells and let them ring forever: when I break his grip and that meaty fist drops—with blood streaming from my nose and the lightning through my ripping bicep—when I win it all, remember this: money never cared who your daddy was.
In the field,
Horses pull quarterbacks
Narrating empty land
That remains stone.
Plows pulled by quarterbacks
Also do not work.
Farmer, go back to your almanac.
Quarterback, stay patient for the snap.
I go to bed a tight end
Wake up an offensive lineman.
The play clock never expires
We'll wait to see who will flinch first.
The 20 and 50 yard line
Are all the same to me.
White and green.
Do you think the first hike was inspired
By dandelions at a stream?
Pigs pass by,
Mourning their neighbors.
Mascots climb over the fence.
The flood lights come on.
I wake up from a dream I wasn't even in.
if you think about it or have ever travelled anywhere but here
& I think we forget that. I’m not saying capitalism isn’t better
than feudalism or absolute monarchy, but that it’s all the same
beast this time dressed in granny’s pajamas & my, your teeth
look so sharp. I’m saying, don’t come at me for my bloodsport.
The college where I teach, its mascot is named for a fighting chicken
& no one even blinks. Isn’t that what college football is,
I say to no one, especially not myself. I used to argue
if you had a problem with Vick,
then you had a problem with the American Justice System.
I don’t argue that anymore. I also don’t have to.
Let’s instead discuss Jalen Hurts & his supposed “Accuracy Issues—”
those were air-quotes. Just look at his arms. Or don’t. Leave them
for me alone to look at. My house here sits far from the road.
My Mom calls where I live a “rural area,” but it’s not. I just have room.
I scream, & the neighbors can’t hear me, GET HIM! GET HIM! at the TV,
and then my not yet three-year-old daughter screams, GET HIM! GET HIM GET HIM GET HIM.