My Grandfather's Football GameJustin Carter
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.