Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Football Withdrawal

It happens pretty much every year at this time. Hockey ends, soccer ends, and baseball moves into a stretch that only the hardest of hard-core fans can really appreciate (and I'm not one of those fans.) Last year, the Celtics' championship held it off a bit, but this year it has come on as strong as ever: football withdrawal.

There's just something about good ol' American football that's ingrained in me. I love soccer (and, to my European friends, please forgive the "s"-word; it's just easier to differentiate between the two footballs if one of them is called soccer). West Ham might be my favorite professional sports organization, and, oddly enough, the forlorn Boston Bruins are probably a close second, loathe as I am to admit that. I do love hockey, more and more all the time now that the NHL has brought back critical elements of the game like fighting and scoring. And fighting. I even love the fight-free college game.

Rugby is great, too--the game I've played best of all the games I've actually played. Everything considered, it might be more fun to watch than football. It's certainly more fun to play. But while the spring tests and the Lions tour certainly have my attention (allez les Bleus), nothing that's out there now can tug at my heartstrings quite the way football does.

I experience football on a primal level. Football used to be my favorite sport by a long shot, I'm not so sure about that now. Rationally, objectively, I probably do like hockey, rugby and maybe even soccer better as sports. I follow West Ham, the Bruins and Stade Francais easily as closely as I follow the Dallas Cowboys or New England Patriots.

But no other sport stirs my emotions the way football does, and it's not just about wins and losses. It's about the beauty of the game, the terrifying violence of it and the memories it stirs up in me. I understood football before I knew how to understand things. At no point in my memory did I not know the rules--and even some of the strategy--of the game. Football was as much a part of my life growing up as sizzling summer heat, endless sitcom reruns and the daily newspaper--even though I never played the game at any official level. (Well, that's not actually true, but my brief experience as a would-be football star in France is worth another long post one of these days.)

Just thinking about the highs and lows of TCU football can nearly bring me to tears at completely random times. Rifling back through memories of the Dallas Cowboys (and even the New England Patriots of the last 16 years or so), bitter and sweet, can sweep me away for hours. Even recreating the pleasure of watching a random college or NFL game in my childhood is pleasant--it feels safe, like home. That might be a baseball reference for most, but for me it's all about the gridiron.

There are some emotions that we experience before we're able to speak and express how they make us feel. They manifest themselves physically in early childhood and keep producing the same effects throughout our lives--a nervous stomach, goose bumps, a certain tingle all over. That's what football does for me. It's a drug, an addiction I can't shake. And when it's in full swing in the the fall, I can actually OD on it and need to back away for a while. That's the strange thing; I might actually like football least during football season, at least these days.

But when it's not around, when it's a distant memory from the depths of winter or a glimmer of hope in mini-camp, that's when I really want it, when I really jones for it. That's when I can't stop watching old NFL Films specials and reruns of old games on NFL Network. That's when I can't stop thinking about the triumphs and crushing defeats of the fall in Fort Worth or even in my hometown of Midlothian. That's right now.

When I was growing up in Texas, football season brewed like a storm gathering on the horizon--a big storm, huge, the kind that tore roofs off of houses, shattered windows and ripped up streets, leaving carnage in its wake. There's nothing quite like watching a storm roll in--the nervousness, the anticipation, the little nagging thoughts that this could be the one that gets me, the one that sends me spiraling into the air. The first game of the high school season was the beginning of a five-month thrill ride with no equal anywhere in the world. It (almost) literally brought my small Texas town out of its summer slumber and back into a state of constant excitement and electricity.

The arrival of football season--like football season itself--isn't like that for me anymore, but I always want it to be, and somehow in May and June every year I think that it will be. By the time August rolls around, the electric storm has turned into a heavy rain--still fun to watch, still a nice change from the heat of summer, but not quite what I remember it being.

It's a little like Christmas (or whichever gift-giving holiday you choose to celebrate--a birthday, even). As a kid, it's the most exciting time of the year, and the anticipation of it is almost suffocating. Then, you turn, say, 14 or 15, and all of a sudden Christmas loses that childish magic and becomes...well, something else entirely. Something not unpleasant but also not as ridiculously exciting as it used to be.

That's football for me these days. By the time the season starts, I'll be that 14-year-old at Christmas, realizing that an era in my life has passed forever. But right now, in the middle of June, I'm still that 8-year-old counting the days between Thanksgiving and December 20 (my birthday, in case you were wondering) and then ultimately December 25. I've got it wicked bad for football right now--worse than I'll have it in September. Not that I won't be in front of my TV on opening weekend...because I absolutely will. Just not with the same raw enthusiasm I had in years gone by. And, I think, that's OK...maybe even healthy.

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