Building Something: On Childhood Memories, ‘Against Football,’ the New York Jets, and My Future Kids
By Dan Bjork
When I signed up for this, I didn’t think my chances of making it were all that good. I thought, best case scenario: I’d schedule my Sunday workout for Jets’ kick-off and most of the time they’d be well on their way to losing by the time I finished — it’d be easy enough to skip those games — that and I’d obviously fold and watch both Patriots games and almost certainly develop (yet another) unhealthy relationship with Madden. I said yes because the Jets are woeful enough for this workout scheme to be successful, because I’m so worn out from the clown car we’ve become under Woody Johnson, so much so that a huge part of me wishes it were socially acceptable to simply follow Rex to Buffalo. I said yes because Addy asked and he’s my ride-or-die homie — he gave me a place to live when I was at my lowest and homeless, twice — and I would run through a brick wall for that dude. I could easily try and not watch the Jets for season. But a tiny wrinkle I found early on in Against Football quickly became this rabbit-hole inside which I found a real sense of purchase. I’m going to make it. I’m not going to watch football this year, I’m damn near certain.
There’s nothing really new in this book, not if you’ve been paying attention. Rather, it’s a full-bore, fire-hose barrage of it, years of whispers and fleeting, single reports — usually squeezed between highlights and commercials — here concentrated and backed up with the sort of breadth of evidence short-form news reports do not provide. It’s a chapter-by-chapter survey of everything that’s toxic about football (the majority of which are cataloged on our Breaking Up Is Hard to Do page). But it is all presented by one of us, by a genuine football fan, by a human being and an active well of empathy struggling his way through digesting this all; meaning we get Steve Almond’s reaction to each toxicity along the way, along with several instances of the slippery logic employed by someone who’s found solace in something he knows he should be ashamed of. And that had its effect, to be sure. It’d be near impossible to engage the book with any sort of earnestness and not walk away knowing that the game in its current state is killing its players, and that the NFL’s insistence on ever-increasing profitability actively makes this worse, and, most of all, that by even passively consuming this, you are indeed part of the problem.
But this wasn’t what swayed me. I wish I could tell you it was, that I’ve been hooked by the sheer magnitude of this particular macro-moral imperative. I wasn’t. Not in a way that I was at all confident could last a full season. (In fact, I bought my copy of Almond’s book on Amazon, so my official macro-moral standing with this endeavor is already beginning well below zero.) And the NFL brings so many tempting indulgences to the table. Sundays, NFL game day, the official last chance for some respite from the weekday world, or maybe even some good ‘ole sublimation of self (especially if you’re juggling a fantasy roster while watching), and for as long as I can remember, watching the NFL reliably supplied both. And it’s a beautiful thing: for three hours you get to care about something that doesn’t directly affect your life, rapt by the complex machinations of it all, and at the end, either way, you will feel something. Some emotional response specific enough to be shared among your team’s fan base. Specific enough to help you feel less alone. This last point Almond presents exquisitely, describing the five other Raiders fans he found at a sports bar outside the greater Boston area, sitting at a table together every Sunday, never discussing anything other than the Raiders, yet never feeling alone and, furthermore, experiencing some degree of shared emotional response. (And holy shit, shared emotional response isn’t the exact opposite of alone, but maybe it should be. At least in our consensus reality.)
And I think this is where we lose almost all of these conversations. Very few people are going to give up predictable moments of respite and feeling less alone for some macro-moral imperative. Some macro-moral imperative the repercussions of which are so easily avoided. (We’re talking about feeling less alone on tap! You could spend all week listening to Sal from Staten Island call into WFAN and rag on the Jets’ quarterback situation and have a methadone-level, shared emotional response up through the first week of the playoffs, at the bare minimum.) I don’t think I’m ready to give that up, not really, not at this point in my life. I have no real confidence I can afford to.
No, where it coalesced for me was a moment pretty early on, when Almond describes early memories of himself and his father watching Ken Stabler and Jack Tatum. Those vicious Raiders teams of the ’70s (of which I know all about because NFL Films sent me a free VHS every time we re-upped Sports Illustrated). The moment is given ample time to breathe in the book: Almond and his father would stretch a thick black blanket over the windows to kill the glare before they spent the afternoon watching the Raiders together. It was a weekly event; their weekly event. And it set the scene in a voice that lingered; it was bubbly, almost. A voice that was definitely at ease being back in that moment. As the book progresses, no other childhood memory (of which, off-the-top, I can recall at least half a dozen) is given such liberties; rather, the rest are presented as strings of cold occurrences, memories that have long been pulverized and then distilled down to sources of adult trauma and unease. But this single one was given to us through the lens of still being a kid. Without the trappings that any son of two psychoanalysts (or writer of Serious Fiction, for that matter) would attach to it. Which we have all sorts of pejorative-leaning words for — sentimental, naïve, corny — but it most definitely worked for me. Or, in the very least, as I read on and encountered Almond’s other childhood memories, it became important to me to try and understand why. Why the lens of this specific memory was preserved, was the outlier among all the others. Why was this moment allowed to stay pristine?
Because here’s the thing, my (prospective) kids will not be playing organized football. Will not be signing up for Pop Warner, headed to that musty room in the back of the Knights of Columbus, standing there as the door creaks open and the shelves upon selves of shoulder pads and helmets and green and gold pinnies flicker in and out as a fan spins in the tiny window, the room’s only source of light. (As I did, obviously. And welcome to the world of my pristine memories. But as corny as that memory sounds, it was indeed, for fifth grade me, a religious experience. Or, if that doesn’t work for you, it was definitely hard-earned.) This is something that’s been rattling around inside me for a while, my kids not playing — call it the result of the slow accumulation of all those whispered reports — but never before had I considered the cumulative effects of a family that watches the NFL together. As things stand now, New York Jets games are the closest thing we have to a weekly family event in my household. In fact, American football is the only sport my wife takes any interest in watching (begrudgingly, but still). Left alone, it’s oh-so easy to see a future where this naturally extends into official family time — to see a future where the bureaucracy of survival leaves this as the only predictable time all of us spend together. With me cast as the father stretching the thick black blanket over the windows with his kids. The one dispensing such childhood memories.
Coming back to corporeal reality (and down from the ethereal realm where an over-educated, childless, 30-something waxes on about controlling which of his hypothetical child’s memories get preserved unfiltered), I’ve spent the past eight years of my post-MFA life on a very specific fellowship: I’ve been the after-school daycare for a young boy. I began when he was three-and-a-half, when both of his parents were working from home. And afternoons when all of his friends were all overscheduled quickly became “let’s go to the park and toss around a football.” That was how it began, a simple something to do to keep from going home when no one else was free. Two days a week, three days a week, all through the school year. And I know just enough: don’t open your hips, watch where your thumbs point, and whatever you do, don’t move your hands for the ball until the last possible moment; until the stride in which you will catch the ball. When the rest of his friends began playing in first grade, he was the only one who could catch the ball while in full sprint. By third grade, he was better than the fifth graders. And last spring, as a short and rail-thin 11 year old, he absolutely ran circles around one of his friend’s fathers — one of those early-40s Manhattan men who are in the gym six days a week and have less than 5% body fat — to the point that I had to stop throwing to him because it was getting embarrassing. And make no mistake, I am capital P proud of this: I’m giggling as I type it.
He was seven when the questions came. Can he play (organized) football? And again, his parents had heard similar whispered reports and their general cumulative effect had been the same. No, not at least until you are older. This is another area where Almond is absolutely on the mark (when talking about prospective similar conversations with his own kids). I can tell you first-hand, a seven year old cannot understand why he is not allowed to play something that he has always excelled at. Not when he’s seen the spectacle; when watching the NFL is a regular part of his life. Talk of CT scans mean nothing, even when translated as, “the hitting in football will break your brain.” Neither does saying “you’re a skinny, fast, upright runner,” followed by “I know what football does to skinny, fast, upright runners. Trust me.” Even now, at 11, when we’ve (somewhat) successfully managed to shell-game football with basketball, the questions still come. As I type this, I’m facing down the barrel of 20 straight weeks of it. Every afternoon, all season. He’s most obsessed with what position I think he would play and then who would be his NFL analog (at this position). He cannot stop envisioning what he does with his friends super-imposed over pads and helmets and state-of-the-art stadiums. At best, it’s a uneasy understanding — the diminished brain activity and plight of the upright runner have been accepted as facts, but as facts without any personal consequence (oh, and hello encroaching teenage years) — his football future refined to a “you can probably play once you’ve grown a bit more.” He still ranks prospective high schools by the quality of their football fields. And he watches the NFL more than all the other sports combined. Simply put, he plays for a highly competitive AAU basketball team, for easily one of the best coaches in NYC (by resume and my semi-qualified eye test), a coach who ends practice by telling them which specific college basketball games they should watch that weekend (and what specially they should watch those team execute well). Yet still, he’ll watch more NFL this September than college basketball all season. And most of the time, he’ll watch with his father.
I did not watch football with my father. Not when I was young. I have no unfiltered memories of this, as Almond has. When I was young, my father was trying to run a tiny construction company, him and three other employees, which meant he worked nearly all the time. No, I went to work with my father, and together we built houses. This was the way work was measured, every day, solely by something being there at the end of the day that wasn’t at the beginning. These are the pristine moments I have from my childhood: pinned to my father’s hip, holding a hammer or framing square or four-foot level, waiting for him to ask me for it. Watching how he then used it to form something. And, as such, I did not know how to play when I entered first grade. I remember, distinctly, what it was like having to learn all of that precise body coordination on the fly, among boys who, for the most part, had figured this out long before. Playing on weekends, after school, during recess — which was right before lunch, which meant the lunch conversation was then dominated by the football game that preceded it. I did not fully catch up until junior high and, if we’re going to forensically distill my memories for motives, it’s probably the reason why, out of a graduating class of almost 500, I was the only honors student who took socially rewarded sports seriously. And I’ve seen firsthand that the young boys’ totem pole sorts itself through pick-up football at a small private school on the UWS in 2010 just as it did at a large public school on Long Island in 1987. (And real talk, there’s no possible future where my kids don’t go to the same sort of overpopulated public school I went to, not even for Ideal Future Me.) And as silly and anecdotal and plain fucking unrefined as I know this is, those same forensically distilled memories will utterly prevent me from sending a boy to first grade who cannot run and catch the ball consistently and with confidence. It’s so strong that I did it once already, completely unaware I was doing it.
So, if we’re not going to abstain from playing — not totally, not pick-up, not while their friends are too small to play basketball — then what are we going to do? Abstain from watching. Abstain from making that week’s Jets game the default family event in the household. Refuse to give my kids the opportunity of having a pristine memory of themselves and their parents scheduling Sundays around the spectacle. Now I’m married and in my mid-30s, so this season is quite possibly my last chance to make a clean break before it becomes a completely different beast; before it becomes walking away from a reliable source of respite and sublimation of self and shared emotional response with a newborn in tow and drafting off of 10 hours of sleep for the week. And even if I don’t come close to Ideal Future Me, if I’m not squirreling away time to hide inside some writing-in-progress, I’ll be doing the same to build some ridiculously over-plotted mod to Fallout 4. Or something like that. Because spending an afternoon building something, anything, that’s the pristine memory with my father I’m compelled to chase. And finding time to chase that will be more than enough indulgence for a lifetime, just ask anyone who knows the sinkhole that is attempting to write something that’s worth someone else’s time. Making family time about an indulgence as corrupting as the NFL, on top of that, would be pure solipsism. But, make no mistake, I’m still going to be indulgent with our time together: we’re going to share a FUT franchise and play Zelda and Mario and every Bethesda sandbox game together, at far too young an age — I’m sure of it (I’ve done this already as well) — and we’re going to be outside whenever we can, with dinner on the stove slowly burning, throwing/kicking/shooting balls because I enjoy it. And if you want to talk about some next-level sublimation of self, there’s nothing I know that comes close to playing something I love with a child who I taught to play it, who, by some minor miracle, loves it as well. It’s kept me alive through all of this. And here’s the thing, I don’t think there’s all that much magic to it. If you genuinely enjoy the time you’re spending together, kids pick-up on that. It’s contagious. And as much as I deflected before about how naïve it sounds to try and engineer your child’s pristine memories, it’s simple enough: it’s going to be some moment when the two of you are together and it feels like something genuine is shared. And you get to choose these moments. Watching the NFL with my father is not a memory I’m chasing, the least I can do is do the same for my kids.
So then here’s the plan: We remove ourselves completely from the pads and the tackling and the price-of-membership brain damage — make football something we grow out of real early, akin to kickball — and fully embrace the corny: football as no more than young kids running through the grass, feeling their way through this whole funky coordination thing — laughs and hugs and a safe place to learn — and, hopefully (with a shit-ton of breaks along the way) dads as quarterbacks.
This can be done — the corny part — I’ve done it once already. Almost.
Image Credit: Pixabay and Dan Bjork.