PART 1: INTRODUCTION; WATCHING FOOTBALL; THE VHS TAPE
THE GAME OF FOOTBALL begins for me in about 1983 or 1984. On my elbows and my stomach, legs stretched behind me on a pea green wall-to-wall carpet, I am three or four; my head is cocked; my mouth is slung open, and my eyes barely blink. On a 21" rabbit-eared Zenith, is a thrillingly simple smashing together of human bodies, which I for my part, believe I fully understand; it is the game of professional football, and it is the Cincinnati Bengals. Like everything that appears on that TV when the dial is chunked around to 5,9,12, or U, the bodies on screen are red, blue, and green dots in tiny triangles if I get close. I have been inching ever closer, wriggling forward, and now this is in my mind, and I stand up to confirm it again, and there they are again, tiny dots, red green and blue, just like in the Dukes of Hazzard; then there is a racket of male voices from behind. "He's standing in front of the television." "Hey Rob, the kid doesn't know what's going on." And my dad's voice, "Hey Matt, Mattie? Turn around. Hey, buddy, you gotta back off from the TV....That's it." I flop back down on the floor near my cousins, and there is a barb of awareness that I've just done something semi-public and dumb; it's a broader circle than the immediate mother and father; but it's fine; the dots are gone into the colorful, outsized men in helmets and pads; I am again watching the fantastic periodic choreographed colliding; our team is winning, and I'm clapping and yelling along with the rest.
In this, my earliest real memory of watching Cincinnati Bengals football [a looping GIF-like memory], what interests me are a few truly remembered seconds of watching the game. Maybe it's different for you, but a shame memory will sometimes leave the tape on for a few seconds or a minute; in my memory, black-shirted Bengals are driving a white-shirted, pale-helmeted team from right to left. And they are doing well at it. Of course I know now what I didn't then - that I was watching two of the great offensive linemen of the 1980s (Bengals left tackle Anthony Munoz and the lesser known but nearly as dominant right guard, Max Montoya) do their brutal work. But what interests me is the misunderstanding. In the memory, I am not yet watching the ball. Either I can't see it, don't know about it, or don't yet understand it as a focal point. Instead, I see something simpler, our Bengals, the good guys, the orange tiger-stripe helmeted, black shirted guys, lining up as a group and periodically slamming into the white shirted squad. Pushing them backwards alone constitutes success in this bewilderingly exciting and simple game called professional football; that is what I am cheering for. Their huddles are merely breathers, and an opportunity to get roused up, and when they're roused up enough, they clap their hands! And I clap my hands, because already I love those tiger-stripe-helmeted men! Oh, it's in me already. On some gut level, I am aware that the men on the screen represent me, represent us, father, grandfather, uncle, cousins, grandmother, mother, aunt (with a football helmet purse), and our place on a map. Far off, many many minutes away, in a stadium in downtown Cincinnati, they represent us, we who are just across the Little Miami in a room called a family room, and the MORE we love these Bengals on the screen, the MORE their deeds fire quicken our hearts, the MORE we feel, the more we win, the more we lose, the more we risk.
Somewhere deep in the memories of most fans of the game of American football is a mush like the one that I speak of, an almost primordial confusion of physical excitement, a wild aggressive jumble of intensity and bodies, and also, the sense of rooting for one side instead of another. If you were sitting across a table from me, particularly if you were a male 18-70 (forgive me), particulary if you hail from a place like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Green Bay, Kansas City, or Detroit, I'd here invite you to talk, tell me of that first mush, and how an understanding emerged from it. I think that by focusing on this mush, we might learn. Out of that first chaos of colliding bodies, America's most complicated, most specialized, and most popular professional team sport begins it's slow crystallization process. It is a process that has taken place in the minds of - if I might hazard a conservative guess based on Super Bowl ratings - one hundred million Americans, which is quite a few. For many of us, the process begins young. Very early as American boys (and increasingly as American girls) we learn this uniquely American game's strange rules, learn that the action stops when a player is brought down or leaves bounds, and learn that it starts again when the offensive center hikes the ball backwards; we learn that there is a clock, that the division of time is halves halved into quarters, that time is a resource that "runs out"; one team is trying to preserve it; the other is trying to erase it; we learn the concepts of down and distance, the various ways to score, the idea of field goal range and being within it; we learn the positions and their separate jobs; we learn that a team consists of an offense and defense, joined in a mutual interest, and that at higher levels, a player must choose a side; the levels that the game is played at (high school, college, professional) enter at some point, and we internalize the differences; in short, we learn the basics of a game that is a passion and a pastime for upwards of one hundred million people on our soil. Putting just a few out in prose reveals something: American football possesses quite a few basics - much more than any other sport; American football is as complicated as chess before the real complication even begins. Given the work of analysts like Ron Jaworski and Merrill Hoge in the last decade at explaining the x's and o's of the NFL to its audience; given our wider tv's; given our more intelligent sports talk radio; given the internet, fans today have an opportunity to learn more than any fans before. And with the NFL, it's easy to be caught up in the learning, because there is so much to learn; learning can be used for the purposes of gambling or for the sheer joy of itself...On a big flat rectangular contemporary TV, an NFL football fan that knows his personel and groupings can identify, for instance, that the Bengals defense has opened in a nickel on 1st down against the Patriots; he can see that the Patriots are themselves lined up in a power-I running formation with true fullback James Develin, and he can cry out in agony somewhat in advance of when he would have cried out if it were, say, 1965.
[CUT OUT: And we also learn to attach ourselves to certain players, and to the personalities of the players, which grow out of the positions, and attach us to positions. We learn that at the end of the one-and-done playoff at the end of the season, there is a game called the Super Bowl. Part and parcel with that, there is a first Super Bowl that every football fan can remember; like the bottom of a swimming pool, you can swim down and touch it, perhaps grab a few pebbles of it ("We ain't here to cause no trouble / We just here to do the Super Bowl shuffle!). Unfold the hand, and those pebbles are keys on a ring; they unlock whatever grade you happened to be in, whole colorful classrooms full of memories, a phase perhaps when your father wore a mustache, or your mother first had a streak of gray in her bangs.]
Where football is concerned, I am interested in the rudiments of the average fan's knowledge. I am interested in the child brain making sense of football; how does such a complicated game as American football get in? Unlike other team sports - soccer, baseball, or even basketball, football is a game that we experience from the outside long before we experience it from the inside (if we ever do). You must watch for some years before you can ever play in an organized way. With football more than other sports, to play the game in an unorganized way isn't really to play it, and the reason that you cannot play is that you are too young! As a very young American person, you are told this terrible truth over and over, and the game lives in the mind alongside such experiences as driving a car. Thank our post-Enlightenment concept of childhood, and I mean that seriously; in our society, there is an age-requirement for some activities on account of an inherent danger, and football happens to be classified as an inherently dangerous activity. But that children are kept from playing tackle football at young ages isn't due wholly to its violence. Football can be played with velcro flags on the hips, after all, and five and six year olds, lovingly padded, don't move fast enough to do much damage to one another. Rather, the game is simply far too complicated for small children. Even in its simplest forms, without quarterbacks attempting forward passes, it involves activities that are too specialized to be fun for tiny humans. "Hey four year olds, we're gonna play this really fun game with a ball, except you, Howie, you don't get to touch the ball, ever, because you already weigh 65 pounds, which makes you a lineman! Okay, now what we need you to do is all get in a line, and now the quarterback is going to say "Down! Set! Hut!" and on hut you and all the other heavy kids move at once, and push into that group over there..." No...football, like chess or contract bridge, is not a game for the youngest of our tribe. As a little person, your American football playing consists of playing at playing American football. By playing at football, what I mean is that you engage in low-risk games or activities that either increase the aptitude for the real game or develop the beginnings of the physical skills needed to play.
In my 1980s childhood, I remember three games or activities that "symbolized" American football or "played at" some aspect American football. The first was a game on a home computer. In my case, it was on a 1979 Texas Instruments job. No more powerful than a graphics calculator, but with a color monitor, that computer was already old technology when it was handed down to us, also in '83 or '84. Who cared? Not us. It had a keyboard, had a monitor, had a box full of power; you looked at it, and knew: that was a computer. In the primitive football video game that came with it, you were thrust into the role of coach and play-caller. You could select from several plays, running or passing, and then watch, wringing your hands, as helmet icons knocked against one another, and the plays played out. A tiny brown elipse, which was the ball, ejected from the quarterback helmet, traveled across the screen, and either magically wedged itself into the receiver helmet, or caromed off it enragingly, as if off a real helmet. You had no avatar on the field whose movements you directly controlled with your a joystick or directional arrows. Rather, you peered in like a paralyzed god or a coordinator in a booth or a parent in an audience, and watched your decisions succeed or fail without your ability to intervene. It was brutal on the nerves.
However, despite its crude simplicity, now that I think of it, this early '80s Oregon-Trail level game was strategically the most life-like of any football video game until those that have appeared lately. Unlike early incarnations of the John Madden franchise, where victory was as simple as nine-man blitzes and passing on four consecutive downs, (or "flipping the play," which threw all eleven members of the defense into a confusion), on this primitive Texas Instruments game, the programmers rewarded players with a Woody Hayes-like approach to the game. Imagine, people of the future: in the early 1980s there was a "3 yards and a cloud of dust" football video game. If you called passes on first down, you ended up with interceptions, incompletions, sacks, and holding penalties - the most infuriating and uncontrollable aspect of this little world. Oh yes! Folded into a black cartridge was the football intelligence and football ethos of a time late in the reign of Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain, one that perhaps looked ahead to the powerful offensive lines of the Redskins. From this game, this particular kid learned what a "blitz" was, what a "dive" running play was, what an "off tackle" play was; I learned about "sweeps," and saw guard icons pull on the sweeps (Max Montoya!); I saw receivers hitch, slant, cross, and run deep. From this game more than any source, I took the basics of football plays.
There were other games. On the floor of my parents' bedroom, I tried a few times to play what's known as "vibrating football" or "electric football." This particular game, which originally belonged to my dad, was one of the most disappointing toys ever sold by the tens of millions, and I honestly pitied him, thinking about him back in the 1950s, playing it. It consisted of a sheet of green metal painted to resemble a football field. Atop this sheet, two teams of tiny plastic men, about the size of "army men" stood in various football poses, a felt football about the size of a tic-tac under the arm of one of them. With the flip of a switch, electricty flowed, wires magnetized, a tiny electric motor whirred and buzzed and conferred enough motion to shake metal coils beneath to vibrating. The vibrations shook the sheet metal, causing the players above to quiver in way that supposedly led to movement. The problem was that they didn't move. They just quivered in place.
Perhaps this game could have been fun in several crooked NY apartments I've inhabited over the last decade. Orienting the board so that the incline tipped the game toward the advantage of the offensive side would cause at least the directionality that occurs in a football game. Gravity, symbolizing the rules of the real game, would help the offense take ground. Our house, however, apparently had "good flat floors," and as I child, I ddn't yet know about shimming. All I know is I attempted to play at this unfun game once with a fellow pre-schooler, a boy named Jeff, who was younger than I was by about 10 months. I lined up the men as they were lined up in my video game. Bored at watching me painstakingly align the men, he then laid the sides of his two hands down behind the lines and smashed the pieces together into a pile, growling and yelling something for about fifeen seconds, squeezing and tossing the little men: "No! THIS is football! Grwwwoorrwrwrorrr!!! GRRRRCKKCCK! Then they grrrrgg! Picckow!! Brrrrssshh!!!" By this point, I suppose here is a piece of evidence that I was getting out of the mush, but that mush was not so distant that I could see that he was still in it. Come along little friend! But you can't just say that and guarantee someone will listen.
A large joy of football, physically, is the joy of the football, of throwing and catching the football, of having it, holding it, tucking it, and running around with it. You toss it up in the air as a five, six year old kid; one second, playing, you are in the mind of a quarterback, in the next, a wide receiver. You stick the ball out into the air, you change your grip, and now you're a running back. To the outside, the picture is as simple as a kid throwing a ball up and catching it and running in circles by himself in a yard, but a fast and fluid role-playing is going on in his child-head. The joy of the football came into my life at about age five, but not in a yard, initially. In a house. In the house I grew up in. It was a low slung, but tough little house, and simply organized. The house was two floor, with two upstairs bedrooms, one large, one small. Three dormers looked south and east out of a pitched roof. Open the front door, and a short steep set of carpeted steps rose directly up the second floor, without a turn. When I was five, my old man, Bob, went down this flight of stairs suddenly and hard. In the way a cartoon character slips on a banana peel, his foot slipped forward and up on a sock (was it mine?), and his body followed his feet up into the air. He bounced twice on his lower back, and landed on the tiles of our entryway. I did not see it happen; I try to remember that it shook the house, but I could be imagining it. He stood up, walked out the door, and mowed the yard. The next morning he could not get out of bed. He'd shattered a pair of discs in his lower back, chipped up some vertebrae, and was informed he was lucky he hadn't end paralyzed.
At the time, Big Bob was 41 years old, 6'0" tall and 240 lbs. His frame was thick; he was big in the calves and the forearms and the thighs, big enough to acccommodate about 215 of those pounds; the remainder he wore as many men do - as a round, rock-hard, pot-belly, under which he buckled his pants. I was perhaps 45 lbs, with bones like the rubberized enamel bones dogs chew on; at age five, I used to slide and bounce down the stairs in every way I could figure to orient my body. I didn't quite get how he'd managed to hurt himself so severely by falling down those stairs, but he had. It was a climacteric event in our household.
After the surgery, while he was laid up in bed, he and I played. He lay on his back, propped up by pillows against a headboard, and I ran back and forth in about six yards of space, catching a small orange football rubberized football. He called out arbitrary numbers relating to the difficulty of the ball he was about to throw, and then he led me back and forth. To my increasing joy, he "threw me" all over that bedroom; the boundary of our field (where the highest scores were had) were on one end a bookcase full of psychology, chemistry, and biology textbooks, high school year books, photo-albums, and scrapbooks full of newspaper clippings of Big Bob's feats on the late 1950s Cincinnati public-high-school league grid-iron. On the other end was a closet door that we kept slid open, so that if ran too far in that direction, I'd collide with my mother's clothes, and not with a door. In that bedroom, I learn to catch the ball, and also to throw it. My dad couldn't move, but depending on where I threw it, he snatched it with either hand, like a hypercoordinated but immobile Star Wars hut. He was almost ambidextrous, one of those shoot-left, write-left, throw-right, bat-right, mixed-up handed people. He himself also loved every single kind of ball he ever met: golfballs, baseballs, basketballs, tennis balls, footballs, bowling balls, so it was a way of passing the time. He threw the ball back with whatever hand he caught it, on account of his back. "Right-handed!" I'd say, wanting him to transfer the ball to his better hand. Having not yet been to a batting cage, it was the most gloriously fun activity I'd yet experienced as a human being, and all while we threw, I asked him hundreds of questions - most of which had to do with football, the Cincinnati Bengals. Stuck in bed, he couldn't escape the barrage of attention.
[ANTS: Elsewhere in that bedroom at that time, my mother murdered tiny ants by the hundreds by licking lolli-pops, placing them on paper towels, and hiding them about the room. Inadvertently, I'd created an infestation. In my first experience with waitering, my strength gave out and I spilled a glass mug of hot jello the size of pitcher all over the bare wooden floor. I'd been attempting to carry it up to my dad in bed. Into the floor is a better description of how I spilled. I poured probably 48 oz of liquid hot red jello into our house, creating beneath the floorboards a cool goo as life-giving to tiny ants as petrie dish agar is to microorganisms. In the annals of Ants of the Ohio Valley, surely it's remembered as a boom town of legendary proportions; a whole way of life founded on a between-floor jello-layer! Ant Elysium! Anyway, these ants would march by the hundreds across my father's feet and ankles, and they'd end up glued as ant-mobs to the licked suckers. I remember it as a time of joy and laughter and all of us together in the same room, and a damaged father somehow in the middle of it.]
Anyway....to return to that dawning of the game of football in my fan mind, I'd like to throw another potato into the stew....the VCR. We were given our VCR in 1986 by father's older brother; oh goodness! it was a top-loading VHS in the time when VHS and Beta were in a two horse race for the industry standard. Had my uncle's family initially bought a VHS, then gifted it down to us upon getting a BETA? It's possible. That top loader, with its totally physical ejection mechanism, had the dimensions of a broiler drawer. Huge! It was huge. It was the oldest looking VCR I have ever seen, if appearance of age is defined by size and physicality. As a machine, it was analog as a 3-speed kitchen-blender, with buttons the size of piano keys; the buttons stayed engaged when you pressed them, and there was a button to pop the buttons out. A machine it was. It also worked better and more reliably than any VCR we ever had afterwards. Funny....Anyhow, the device's chief virtue, to my understanding back then, was its ability to capture a game or a program onto a tape, which made the tape an extraordinary and valuable thing, because it contained a game that could then be watched over and over, any time one wished. You put the television on channel 3. You selected on the VCR the channel on the TV you wanted, and you could record what was happening.
In the autumn of 1986, thanks to that VCR, I saw the NFL football game that would change everything for me, and make me somehow into what I already was: a Bengals fan of unusual intensity and positivity. Using the tremendous website Pro-Football Reference, I've been able to pinpoint the date, and pin the experience like a strange bug to my timeline. Monday October 13, 1986. The Cincinnati Bengals squared off at home against the bullies up the river, those "shitters into our drinking water," the smash-mouth Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a 1986 Boomer Esiason-led Bengals team two years and a few draftpicks from brilliance, and it was a Steelers team being led through one of its franchise's brief valleys by the dimunitive Bubby Brister; still, they were the Steelers. It was a Monday night game, which was a nationally telecast game. This meant the whole country would see our Bengals. In the opening segment, downtown Cincinnati's skyline, viewed from the Kentucky side, flickered and glittered, and I saw it with the sense that many more people in the world were seeing its beauty. Was I ready for some football? Electric guitars? Hank Williams Jr? Oh hell yes, I was. But it was 9:00 pm, and I was in the first grade, so I was sent to bed just after we proved our tape was working.
Why fight it? I made a plan to awaken at an ungodly early hour in the morning, enter the family room, rewind the tape and watch this Bengals game. As a small child, you can just tell yourself, "I'm going to wake up incredibly early," and then you somehow do, with no alarm. Up you pop into the sunshine, ready to do the thing you want to do. At around 5:00 am, before sunrise, I crept in there in a matching white suit of waffled thermal long-johns, stared down a rewinding tape, pressed play. To my great luck, I spent the next several hours privately viewing one of the most exciting regular season football games in the history of the NFL. Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers: October 13, 1986. A back and forth contest of multiple lead changes, a safety, and huge momentum swings, none was larger or more unusual than a 4th quarter 61-yard touchdown run by Bengals punter Jeff "Clyde" Hayes. On what couldn't possibly have been a designed trick play, not from the Bengals own 39 yard line in a one score NFL game, the punter caught the snap, saw an opening he'd probably been looking at all game, and broke off around the left end. The man made no attempt to punt; he just ran, broke off like a housebound dog that's been eying an opening-and-closing door for a month; I am in NY without access to this tape; it is back in Ohio in a box, or maybe it long ago joined Mt. Rumpke - the region's #1 garbage destination. I wish I had it, and a VCR to play it, because I want it to be how I remember it, or I want to have remembered it wrong; either way, I'd like to know if that punter even pretended to try to punt....By the time Bengals' punter Jeff Hayes made his run for glory, the sun had come up on a Tuesday morning in Ohio; both parents had awakened, forced me to dress myself, and I was eating cereal. My dad, who was trying to get me into a car and drop me at school, was standing in the family room watching. He didn't know what would happen any more than I did. "What the hell! Oh! Oh! Go! He's off! He's off! Touchdown Bengals!!! Touchdown Bengals!!!!"
For the next six months, and my mother would corroborrate this, I woke up at a God-awfully early hour and watched this one particular game. Oh I had others. Not many, but a few. This tape though; this tape was the one. I rewound it. I replayed it. I did this over and over. Early in the morning, alone with the Bengals. I tried to communicate time by it. What time did you get up, Matt? "When it was 14-9, Bengals winning" or "When it was 14-7, Bengals winning." (That game had a safety.) Over and over. One game. What I remember is that lunatic punter tried to run a second time! He was of course stopped. What I also remember is Boomer Esiason punting it with his left foot, and actually punting it very well. What I can know is that already by that age, I'd internalized enough of football to know that a punter didn't typically run, and a quarterback didn't typically punt, and that is why I remember those plays 28 years later....All this strikes me as both obvious but also amazing....My father would peer into the game, which tossed out the same colors in same orders in his family room every day; he'd watch that punter run and shake his head. "If that isn't the damn dumbest thing I've ever seen in my life; Mr. Brown ought to fire that idiot; dumb." But the real truth of what that first grade person I once was saw was much simpler. In the game I had on tape, which at that age was more permanent, more real to me, than the fleeting contests on Sunday afternoons, the Cincinnati Bengals came out victorious every single time. Against great competition, against the PIttsburgh Steelers, they won upwards of a hundred times in a single year! This voluntary self-induced brain-washing is the only explanation for my continued attachment to the Bengals all through the "Revenge of Bill Walsh: Part II" (the 1989 Superbowl) and "The Klinglering Our Way to Kitna Decade."
[ So I will stop right there for a moment.
I ought to have stopped earlier, but where I had an impulse to stop wasn't exactly a stop sign; more like a large red leaf....Friends, I have not written prose in a very long time, except for emails, and I'm finding that objects are farther away than they appear. By objects, I mean topics I am trying to get to, and points I am trying to make...Early on in my guest bloggings, I used the word "symbolized" to describe the games that I played at as a kid that "played at" playing football....Paul Tillich, the 20th century's great Christian theologian, said that whenever a writer uses the word "symbol" in any form, be it as a noun ("symbol"), verb ("symbolize"), or adjective ("symbolic"), he ought to stop where he is and explain in detail exactly just what the heck he means. If he doesn't know what he means, that will be the first thing he figures out. I won't perform that boredom for you right now, because I've already typed more than enough for a first post.
Later on today, or later on this week, I'll go into some detail on an idea of the symbolic. The ideas won't be mine, but Tillich's, though they'll come out in my terms I imagine. I bring them up at all for the following reason: the application of Tillich's ideas on the symbol to the game of American football, coupled with a speculative meditation on the cardboard hang-tag messaging you find on any dog toy or cat toy ("All animals play at activities necessary to their survival"), bounced off some 18th century Trans-Allegheny American history, cause the the game of American football to take on a strange sheen...For though one can play at football in a video game, or a low risk game like "500," what does American football itself play at? To what more real activity does it point? I've done some thinking on this head, and I figured I'd make an investigation of that thinking the topic of my week guesting at the Best American Poetry Blog. There will with some asides on technology, a few scoops of Marshall McLuhan, tales of the Cincinnati Bengals of present and recent yore, an aside on the tradition of war games going back to Ancient Rome; also, maybe a little John Ashbery and Vergil (I like it with an "e") since it's a poetry forum after all. That's what you're in store of in this week of blogging. Blabbing? Blogging. I realize my topic: AMERICAN FOOTBALL AS A GAME OF AMERICAN WAR isn't for everyone. If I do my little job here, though, by Thanksgiving (three days away) a picture of a uniquely American war-game and the frightening historical reality that it symbolically re-enacts should have begun to emerge in a way that (hopefully) pleases a rational mind. You'll also learn more about the Cincinnati Bengals and the perspective of their fan-base than you perhaps ever want to know, and for that I apologize in advance. I apologize too for any typos, and randomly unfinished sentences. Have a wonderful afternoon and evening, everyone!]