I am an obsessive person and I enjoy the intensity that this facet of my personality provides. I think that is true for most obsessive people. The obsession that I have held to with the most longevity has been football. My earliest football memories are when I was a small boy and I lay on my bed on Sunday afternoons listening to football games on the radio that were not being broadcast on TV. My team was the New York Giants and they were a good team. Their competition often came from The Cleveland Browns. They were not a good team but they had the greatest player of all time on that not good team. Jim Brown was a man who could strike fear into anyone, particularly a young boy who rooted with the belief that he could help his team to victory through an act of willpower.
The indoor games of my childhood were centered around football. I was alone most of the time and as long as I did not break anything or I could fix or hide what I broke, I had the house to myself. I would stack pillows and blankets as high as a tackling dummy on the living room hide a bed. I’d run at the pile, flinging myself either into or over it, depending on the rules and my role in that day’s game. There were twin sconces on the wall over the couch just about the correct width for miniature goal posts apart. Throw pillows made excellent soft projectiles to kick and throw. Over and over again, day after day for all the hours that I was able, I slipped into the world of competitions that I knew I could win, of challenges that I knew I could overcome.
I was a pretty big kid and so when we started to play football, I was expected to be good and I was. As bad as I was at baseball, I was good at football. It was an icebreaker with new friends and earned me a respect in kidworld that was not offset by the fact that I was a good student. When I went to a new school and was invited into a game, I went with confidence. On one such occasion the team lined up on one side of the field and I lined up on the other. They threw me the ball and I ran at them. Their job was to try to tackle me. I did not realize that it was an initiation and I rushed at them with the ferocity that I had learned from the games of my imagination and with what I had seen and heard of the great Jim Brown. The strangest thing happened. They were unable to knock me down. I ran at them over and over again and went home that night as light of heart as I was sore of body.
I played high school football, making JV in my freshman year. I found out that no one was afraid to hit there, but I also discovered the thrill of hurling myself through the air and colliding with another person. I found it to be a truly remarkable joy. Then came injury.
The first time was in a game on an unremarkable play. Playing defense, I crashed down from the side on a running play up the middle. I dove to make contact with the runner and felt my arm hit his hip. The impact spun me in an awkward way and when I hit the ground I felt a loud pop that came from my left knee. It was followed by currents of electrical pain that jolted my body. I wanted to “pop “ it back and tried to keep playing. With each new pop and each new set of spasms, I told myself that it was going back into place. I told myself that the world would be alright again.
I finished the season getting my leg tapped more than a dozen times. The local doctor drove a hollow needle into the junction of my knee and removed vial after vial of fluid. But I was still able to play and I knew that my knee would heal.
The first surgery was extensive because of the repeated injury and the surgeon said that I should not play anymore. After the next season, I had my right knee cut, but I knew that it was not the game that hurt me. It was my body that had let me down. And so I became a slow lineman rather than a quick linebacker. After the third operation, I knew that I couldn’t play anymore. Each time I felt my knee opened up like a can of tuna and thought that it would never move again. Each time there were new numb spots and stiffness that did not go away. But the game was alive in my mind.
When I became a coach, football re-emerged in full blown obsession. The body which had let me down would be given another opportunity. Now it was my mind and spirit that would carry me through. I had been a teacher for some time, but when I stepped out onto a field, I felt my heart speed up and my blood boil. I was in love again. Football had come back to me! The feel of the locker room, the smell of the practice field, the anticipation of the encounter were fires that burned in me. I was a student studying the ins and outs of the game for the first time. On the sidelines, I stalked the opponent, glaring across the field, screaming exhortations at my team, my extension.
When the teaching and the endless hours of work that football took were over, I went home and watched it on TV. I corrected essays with tapes of games playing in the background. I could feel that the game was going to save me, was taking me back into the circle of its embrace, was going to make me young and whole again.
In 1986, football was magical. The team I was coaching won a league championship. The team for which I had spent my entire life rooting won the Super Bowl. The player, who I had come to know was even better than Jim Brown because he played for my team, was spectacular. My obsession was in full bloom.
I taught my classes and loved my family, but inside my mind I lived on the field. The players and the people with whom I coached forged an alliance that comes from winning and from a shared obsession.
I coached for another few years after that but then my career turned down a different path. My obsession with watching the game continued. Sundays were the days on which I read papers and watched football. On Monday afternoons, instead of lunch I took a nap so that at night I could watch football.
And then one day in a January, I went online. My obsession has a new point of focus.