A long, long time ago, back when I was entering the ninth grade, one of the things I most looked forward to about entering high school was finally being allowed to attend Friday night football games with my friends, without my parents lurking somewhere in the stadium, keeping an eye on me. In Alpena, Michigan in the 1990’s it was a big deal to be able to join your friends in the student section of the bleachers on Friday nights, and the first game carried a particular importance – it was the day you picked spot – the place you would watch games the rest of your time in high school. Very few of my friends at the time were interested in football and those that were also happened to be in the marching band, so I couldn’t sit with them. I was a little nervous,that first Friday, to arrive alone – but my parents encouraged me to go ahead – they said I’d find people to sit with, and of course they were right. Before even purchasing my ticket, I ran into my friend Jessica and together she and I braved the crowds of juniors and seniors to find our spots. We ended up almost exactly in the middle of the student section, near several friends from our French and biology classes, and for four years we watched the boys we grew up with play against other small-town northern Michigan teams. As far as I know, none of the boys that I watched play football throughout those years grew into a violent man – in fact, many of them were and remain today some of the gentlest souls I know.
Yes, I hung out with the football players in high school, and while this association conjures up all sorts of cliches thanks to movies and television, it wasn’t because I was absurdly popular or a cheerleader or anything like that – in a small town roles are more malleable than that. I fell into friendships with football players in the usual way – my best friend began dating one of them, and then Jessica began dating another, and while throughout my tenure at Alpena High School I only (and briefly) dated one football player, they became my friends, part of my gang, so to speak.
I mentioned it earlier but it bears repeating: these boys were some of the most gentle I have ever met, off the field. Most of them were raised to be good Catholic kids who took their religion and their families seriously. A number of them are still active in the church, a smaller number of them heavily so. They weren’t rule breakers and they rarely challenged authority – when I spent time at their houses there parents were always home, just like mine were when they came over.
When I attended our high school football games, I wasn’t cheering on strangers – I was rooting for my friends – for the quarterback who completed a shared read-aloud Macbeth assignment with me, for the linebacker in my church confirmation class.
For many of us, a love of football all began with the boys we loved.
Football, perhaps more than most other sports, is about so much more than the game itself. When I was in high school it was also about the hot buttery popcorn and frothy hot chocolate served at the concession stand, and the ebb and flow of hundreds of teenage bodies absorbed sometimes in the game but mostly in each other, and it was about frosted nights beneath the stars and lights and the majority of the town’s activity centered in this one particular corner for a couple of particular hours. Football games were generally parent-approved and teacher-regulated, yet a certain amount of freedom could be found in taking a walk with someone around the field or congregating in the parking lot prior to and after the game. Most of the time the high school sponsored a casual post-game dance where whatever energy we didn’t expend in the bleachers or on the field could be danced off before going home.
My interest in football has ebbed and flowed over the years depending on where I lived and what I was doing. In college I spent a number of Saturdays tailgating and attending Michigan State University football games with my friends, but I was just as likely to have play rehearsal or a test to study for – even a rare trip to the mall for dinner and a movie could lure me away from a football game. I’ve never been a huge follower of the NFL or, for that matter, any professional sports team except for the Detroit Tigers, but when I moved to Pittsburgh it was nearly impossible to avoid paying attention to the Steelers, and even if I didn’t watch every game, I had a husband and a brother who did and over the years I grew accustomed to football Sundays (and Mondays and sometimes even Thursdays). Again, football is more than the sum of its parts and it in Pittsburgh it is a regular part of our daily conversation – not just the game but what we ate who we were with the games we played the fun we had together.
There is an ocean of difference between the game I grew up with and the culture promoted by the NFL now. The concussion issues over the last few years muddied the waters for me considerably when it came to considering whether or not I want my children exposed regularly to professional football in our home, but watching the video of Ray Rice beat his fiance complicated matters even further. While I don’t hold the NFL directly responsible for Rice’s actions, I do think, as an organization, it has shown over and over again how little it values the health of its players and their families, coupled with the glorification of a violent and egocentric subculture. If I don’t allow reality television shows like “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and The Real Housewives of whatever in our home because of the self-centered, damaging values they promote, then why would I allow NFL football?
Sam and I have talked back and forth about it (for the record, he is as conflicted as I am) and for now we’ve settled on keeping our relationship with NFL football pretty casual. We aren’t adverse to turning a game and watching part of it, but football will not become the center of our Sundays.
Every year, a bunch of the guys I went to high school with meet up the Friday after Thanksgiving to play football. Even though we are all heading toward forty, they wouldn’t miss this annual rematch anymore than they would miss Thanksgiving dinner itself. For several years in my late twenties and early thirties, I would meet up with several of them and their various girlfriends and wives at a restaurant in Alpena the Saturday evening after their great rematch, where they would replay the game for us, often sporting bruised ribs, black eyes and sometimes worse. Over garlic bread pooled in butter, steaming platters of chicken nachos, chilled martinis and drafts of beer, our reunion conversations always started first with that Saturday’s game, and then circled back a decade to games of the past until eventually moving to current topics at hand – family, friends, how much has and hasn’t changed in our hometown. I almost always spend my Thanksgivings in Pittsburgh now, but when I think about football, this is what I recall: Friday nights in my hometown, taking the first steps toward the woman I’ve been lucky enough to become, huddling in the stands,cheering on the boys we loved.