Author's note: I wrote this as a FanPost last year but wanted to republish it as a front page story since, after all, football season is finally upon us.
ACT I: THE GAME
It begins with earth. A field of grass, cut to just a few inches above the ground. Someone has marked out a rectangle on the field by drawing white lines on it, perhaps with paint or chalk. The rectangle is further divided by a series of white lines that run across it at five yard intervals and then further marked with the addition of hashmarks and yardage numbers. Perhaps there is a special logo in the endzone or at the field's middle.
What is interesting about this field is not the fact that men walk or run on it. It is the fact that men put their hands on it and eventually their entire bodies will end up on it, face up, face down, alone or in a group. A referee puts the ball on the field and some men will place a single hand on the grass. The man who puts his hand on the ground in this way does not do so because he has fallen or seeks to stoop at an altar or a confessional booth. No. In this sense, the act of putting one's hand on the ground is nothing more than the coiling of a spring. The creation of tension. Sweat slides in single beads from the faces of these men, falling to the earth like a solitary drip from a faucet. If it is cold, steam will jet from the mouths and noses of these men as if they were bulls charging. Tension ratchets up until there is only one possible action - a controlled explosion of muscle, aggression and grunts aimed at the opponent, timed to coincide with the snapping of the ball. That's what the hand on the ground means.
It doesn't matter where this field is. What matters is the game that is played there. Boys and men will come to this strip of earth to play there. There might be twenty people in the stands (all parents), 20,000 or even 100,000. The men on the field may notice the people in the stands, they may not. They are playing the game. The game could take place under the sun's glare or under a harsh flashbulb bath of lights illuminating the rectangle as though the gods were peering down from heaven at this collection of men engaged in controlled, violent battle for supremacy.
It ends in the heavens. Sometimes the heavens provide blazing sun, sometimes streams of rain, sometimes fog. Sometimes the weather is perfect. Often the voices of fans are mixed in with the sun, rain or fog. Each condition is a different test. Each condition gives us something else to consider, to lament, to love. Our voices of praise, ecstasy or anguish are no more than birds carrying messages to the heavens, the same heavens that set the conditions for the players and illuminate the game.
ACT II: THE PLAYERS
It begins with muscle. To play this game, you can be small, but you can't be weak. The game does not reward style, it does not stop to consider how good a man looks when he blocks his opponent. You can showboat on the way to the endzone, or not. The game doesn't care. In order to be a success, however, you cannot lack strength. The season is won in the summer, in the weightroom, as much as it is in the fall and winter on the field. To play well, a man must be a great athlete, but he must also be a physical specimen.
It continues in the mind. An NFL playbook is thick. An NFL player isn't. In order to be the best, a player must exercise his mind as much as he does his muscle. Bill Walsh wasn't a dumb jock. Even the simplest plays in an NFL playbook are complex combinations of individual actions, exquisitely sequenced and choreographed, and depend highly on the constantly-changing conditions on the field of play. They are an elegant Swiss watch, where men are the gears and aggression and violence the hour and minute hands.
It ends in the heart. To play this game, you can be small, but you can't be weak. But the strength in your muscle must be equal to the strength in your heart if you hope to stand a chance in this game. It is not necessarily true that sports don't build character, only reveal it. But it is true that if you don't have character, if you lack the means of discovering your true strength, you will find yourself lacking on the football field regardless of how much weight you can bench press.
ACT III: THE FANS
It starts with hope. Hope that, after the draft, a team will have addressed its weaknesses enough to contend this year. During OTAs, the hope that rookies will contribute and free agents will have an impact. During training camp, the hope that the team will mesh and nobody will get hurt. And yet none of this matters, because football as a sport doesn't matter until the first time a kicker puts his instep into a ball in anger and the games actually count. A buildup that spans months of anticipation, frustration and speculation is suddenly over, the kicker's foot exploding them all as the first ball flies high into the heavens on its way towards the other team. Game on.
Each game offers fulfillment, yet it also tantalizes. In the week between games, fans dissect and analyze every possible moment of each game. Each game serves to clarify part of a larger picture, but it poses as many questions as it answers. It shrouds the future in mystery even as it brings the present into light. It is an ant trapped in amber from prehistoric times - it gives us clues to the bigger picture but doesn't show us everything.
And then it ends. For some fans, it ends in glory. For all others, the season's end is bittersweet. Perhaps your team did better than expected. If so, then your sadness at the end of the season is lightened by the knowledge that your team did good things this year. Perhaps your team did worse than expected and you have to deal with the crushing knowledge that your team failed in sixteen excruciatingly slow installments and you were powerless to help, but had to watch.
The football season is approximately 150 days long, less than half a year. By the end of the season, all but one team will have failed in its goal. Imagine this: In the course of a painfully short season, each fan will have experienced tragedy, triumph and tragedy again. No wonder that football fans have all, whether they have thought about it or not, subconsciously flirted with - and rejected - the wisdom of the Buddha.
It ends, just as it began, with hope. Hope that your team will draft the right players, hire the right coaches, bring in the right free agents. Hope that the next time, in seven months time, the men who line up to place their hands in the grass, who battle all across the rectangle as gods and fans watch will end up the conquerors. In the meanwhile, there are arguments to be had, speculations to make and beers to drink. There has to be some way to kill time in the offseason, right?
But now, none of that matters. Football season is here.