We live in cynical times. We live in dangerous times. Normally we don’t talk about world events inside the bubble of BRB, and that suits me just fine. I don’t need to puncture that bubble because this summer, forces beyond our control punctured that bubble for us. In the past, no matter what we’ve had in our lives to put up with, we’ve always had the Texans and the NFL. This year, it looked for a while that we might not have that. Sure, we didn’t actually lose the season, and that’s fantastic. For a time, though, it seemed like a real possibility.
A long time ago, before I joined the BRB staff, I wrote a piece about how awesome the start of the football season was. You can read a slightly updated version of it here. I think all of that stuff still applies. Football still is an amazing game, a journey from summer to winter, from the sickly-sweet heat of the Southeast in August to the bitter steel of frozen Northern gridiron in January. It begins with hope and promise and ends, like my attempts at getting a date for the prom, in bitter disappointment for all but one team. We hope that team will be the Texans.
But in a sense it’s kind of secondary, really. This offseason, we learned that the game that we love so much was also one that we took for granted. I am the most optimistic person around, but if you look back at some of my comments in threads about the labor situation, you will see that I was fairly convinced that we wouldn’t have a full season. And if you are honest with yourselves about it, a great many of you will admit that you felt the same way.
This year, instead of rehashing an old post and exalting the game from the roots up, I decided that I would write my quasi-annual hymn of praise from a different perspective, with a vote of appreciation. Appreciation for the fact that, at the end of the day, both sides in the labor dispute walked to the brink, took a look at the huge chasm that they were about to push themselves into, and decided to pull themselves away from it. But not just that. Appreciation, also, for the fact that this game that forms the basis of this community is still around. This year, we hold out the hope (yet again) that our team will make it to the playoffs, win the division, make it to the AFC Championship game, et cetera. That’s awesome (and for my money, I think we’ll make a big run).
I also hope that this season, each and every one of you takes a minute to consider that this bubble we’ve created around ourselves for the football season is an illusion and that, if conditions are right, forces beyond our control can strip that illusion away and make it void. This season we’re going to laugh and curse. We’re going to shed tears of joy and grief. We’re going to eat, drink and – occasionally – resist the urge to vomit. We’re going to have the best coaches and players ever and we’re going to have the biggest set of bums anyone ever saw. It’s going to be awesome. It’s going to be a crazy ride and I hope it’s going to a long one as well. But beyond that, I hope that each one of you takes a few seconds to acknowledge that, no matter how it gets on the field, it could be a whole lot worse. Not just because we could be Bengals fans. Because if things had worked out differently, we might not have anything to root for at all.
Football, as the legendary Rinus Michels once said of another sport with the same name, is war. I disagree. To make the comparison cheapens both what athletes and soldiers do. Besides, people don’t go to bars on Saturdays and Sundays to eat chicken wings, drink beer and watch tank battles or host barbecues to watch paratroopers land on tv. They do this for sports. This should tell you a lot about the importance of sports in our culture. It brings people together. We may talk trash with fans of the opposing team, but I can tell you, as someone who lives in a foreign country with fairly few NFL fans, just being able to watch a game with another fan is a great, great thing.
So this year, while we’re all chugging bleach or making sacrifices to Durga, while we’re all spending the seemingly endless days between games overanalyzing everything from Wade Phillips’ legs to Shaun Cody’s hair color and everything else in between, I hope we all take a moment to appreciate what a beautiful mess the NFL is. It is a mini-society, with its own unique (and sometimes pointless) rules, its own judges, juries and its own language. And it is presided over by a strange kind of oligarchy that has, despite all of its attempts to ruin things, done very, very well for itself, for the players and for the fans.
The NFL sits at the narrow end of a river that starts out very wide, seeded with kids full of dreams and pushing out a few grown men who are violent for a living. In between, there are fields of crisply-cut, fragrant grass, mud bogs that grab a person’s feet and hold them like a spurned lover, ice-cold slabs of earth that sting like a slap across the face and sweltering days in the summer heat when optimism does more to keep you cool than ice water. A journey through football from kids to pros is not just a journey from youth to age. It’s a journey through America. Because American football is, to paraphrase Lombardi, America.
Like you all, I hope to see Andre Johnson lifting the Lombardi Trophy and passing it to Mario Williams this winter. I honestly think I might cry that day, just as much as I cried during The Fox And The Hound when I was a kid or last year when I found out that Steve Carell was leaving The Office. But even if that doesn’t happen, I will find some sliver of pleasure from knowing that at very least we have football. Because there was a good chance that we wouldn’t.