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In Texas they recently consecrated a new football stadium so big that some of the 100,000 customers had to turn on GPS coordinates to locate their seats.
The stadium is a 21st Century Temple of Karnak that cost well over a billion dollars and takes up a combined surface and air footage rivaled in America only by the Pentagon to the east and Yellowstone Park to the west.
I confess having written five books on professional football and still harbor a fugitive fondness for the game. It is now a colossus whose nationally televised games are introduced by a cowboy guitar plucker emerging through the sound and fury of a dozen exploding smoke bombs. This is followed by a screeching soprano trying to achieve the scientifically impossible feat of spreading the national anthem over five octaves.
So I watched this game between the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants more in sadness than hysterics. The game itself is still recognizable and stirring. Usually it is suspenseful, granted that three or four of the interior linemen on each team are now posters for the spreading obesity in America. The rest are swift and often graceful. All are tough, driven athletes, engaged in high stakes games in which millionaire ballplayers hammer each other, and the TV networks produce record ratings and income.
I watched without resentment because it’s essentially America’s game, attracting increasing millions of followers, a game now impossible to avoid. I’ve regretted the disappearance of the more relaxed era of pro football I knew but also enjoyed today’s emergence of women sports journalists in print, on line and on the sidelines. These feelings drift back two or three decades when I taught an annual football class for women for the Minneapolis newspaper. More than 200 knowledge-hungry scholars, average age 35 or 40, crowded the classroom eight times during the season. They learned how to translate the game’s gobbledygook and the difference between a red dog and a hot dog. Borrowing from the quarterback’s cadence, we called it the Hut-Hut Clinic. As The Professor, I gave final exams, which everyone passed. At graduation the Viking coach gave the commencement talk. We annually took field trips by bus to the Viking-Bears game in Soldier Field in Chicago. My students came dressed in those horned Brunhilde helmets, perfect protection when the Bears’ fans tried to pour beer on them.
The game now is bigger, faster, better, more boisterous, possibly more brutal, and glutted with money. It’s a show, and a good one. The personalities are larger than life and pro football is now round the calendar. And yet the best times for me were and are those when you see a core humanity in it and even, strangely, moments of beauty.
Walter Payton was a marvelous football player for the Chicago Bears. He was one of the finest runners ever, a spirited, joyful guy loved by everyone who played with or against him. He was also mischievous. Officials sometimes caught him untying their shoes under the pile. The players called him Sweetness.
He died in his 40s, not that long after his retirement. The hours after his death were filled with a solidarity of grief that united players, coaches and fans and seemed to dissolve the conflicts dividing them. In those hours of mourning, pro football became a community, in faces and voices brought together from TV studios around the country, bound in a remembrance of an extraordinary athlete and good man. He was a football player whose death could reach a harsh and willful man like Mike Ditka and others like him, and touch them with humility. It could reach a stoical and undemonstrative man like Bud Grant and touch him with tenderness. It could reach an uncompromising competitor like Mike Singletary and touch him with peace.
So there, there is more to it than the bombast.