Wednesday, April 17, 2024

I’ve liked football for a long time, but now I can’t enjoy it

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On Saturday afternoon, while the third-best Georgia played against the top-ranked Tennessee in what’s considered the biggest college football game this year, I wasn’t tuning in.

In the past, I’d be on the couch with my brother, munching on pizza and wings, shouting at the TV. However, this time, I hopped into the minivan with my wife and kids, and we headed to Zoo Atlanta.

We arrived a few minutes before the game’s kickoff, catching many people leaving. Who visits the zoo during a Georgia game? Well, we did, along with an Amish family, the ladies in bonnets and the men in straw hats.

It was a warm and cloudy afternoon, with yellow leaves dropping from the pecan trees. A zookeeper shared that an elephant’s trunk has 100,000 muscles and tendons. I texted my brother, apologizing.

“I miss you,” I messaged. “Just trying something different.”

There were lions on a rock, all siblings. Two were napping, and the third one, standing at the edge, kept roaring. A lonesome sound. We walked away but still heard that distant, solitary roar.

I could picture the crowd’s noise, the brass band, the drum beats, that feeling of being part of something big. A joyful participant in one of our country’s last shared rituals. A sport that’s both uniquely American and inherently intense.

I remember when Tim Krumrie’s leg broke during Super Bowl XXIII. I was eight, watching at my grandparents’ place. Krumrie, a Bengals lineman, suffered a compound fracture, replayed on TV for us to see.

The game continued. It always does. That was the lesson for eight-year-old me. Nothing stops the game.

Two years later, Bo Jackson, an extraordinary athlete, dislocated and fractured his left hip during a playoff game. Jackson’s football career ended, but the game didn’t. The Raiders won.

Later that year, Lions lineman Mike Utley broke his neck. Though he gave a thumbs-up leaving the field, he’d be paralyzed for life. The game went on. The Lions won 21-10.

We kept watching. Our teams were the Georgia Bulldogs and the Atlanta Falcons. I clenched my jaw, ground my teeth, and screamed, especially when the opposing quarterback was close to scoring.

“COME ON!” I’d growl. “GET ‘IM!”

One game, it was third and goal, tied, and Washington’s Robert Griffin III ran for the end zone. The Falcons got him. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon hit Griffin hard. Griffin left with a concussion. The game went on. The Falcons won.

By 2012, I knew what football could do to a player’s brain. Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon had dementia at 53. Teammate Dave Duerson, with blurred vision and memory loss, fatally shot himself at 50, revealing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in postmortem tests.

The NFL settled for $765 million with former players for concussions and implemented a new protocol. The game went on.

Year after year, I promised to quit. Then September arrived, and I couldn’t resist. In 2022, after the Bulldogs won a championship, I thought it was time to step away.

At the zoo on Saturday, as the Georgia-Tennessee game continued, I saw a green anaconda in shallow water. I learned about red spitting cobras. My son didn’t seem to miss football. He was fascinated by the reptiles. I was there but not fully present. Outside, the lion roared again.

Texts piled up in my pocket, a commentary on the game from people I knew and loved. Yes, I felt regret. No, I didn’t check the score on my phone.

We left the zoo and went to Shake Shack. I avoided the game on the televisions, catching a glimpse of Tennessee orange in my peripheral vision.

It became evident. No matter how much I missed football, it didn’t miss me. In one October week, the top five TV broadcasts were either NFL games or pre/post-game shows. The game would persist. Old players and fans would leave, replaced by new ones.

Somewhere out there were Tim Krumrie, Bo Jackson, Mike Utley, and Robert Griffin—men who walked off the field or were rolled off on stretchers. They sacrificed for me, and perhaps for you, in our country’s most popular live entertainment.

We drove home, and I went to my office to write. Through the window, it got dark. More yellow leaves fell from the pecan trees. The room was silent. It was nearly 6:30, and I didn’t know the score, who was winning, or who, if anyone, was injured.

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