Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dog Daze

One of the lingering passions from my youth, football, I cannot seem to shake. Each year, around this time, I begin to anticipate the coming NFL season -- the NCAA, not so much, though living in a football-crazed town like Ann Arbor, the college game is impossible to avoid, and by late October, I'm tapping into that vein as well. Blame my upbringing and decades of conditioning. As much as I hate the ugly, braying culture that surrounds it, I do, God help me, enjoy watching large padded men beat the living shit out of each other.

I played the game as a kid, albeit briefly. I really didn't have the body for football (baseball was my best sport, basketball my true love), but I gave what I could, usually playing safety, where I sized up a runner or receiver, built some steam and drilled them, or them me, depending on the size or caliber of player. There's nothing like having a large wide receiver run right over you to the end zone. You just want to stay on the grass, stare up at the clouds through your face mask, so as to avoid the inevitable trash talking on the sideline. But then there were those moments when I clocked a runner, occasionally forcing a fumble, and soaked up the adrenaline rush that followed. There's a reason why football players act nuts on-field: the primal energy is too much to contain. Mix in steroids and related growth hormones, and the screams, shaking heads, and pumping fists take on a life of their own.

Michael Vick's recent legal problems, topped by his guilty plea, supposedly besmirches football's Good Name. Those poor kids who bought Number 7 Falcons jerseys -- what do we tell them? That their favorite NFL QB, a man who can execute perfect flips over defensive linemen and land in the end zone on two feet, forced pit bulls to fight to the death? For money? For amusement? And if a dog didn't fight with sufficient brutality, Number 7 would shoot, drown, or hang it?

All Ricky Williams did was smoke weed and study holistic medicine, and the league painted him as criminal and ran him off to Canada. How does Williams look now, especially given his vegetarianism? Compared to Vick, Ricky Williams is St. Francis of Assisi. Yet, there's little chance that Williams will play again in the NFL, while even the harshest Vick basher admits that Number 7 will probably return to the league after whatever legal punishment he receives.

So, kids, remember: if you're going to flout a league's rules, make sure that it's connected somehow to violence -- the more theatrical, the better. Introspection via cannabis is not only for losers, it's for the weak and gutless. Curse Vick all you like, but it takes balls and serious concentration to wrap a noose around a young dog's neck and hoist it up to die, while you and your entourage crack jokes and laugh as the pup takes its final breath. And, apparently, Vick also smokes weed, but did this stop him from arranging and overseeing deadly pit brawls? I don't know what strain of grass Ricky Williams smokes, but it doesn't have the psycho-zip of Vick's private stash.

(It now looks as if authorities will euthanize the 53 pit bulls seized from Vick's kennels. Vick would not be allowed to kill them himself, for obvious PR reasons, but what about Ted Nugent?)

For NFL fans to bemoan Vick's sick pastime is really too much to take. The game they revere is twisted and fucked-up on so many levels, not only in a violent sense, but in its simultaneous homoerotic/queer-fear makeup, that denouncing Vick for deviancy is decidedly relativistic, and in many cases, simply racist, based on the impassioned rhetoric I've heard spewed by white sports radio hosts and callers alike. There's nothing like a Bad Millionaire Negro to set off white boys toiling in cubicles for shit pay. Worse for them, Vick doesn't care what they think. Yeah, he may be heading for jail, but it'll be a short sentence, and when he's released, Vick will still be rich and famous, while the anonymous white fans grow fat in their human veal crates, counting the hours until they can get drunk and crazy, only to return hungover to their private hells the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that . . .

I suppose I'm a hypocrite, since I recognize all this and still watch the games. But truth be told, today's football brings me little joy. It's too mechanized, too corporate, too predictable. My continuing interest in the NFL is tied more to nostalgia than anything bright and new. There are elements of the modern game I appreciate, like a Peyton Manning two-minute drill, or LaDainian Tomlinson carving up defenses with apparent ease and true physical grace. I especially like it when LT plays in the Chargers' retro-AFL gear:

For a few moments I can go back to the kind of football played in that rebel league -- a wide-open game, complete with trick plays, lots of passing, colorful uniforms, and a brash attitude that had more to do with showing the musty NFL a new kind of football than with empty, narcissistic preening. The days before steroids, nightclub shootings, and off-season dog fighting. Yes, I'm getting old and those days are long past. But every once in a while, when my son and I throw the pigskin in our front yard (the boy has a hell of an arm, but lacks any jock mentality), I go back to his age in my head, and pretend that I'm John Hadl, or Len Dawson, or Daryle Lamonica, or Joe Namath, hitting Lance Alworth, Otis Taylor, Fred Biletnikoff, or Don Maynard deep for a quick six.

"Who are all those guys, Dad?"

"Players I grew up watching."

Or maybe I never grew up at all. Go long, kid.