LIB CAMPBELL: A lifelong love of football

My love for soccer started in high school. In the 1960s, coaches Stuart Tripp and Tommy Lewis led the Ayden High School Single-A football team to many winning seasons and state championships. After our team, many in our small town took buses full of athletes, cheerleaders and fans to far away places. It felt like living in the “Hoosiers”.

As a cheerleader, I started learning the game. A cheerleader must know the difference between a “Hey hey, let’s go!” cheer for the offense and a “Push ’em back” for the defense. We learn first hand “the thrill of victory and the pain of defeat.”

In the fall of 1964, my first year at East Carolina, from a row high up in the stadium, I saw the finesse of the single-wing offense Clarence Stasavich had introduced. It was an exciting time to watch the football program grow and expand. Carl Davis reminds me in his book “My View from 20 Rows Up” that “in 1963, ’64 and ’65, Coach Stas took the Pirates to three bowl games and won all three.”

I married a TV station that “called” play-by-play for local football games and got to watch a lot of football. WGTM, in Wilson, broadcast Fike High School games during the Carlester Crumpler years. He was tall and lanky and could run like the wind. Fike won three straight state championships. Busloads of fans followed them wherever they played. We never got tired of cheering.

In 1966, the NFL-AFL Championship was played between the Green Bay Packers (35) and the Kansas City Chiefs (10). We saw it on TV right after we got home from our honeymoon. The next January, this matchup was renamed the Super Bowl. For years there were Super Bowl parties with cheese balls and chili. A lot of games weren’t that good, but the commercials mostly always were. Many good times happened with football in the background.

When our son was in eighth grade, he played on his high school football team. He was a big boy and played center. Around the third game, he came down from his room with his shoulder pads and said with quivering lips and almost in tears, “Mom, I’m not bad enough to play football.” The trainer had encouraged him to growl at the person across the line from him. Richard is not a growler; he did not last long on the team.

When the family started playing Fantasy Football, I loved football even more. For the first few years we put postcards around the room so we could follow the player selection. We bought the ESPN preseason magazine of prospective players, studied, and I had pretty good luck on my “Rev-It-Up” team. Wes Welker and Joe Flacco did well for me. It was the first and only time I knew most of the NFL players. Our granddaughter called her team “All Criminals”. She only selected those who were under charges, had been convicted, or were otherwise just bad news. Michael Vick was on her team.

If baseball is America’s pastime, football is America’s obsession. That’s big money for colleges and for franchises in the NFL. Television revenue alone is in the pocket and brings fame to teams, schools and players. Our “contemporary gladiators” provide good entertainment as if we were at the Roman Coliseum. There is risk involved in gambling, but many believe the rewards are worth it. I’m becoming less sure about that.

In the early 2000s, we learned more about concussions and long-term brain injuries that players suffered. In 2013, protocols and targeting rules addressed a growing problem as players got bigger and the game became more brutal.

We were watching the game between the Bills and the Bengals when Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field. It was a terrible reminder of how quickly life can change. Hamlin was drafted in 2021. His cardiac arrest, which almost ended his life, will certainly affect his career. Fortunately, coaches knew about CPR. Fortunately, a defibrillator was available. Fortunately, the game was cancelled. We realized we cared more about the young man than we did the game.

We learn perspective in the face of great pain and suffering. The young men who play in the NFL find great opportunities they probably wouldn’t have anywhere else. A few years, a few wins can make for a good life, at least until the experience of bruises, broken bones and targeted head tackles starts to take a toll. It seems reckless to find sports when injuries are so prevalent.

In Andy Griffith’s 1953 breakout record, “What it was, was football,” said Andy, “as soon as one of them would get hurt, they’d take him off and put another one on!”

The Georgia-TCU championship brought up another consideration. Georgia, No. 1 in the nation, against TCU, No. 3. It should have been competitive, but Georgia outscored TCU 65 to 7. New York Times calls Georgia a “Blue Chip University,” a “football finishing school” 15 players to NFL in April 2022.

Where money rules, grace slips away. The priorities of sports, especially football, come with the responsibility of safety, fair play, mercy and appreciation for those who risk themselves from Friday night lights to the Super Bowl. If we are going to keep football in play, we have a few issues to address.

Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist minister, retreat leader and host of the website: avirtualchurch.com. She welcomes comments at libcam05@gmail.com.

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