My love of football started in high school. In the 1960s, coaches Stuart Tripp and Tommy Lewis led the Ayden High School Single-A football teams to many winning seasons and state championships. After our teams, many in our small town drove buses filled with athletes, cheerleaders and fans to distant places. It felt like the “Hoosiers” were living.
As a cheerleader, I started learning the game. A cheerleader needs to know the difference between a “Hey hey, let’s go!” cheer for the offense and a “push ’em back,” for the defense. We learn firsthand “the thrill of victory and the terror of defeat.”
In the fall of 1964, my first year at East Carolina, from a row high in the stadium, I watched the finesse of the single wing attack that Clarence Stasavich had introduced. It has been an exciting time to see the football program grow and expand. Carl Davis, in his book, My View from 20 Rows Up, reminds me that “in 1963, ’64, and ’65, Coach Stas took the Pirates to three bowl games and won all three.”
I married a broadcaster who “called” play-by-play for local football games and watched a lot of football. WGTM, in Wilson, broadcast Fike High School games during the Carlester Crumpler years. He was tall and tall and could run like the wind. Fike has won three consecutive state championships. Busloads of fans followed them wherever they played. We never tire of cheering.
In 1966, the NFL-AFL Championship game was played between the Green Bay Packers (35) and the Kansas City Chiefs (10). We saw it on TV just after we got home from our honeymoon. The following January, this matchup was renamed The Super Bowl. For years there were Super Bowl parties with cheese balls and chili. Many games weren’t that good, but the ads most always were. Many good times happened with football in the background.
When our son was in eighth grade, he played on his middle school football team. He was a big boy and played center. About the third game, he came down from his room with his shoulder pads on and said, lips quivering and almost in tears, “Mom, I’m not bad enough to play football.” The coach had encouraged him to growl at the person across the line of scrimmage from him. Richard is not a potato; he did not last long in the team.
When the family started playing fantasy football, I loved football even more. The first few years we will post sheets around the room to keep us with player selection. We bought the ESPN preseason magazine with up-and-coming players, studied it and I got pretty lucky on my “Rev-It-Up” team. Wes Welker and Joe Flacco is good for me. It was the first and only time I knew most of the NFL players. Our granddaughter named her team the “All Crims”. She only chose those who were under indictment, convicted or otherwise just plain bad news. Michael Vick was on their team.
If baseball is America’s fortune, football is America’s obsession. It’s big money for colleges and for franchises in the NFL. Television revenue alone lines pockets and brings fame to teams, schools and players. Our “contemporary gladiators” provide great entertainment, as if we were in the Roman Colosseum. There is risk involved, but many feel the reward is worth it. I’m becoming less sure of that.
By the early 2000s, we learned more about concussions and long-term brain damage players suffered. By 2013, the protocols and targeting rules addressed a growing problem as players became bulkier and the game became more brutal.
We were watching the Bills-Bengals game 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, the trainers knew CPR. Fortunately, there was a defibrillator available. Fortunately, the game was postponed. We realized that we cared about the young man more 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 a great opportunity that they probably wouldn’t have anywhere else. A few years, a few wins can provide a good life, at least until the experience of bruises, broken bones and targeted head shots starts to take a toll. It seems reckless to find sport when the injury is so widespread.
In Andy Griffiths’ 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 run another one!”
The Georgia-TCU championship brought another consideration. Georgia, No. 1 in the nation, vs. TCU, No. 3. It should have been competitive, but Georgia stomped TCU 65 to 7. The New York Times calls Georgia a “Blue Chip University”, a “football school” that will send 15 players to the NFL in April 2022.
Where money rules, mercy slips away. Priorities of sports, especially football, come with responsibilities of safety, fair play, mercy and recognition for those who risk themselves from Friday night lights to the Super Bowl. If we keep football in the game, we have some problems to solve.
Lib Campbell is a retired Methodist pastor, retreat leader and hosts the website: avirtualchurch.com. She welcomes comments at [email protected]