For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, Satu Gustafson challenged me with ""He who makes a beast of himself, gets rid of the pain of being a man." - Samuel Johnson" and I challenged Wendryn with " 'I believe that writers run out of material, I really do.' -Brian Wilson ".
I had to keep telling myself to calm down. It was hard not to be excited, playing in the showcase game of your professional life. It was an "obituary game", a term my position coach, Donnie Hasselbeck, came up with. If you achieved nothing else in your life, playing in this game would be in the first line of your obituary. It was both bigger and smaller than everyone thought it was, both the summit of achievement in my field and simply a football game- 60 minutes of concentrated mayhem, after which one side or the other will be remembered forever, while the other side will be a good team that couldn't land the big one.
"Do your job," I repeated to myself softly. It had been the refrain since summer camp, way back in July and August, every speech beginning with it, every sign, every playbook page emblazoned with it. It meant several things, as all aphorisms do- both the "Do" part, meaning you have to perform your role in the 11 part ballet, and "Your Job", meaning, of course, you have to know what you're supposed to do, and then do it, and only it. Trust your teammates to do their part, and don't try to do too much. Overreaching leads to blown assignments, followed by your opponents dancing in the end zone. They tried to strike a balance- play instinctively, but inside of our parameters. Jump if you want to, but if you're wrong, it's on you.
I jumped up and down, standing in place, waiting for the signal to start. One of the keys Jake Warner, one of our vets who was here with New York a decade ago, told us about actually playing in the game was that there are more pauses, and longer pauses, than a regular game. He told us to always be moving, even if you're just walking in a circle- you have to stay loose, no matter what. I looked at the stands, packed full with flash bulbs constantly going, and I didn't think that would be an issue. I had played before big crowds before, but this was the ultimate. The whole world, literally, was watching.
"Stay your lane," I said under my breath. "Do your job." I had been on kickoffs most of the year, so I knew the drill- see where they are trying to guide you, and fight against that. We had been watching tape of how they handled returns, so I was ready for their different formations. Be quick. Get to the spot. If nothing else, occupy one, or ideally two blockers so that someone else can make the play. If you get a chance to make the play, hit him hard and finish. If you only get a piece of him, hold on and wait for help. Most of all, don't let him get behind you, and keep pursuing until the whistle sounds.
This was the most physical, and the least cerebral, of all the jobs on a football team. When playing defense as a nickel or dime corner, or while filling in for an injured teammate, there were a number of assignments, and variations on those assignments, based on down, and distance, and time, and further refined by what our captains saw from the offensive setup. I was thankful that my first action would be less thoughtful and more instinctual. I just wanted to hit someone and get my juices going.
My five year old, Sophie, has finally made the connection between the mad pace of football on television and the flesh and blood of the men who play it. During our bye week, I was sitting with her watching the start of the Monday night game when Tom Floyd of New Orleans got laid out on a pass over the middle. It was one of those blood chilling moments, one that has been mercifully rare in my career. They broke to commercial, then came back to Tom being loaded onto a stretcher, with circles of players, helmets off, praying at midfield. "Is he OK?," Sophie said. I told her the truth, saying I didn't know, then spent the next two hours trying to console her. Sophie hasn't been the same since, refusing to say goodbye when I leave, and greeting me like Caesar returning to Rome when I come home.
That was the thing that nobody in our business wants to think about. I know that any play, particularly the Newtonian physics writ large of the kickoff, can result in something horrific happening. Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it won't. I didn't think it would- I used good form, never going for the kill shot, just good, strong fundamental tackles. But I couldn't promise Sophie, or Jane herself, that it wouldn't happen. It was another paradox- I couldn't operate properly while thinking about it, but it wasn't possible to not think about it. I lived my working life doing something violent, yet I hated violence.
Janie started reminding me last night, as we talked in low voices while Sophie slept on the other bed, that she wanted to try for another baby. I didn't blame her- we weren't getting any younger. But I really wanted to get a little more secure before we take such a drastic step. I reminded her about the movie Jerry Maguire, telling her nothing was certain, that I served at the pleasure of the team, while she would counter with the fact that Rod Tidwell got the big contract in the end. She added that if we waited for the perfect time, it would indeed be too late. She's right, I thought, looking down at my cleats on the playing surface. I swiveled my neck and shook out my arms, trying to release excess energy.
I looked at the ref, who was waiting for a signal from the TV people. Focus, I told myself silently, picturing my lane down the field and trying to see who might be blocking me. If it was a bigger player, like a lineman, I would try to blow past him. If it was someone closer to my size, I would probably try a basketball type move- get him leaning one way, then go the other. Like in martial arts, so much depended on what the opponent did. Every move had a counter move, and every counter had a counter counter. Just do your job, I reminded myself, remembering the old baseball joke, "don't think, kid- you're hurting the ballclub."
I wanted to hit somebody- if not the ballcarrier, then at least a blocker. It would siphon off the tension, and it would release me from the net of worry. Once it gets down to just playing football, it's relatively simple. Angles and vectors, force and acceleration. We had practiced until it was second nature- if they do this, you react this way. Doing it allowed me to disconnect, no longer a father worried about his family, no longer worried about contracts and paychecks and whether some kid from Nebraska would take my spot this April and do my job for $200,000 less. Doing it means you're judged based on results, not on your college pedigree or the fact that your agent is a prick. There's no arguing with doing it.
I bounced on the balls of my feet again, when finally the referee blew his whistle. A few more seconds, and we'd be underway, 11 men with one goal. We all checked our spacing, and I instinctively did a quick count- 5 and 5, plus the kicker. It was time. The crowd sensed it too, building to a roar that became almost a physical presence. The tension was thrumming in the air. We could almost feel it through the soles of our feet. Our kicker, Ludwig, put one hand up, our signal to take off when he brought it down. I dug for a little bit more purchase, getting low, picturing Lightning McQueen from that movie about the cars.
Time to do, and not think. The kicker dropped his hand, and I was off, sprinting full out towards the other end of the field, where the next moment waited.