»  The Straggler, No. 47

October 9th, 2006

  Gridiron Dad


The kit presented some puzzles. There were seven white plastic pads of several different shapes. From vague recollections of seeing football players on TV I knew that the knees and thighs are padded. Exploring the interior of the pants, I found suggestive pockets sewn in. Some careful matching of pad shapes to pocket shapes got the pants fixed up, two pads down each leg. There were still three pads to account for, though: one a sort of tall trapezoid with two slots in it, and a pair of bigger pads with a squat gingerbread-man shape.

The lad had already donned crotch protector and girdle. The protector was familiar to me, being pretty much identical to the item known to cricketers as the "box." Danny had pulled on the girdle over it, not noticing that the girdle, too, had interior pockets for pads. So there was the eleven-year-old in protector and girdle, Dad holding a pair of padded-up pants, and three more pads scattered homeless on the floor. All I could think of was to have him put the pants on, then jam the remaining pads down between boy and pants wherever seemed appropriate. This didn't really work, the pants being extraordinarily tight. I got the trapezoid in to protect his tail bone, and left the gingerbread men for future research.

The helmet was straightforward, except that a rubberish mouthpiece had first to be fitted to the boy's teeth, then attached to the helmet. The fitting involved some operations with boiling water (to soften it) and cold water (to harden it). The method of attachment to the helmet was not explained by the mouthpiece's packaging, but I figured it out at last. A final checklist — shoulder pads, chin guard, Dad-size T-shirt (team shirts with printed names were not yet ready), cleats, water bottle — and we were off to my son's first football practice.

Football is a mysterious thing to those of us not raised in these United States. I have attended just one football game in my life. It was a college game, and furthermore was in the South, where, if you try out the cliché about college ball being a religion down there, people tell you, without smiling, that it is much more serious than that. What a spectacle that game was! The colors; the chants; the erotic prancing of the cheerleaders; the masked and padded players, their size grotesquely exaggerated, like Polynesian warriors; the guttural war cries; the fenced-off areas of the stands with strange and distinctive populations — one contained nothing but young men in blazers. I felt like an anthropologist watching the Ghost Dance of the Sioux. If a foreigner should tell you that a nation as young as this one has had no time to develop a unique culture, take him to a college football game.

And now my own son was to be schooled in these mysteries! Beginning, I might hope, with the mysteries of the surplus pads. I tackled — I mean, I asked — the team coach about this. There are pockets inside the girdle, he explained. Ah. But why were the pants so tight? "Why, to hold the pads in, of course." Right. And then the coach, which is to say Coach, was off to deal with his charges.

Deal with them he did. I must say, the ferocity of the coaches took me by surprise. From exposure to the sensitized, feminized, sissified, litigation-whipped culture of the public schools, I had come to suppose that the sterner kinds of pedagogic verbal chastisement had gone the way of switch and tawse. Not here at junior-league football practice. The coaches barked and roared like Marine Corps drill instructors. Inattentive boys had their inattention terminated with great prejudice, often with a set of push-ups or a lap around the field added to drive the point home. When Coach got tired of yelling, the whole team was sent off to do laps, marking pace with military-style antiphons in which the word "kumbaya" seemed not to figure at all. It was wonderful to see, especially from the comfort of a folding chair in the shade, with a cup of iced coffee close at hand.

From mid-July to early September they trained, six hours a week, pads all rightly in place now, pants properly laced and belted, the helmet starting to feel like home. Dad was training, too, in his own way: exploring the rules, seeking out football literature in the town library, going with the team and a bevy of moms to watch the movie Invincible. (My second football flick, actually. I was a great Burt Reynolds fan back in the Seventies, and saw the first version of The Longest Yard … a movie that did not, as I recall, vouchsafe much football expertise to its audiences.)

Then at last — game time! On a cool September afternoon our preteen cheerleading squad skipped and squealed and shook their pompoms, various adults took up position on the sidelines with odd-looking poles and flags (must find out what that's all about), and the Huntington Bulldogs, eleven-year-old division, blue team, jogged out on to a full-sized football field for their first game. Various daddish emotions swelled in my breast, things went misty for a minute or two, then I got absorbed in trying to follow the play.

Which wasn't easy. I understood the main principles of the four downs, forward passing (streng verboten in rugby, my own school game), punting, blocking, and tackling. I had forgotten how to tally the score, though, and had to keep asking. Some of the penalty calls baffled me. And how had they converted without a conversion kick? I felt like someone who'd memorized some basic vocabulary and grammar, but still could not speak the language on the fly. More study needed, and perhaps another go at The Courting of Marcus Dupree, whose smothering, self-conscious writerliness, and Southern-ness, and preening racial rectitude, had had me gasping for air after 40 pages.

My boy got to play, though. He didn't play much, being small for his group, and a rookie — some of his teammates were playing their second or third year. Still he dodged and tackled very creditably on defense, against boys mostly larger than himself, and I am proud of him. I am not quite so proud of myself, my mental powers plainly having failed to penetrate very far into the mysteries of this colorful but esoteric game. There's a season to play yet, though, and after that many more, I hope. Understanding will come. At least we got the pads figured out. Go Bulldogs!