“Everything you look at can become a fairy tale and you can get a story from everything you touch.”
— Hans Christian Andersen
In a month, the National Football League training camps will open, and I will imagine wide-eyed fans crawling onto the laps of storytellers to hear the old tales animated by new names.
This year, as always, players once deemed too slow, too small or too inexperienced will emerge as too determined to be denied. This year, as always, can’t-miss prospects, winners of what a Connecticut barber once called the genetic lotto, will fail to cash in on their talents. And this year, as always, players and fans hope their season will end with their index fingers in the air, proclaiming to the world, “We’re No. 1.”
This year, curses will be lifted. The chosen will lead their teams toward the promised land. Curses will also endure and fans, spurred by the mouse-click mob of social media, will exile players and teams who disappoint them to Palookaville.
This year, as always, to get ready for some football, fans and the sports media must get ready for the ways the crosscurrents of our roiling society flow through the game. Stark questions will be posed anew: How much will the players, largely African-American, be able to freely express themselves in celebration or in protest? Which transgressions will be shrugged off or punished? Who will be banished from the games? And which prodigals will be welcomed back to the playing fields, just so long as they can play at high levels?
NFL football, the nation’s defining pastime, brutal and unforgiving, is a serious game based upon acquiring turf and defending it with blood, sweat and tears.
And no matter how productive, respected and celebrated they have been, the players are expendable and disposable, just like most other American workers. All of them. All the time. Sid Luckman to Peyton Manning.
The NFL, with its long-term contracts not fully guaranteed, is the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, a game where few players control their futures. The games grind the players to dust. And too many players throw what’s left of their spent selves to the wind.
It’s as if they sing lines from “Going Down Slow,” a blues song whose lyrics change depending upon who sings it, though the meaning remains the same. It’s a song of rueful dissipation: I have had my fun if I never get well no more/All of my health is failing/Lord, I’m going down slow.
But none of that matters to those who love the game. The magic moments matter, the great catches, the exhilarating runs and the game-saving tackles. The roar of the adoring crowds matter. And, more than anything, the championships matter.
In each era, star players move through space in signature ways: Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown, Joe Montana and Barry Sanders, Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson. When the players move, the fans ride with them, spiraling through the air as if perched on one of Warren Moon’s pretty passes.
As always, as we look to the opening of training camps, the NFL football world turns on an axis of expectation. Anything can happen.
With a championship to win or defend, players begin each season as potential heroes in a modern fairy tale. But only the Super Bowl winners get to live happily ever after, at least until the next season.
Are you and your index fingers ready?