I haven't always liked football. In that dim, foggy haze I like to refer to as "the Before Time," I used to even avoid football. Football to me was much like an alien abduction -- any encounter with it was sure to bring disorientation, a little fear, and some faint discomfort, usually when sitting down. I would watch, bemused, as couches full of people who understood the sport would focus intently on the television. Without warning, and seemingly at random, they would spring up and give howls of victory or spew strings of really bad words. In what may or may not have been related acts, they would sometimes crush beer cans against their foreheads. When I looked at the television screen, all I saw was a lot of little people, mostly just standing about aimlessly. Periodically, on some cue, all the little people would gather in formation, break and run around the field in circles, then fall down. More cheering, from my father. More vile and improbable curses and beer can crushing, from my mother.
"Uh, what just happened?" I would ask every so often.
"Those *#&$%^ just #$*& the *$^^!" Mother would answer.
My father, who has a degree in psychology and is a learned man, would try to explain. "You see, each team must make a down. They have four downs to make a first down. If you don't make a first down by the third down, you have to kick on the fourth down and it becomes the other team's first down."
"*$%!" my mother would supply helpfully.
*$% indeed. If my mother learned about football from my dad, that's probably the best way to sum things up. He and I had that same conversation all throughout my childhood. Apparently he didn't want to progress any further into game mechanics until I understood that first key concept. I could not for the life of me figure out what a 'down' was, unless it was, like "*$%," a word you could substitute for any noun or verb.
"That *#&$%^ just #$*& the *$^ again!" Mom would shout.
"Oh," I said, trying to look knowledgeable. "You mean he downed the down?"
"Exactly!" my father would say, looking pleased.
I gave up.
Everything changed once I met my husband, John, however. During our courting, he confessed to me guiltily that he liked to watch football. "Okay," I said.
"A lot," he said.
"I'll get a recycle bin for the crushed cans," I said.
At first things seemed much the same. The little men still ran around in circles and fell down. While John did not do quite so much of the beer and the can crushing, he is ex-military, so the shouting and cursing was a spectator sport in and of itself. "He just *#^% the *%^ and now it's the &$*%^'s down!"
"Uh huh," I nodded.
Pause. "Do you know the rules?"
Here I cringed, but over the course of several weekends John slowly explained the rules of football to me. Without using the word "down". Or even "&$%^." Slowly over that first season of football -- the first season that I ever remotely understood -- he painted a picture for me, not of teams racking up points in a repetitious march toward the Superbowl, but of Men With Plans, brave athletes who wrestled with inexperience or age to do their best, cunning coaches who studied each other and worked with what they had despite interference from meddling owners. We cheered for any team that played against the Raiders, because we hated Al Davis, the evil ogre who benched Hall of Fame hopeful Marcus Allen for two full years out of pettiness, so that he never had a fair chance to make it in. We cheered when Marcus Allen finally made it into the Hall of Fame this year (as a Chief, instead of a Raider). We watch the Atlanta Falcons because of Dan Reeves, who has been dear to my husband's heart since he coached the Denver Broncos. Football was no longer a bunch of men in tight pants falling on each other, but an epic drama, fraught with long history and intrigue, where the outcome was always uncertain. (Except for the Cincinnati Bengals, whose losing streaks are right up there with death and taxes for sure-fire things.)
You may notice that I say "we" a lot. "We" like Ditka. "We" think Terrell Owens was a little punk for signing a football and giving it to his financial advisor. One final thing had to happen in my evolution towards becoming A Woman Who Likes Football. And it happened one Sunday during a pre-game show.
Normal football players run gracefully, purposefully, powerfully, arms and legs pumping like finely tuned machines. But there on the screen I was treated to a medley of images of an enormous, scary man with popping eyes, tearing up the field with arms high in traditional "monster" position, leaping on players who would then disappear completely underneath him. You could almost hear the high pitched screams, followed by bones cracking and muffled protests. I was suddenly stricken with the thought that you'd have to pay me multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, too, if I had that guy chasing me with intent to squish. I had discovered Warren Sapp, and with him, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They became "my" team, the one I liked to watch play because the players appealed to me, not to "us." They were "my boys." I had formed my first independent football opinion. I had officially become a Woman Who Likes Football, though I suppose you could argue the point that I was mostly just a Woman Who Liked To Watch Sapp Crush People. I could now go into any sports bar and shout "&*#%^!" with the rest of them, whiling away long, pointless hours as an armchair coach with the rest of the Guys. And thanks to my mother's tutelage, I could even crush beer cans against my forehead without lapses in consciousness.
Being a Woman Who Likes Football is not as easy as being a Guy Who Likes Football, however, because there are hidden pitfalls your Guy friends do not understand. We watch every televised Raider game on principal, just to root against Al Davis. Saying that in print is most likely going to get my tires slashed, so for personal safety I should probably say that I have a lot of respect for the team itself -- they're smart, they're tough and half the fun of watching a Raiders game is seeing if opposing players can measure up to the standards the Black and Grey set. They were a brutal learning tool last year for Pennington -- the sweet, wholesome young quarterback of the Jets, who played an outstanding first year and then got devoured alive by the Raiders' defensive line in the playoffs. The other half of the fun is still talking smack about Al Davis, though. Or at least it would have been if I were a Guy.
Guy One: "What do you mean you don't like the Raiders? Gannon is one of the best quarterbacks in the league!"
Guy Two: "They're a buncha thugs, all of em. Just like Al Davis."
Me: "Yeah, and Gruden is evil. You can see him pacing the sidelines, snarling and cursing ... like some of caged beast ... kind of pouting a little ..."
Guy One (switching topics with amazing swiftness): "Think it'll be the Lakers and the Kings in the NBA playoffs this year?"
Guy Two: "The Kings are a buncha thugs, all of em!"
There, it's out. My horrible secret. The terrible downfall of being a Woman Who Likes Football -- getting the hots for the enemy's coach. While my husband rooted for the Raiders to lose so he could imagine Al Davis getting ulcers, I rooted for them to lose because their coach Jon Gruden looks sexy when he snarls. Imagine the conflict of feelings. Imagine also, the reaction when I heard through the sports grapevine that Davis and Gruden were having differences of opinion. Jon Gruden, I became convinced, was not evil at heart. Well, not much, anyway. He was just trapped under Al Davis's sinister enchantments. And all he needed was a frog prince (in the form of Buccaneer's owner Malcolm Glazer, who looks the part) to whisk him away so that he could be a knight in shining armor, leading the forces of Good on the path to glory. (Okay, there have been some accusations that Sapp may or may not have purposely stuck his thumb in someone's eye at least once, but I have no doubt that Gruden threatens to deep pit barbeque any players who don't perform to standards, too. Good and evil are highly relative terms in football.)
Yes, in a series of events that cemented a place for football in my heart forever, Glazer whisked Jon Gruden away from the Raiders and took him to Florida. There, Gruden seemed to provide that final finishing touch on the solid foundation of excellence that dear Tony Dungee, the previous coach, laid. Dungee was a brilliant defensive coach and well loved, but could not inspire that last little effort from the team to get them to the Superbowl. I suspect that Gruden's extensive background in torture and mutilation was responsible for last year's performance, wherein the Buccs went all the way to the Superbowl. There, just in case you were in a coma last year and missed it -- the Buccs battled ... the Raiders!
Sure, the Superbowl last year was about two excellent teams testing their skills against one another. But to me, last year's Superbowl was my hero, the ravishing Jon Gruden (watch out -- he bites!), versus that vile enslaver of good players: the evil, team movin' Al Vader. Uh, Davis. Sure, like any football fan, I enjoyed the strategies -- Sapp was brought in for offensive plays as well as his usual defensive position, and if anyone knew the strengths and strategies of the Raiders, it was Gruden. I speculated with lots of other Guy football aficionados about how tough it must be for the Raiders, given that both Jon Gruden and Al Davis knew where their families lived. But unlike anyone else I knew, I was also aflutter with the fact that the Florida sun had brought out freckles on Gruden's face and that sometimes -- just sometimes -- since moving to Tampa Bay, Jon Gruden smiles.
It was a classic fairy tale, with a classic ending. Tampa Bay defeated Oakland, Sapp paraded around with Al Davis's head, the Raiders were liberated from his tyranny so we could like them again, and somebody kissed Glazer to turn him from frog to prince. Well, it should have happened that way. Davis still rules from his evil lair and Glazer still catches flies with his tongue, but the Buccs did win the Superbowl. And the Woman Who Likes Football had a happy ending, too. The Guys I talk football with are getting used to the occasional quirk in my point of view, so much so that they're looking out for me. They recently brought me a tidbit of sports gossip that will keep me glued to my set all season long: Jon Gruden vowed that if the Buccs make it to the Superbowl again this year, he will go to the busiest street in Tampa and dance in his unmentionables.
Somebody drink some beer so I can get to can crushing! It's going to be another edge-of-the-seat year for a Woman Who Likes Football.
This article first appeared in the Manteca Bulletin, Manteca, CA.
Originally appeared in the Piker Press on 2003-08-25.