My Son, My Father, Football and the Hard Condition of the World

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Passing and catching overcome the world,
The hard condition of the world, they do
Human intention honor in the world.

On Sunday, David and I went to our first NFL game together.  Back in May, momentarily flush with a payout from a particularly generous freelance client, I bought my son the birthday present he wanted more than any other: tickets to see his beloved Los Angeles Rams.  I chose the game against the defending Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  If I was to spend an entire two week’s pay on a single afternoon, it might as well offer my son the chance to see not only his own team, but the ageless, maddening genius that is Tom Brady.

I grew up with a father who cared nothing for American sports.  My English daddy was fond of cricket, a game he’d played at the club level when a graduate student at Berkeley. (He remembered that endeavor fondly: all these sons of the Commonwealth – Kiwis, Trinidadians, Pakistanis, Englishmen – finding the familiar in the cool Bay Area fog.)  Papa gave his sons many wonderful things, but a vocabulary for talking with other American boys was not one of them.

Hugo is seven, a second grader on the playground with the other boys. They are talking about basketball, calling out names for themselves. “I’m Rick Barry!” “I’m Kareem!” “I’m Bob Lanier!” I don’t know anything about basketball, so my only choice is to either shout a name already called out, or make one up.

I make one up. “I’m John Apple!” It’s far enough away from Johnny Appleseed, and it seems a good gamble: you take a common name and a common fruit — some player somewhere has to have it, I mean, right? — And at first, the boys listen bewildered and then the derision rains down like a volley of half-court shots.

“You’re so stupid, there’s no such player.”

I run off. I am called Johnny Appleshit until middle school.

I made sure that never happened again.  We had no TV at home until I was 11, but we had a radio and mama took the newspaper.  Growing up on the fringes of the Bay Area media market, I listen to broadcasts of 49er, Giants, and Warriors games.  I read the sports section every day.

I read the recaps, and study the statistics. I may have never watched a full baseball game, but I can tell you about Vida Blue’s earned run average and Rod Carew’s on-base percentage. I know what OJ Simpson averages per carry.

I’m not sure why those numbers matter, but that’s not the point. The point is that these names and numbers are keys, keys that unlock the gates to Boy Land. I am still a dreadful athlete (unless the task involves running fast and far), but I can talk with the boys at recess, ask the right questions, take part in the tiresome, repetitive debates about who’s best or who might win. Tiresome and repetitive, sure, but who cares what we’re talking about? I want to be in and this gets me in.

I do not have favorite players. I don’t have favorite teams. I tell people I like the A’s and the Raiders because they’re nearby and they’re very good; in the mid-1970s, all three Oakland teams (including the Golden State Warriors) win titles. It is a good time to have East Bay allegiances.

Deep down, I don’t care. I have no more loyalty to the local teams than to clubs from New York or Texas. I care only about the closeness a knowledge of sports can bring, not the games themselves.

Almost fifty years later, I am a Rams fan.  I am a Rams fan because my son is a Rams fan, having picked them the moment they moved back to Los Angeles from St. Louis, when he was only four.  He didn’t start loving the team because his daddy did; his daddy started following them because his little boy had found a passion. I grew up loving Bay Area franchises, but I can slough off past allegiances with greater ease than most.  I’m an L.A. fellow now, mostly because I am raising L.A. children, and it would be a terrible missed opportunity not to bond with one’s bunnies over the waxing and waning of hometown fortunes.

Perhaps I am only doing for my son what my father could not do for me. 

So, in any event, here we are, in the highest row at SoFi Stadium, the stunning, brand-new five-billion-dollar arena built to showcase the Rams. The seats are nosebleeds, as the saying goes – but on the 50-yard line.  The Schwyzer boys will have a splendid view.

Los Angeles is not Boston, or Chicago.  So many who live here have allegiances to elsewheres – and so, the stadium fills with a very large number of Tampa Bay fans, most wearing Tom Brady jerseys.  We, the Rams faithful, outnumber them perhaps 2-1 – but that still means that there will be 25,000 chanting and cheering for the other side. 

Two large men in Buccaneer red sit right in front of us, and because it matters, I find a way to strike up a conversation in the moments before kickoff.  I want to show David a rule about how men talk about sports, though I think he already knows it instinctively.  I downplay our team’s chances, praise Brady and his teammates; the Tampa Bay supporters do the same in turn.  We wish each other the absolute best of luck, and then return to conversation with our seatmates.

I wonder if my son sees through me – how transparent I am in wanting to emphasize that every moment is an opportunity for temporary camaraderie, or at least, good cheer.  But there’s more to it than that; I know how sports (mixed with alcohol, which flows freely) can rouse darker emotions. The easy pre-kickoff bonhomie between supporters of rival teams can turn ugly with a few bad calls or disappointments, and I am making a strategic investment, just in case:  I’m here with a little boy, and we’re all just a happy group of football-loving fellas, right?  Remember that.

The game is not a classic, but it is very good – especially for the Rams.  After a nervous start, our quarterback, Stafford, settles into a groove, and begins to find my son’s favorite player in the league, wide receiver Cooper Kupp. David got a Kupp jersey last Christmas, and it is a prized possession; my son is wearing it. Stafford and Kupp connect again and again; first one touchdown pass, then another.  My son and I dance and embrace and high-five other Rams fans.

(I do not judge my son’s affections, but I do note that Kupp is a rarity in the NFL – a world-class wide receiver who happens to be white. I choose to believe that has nothing to do with my boy’s devotion, but in our race-conscious era, surely someone has grumbled that this handsome blonde kid from Yakima, as talented as he is, is getting more attention than he deserves.)

(Cooper Kupp)

“You’re picking us apart,” says the Tampa Bay supporter whom I chatted with earlier. His face is as scarlet as his jersey, and he’s on his third can of Modelo, but I sense his disappointment seems tame, unlikely to spiral. 

“You still have Tom and Gronk,” I reassure him, naming Brady and his favorite receiver.  “There’s a lot of time.”

Minutes later, Gronk takes a terrific hit, and stays down.  We cheer the incomplete pass, and whoop at the intensity with which the linebacker laid low his man – and then applaud when the battered Buc rises to his feet and totters to the sidelines.   I whisper in David’s ear.  “We always want to win, but we never take pleasure in seeing anyone hurt.”

Time is not on Tampa’s side. In front of the delirious majority in blue and gold - and a son who has completely lost it, declaring this the best day of his life -- the Rams pull away for a 34-24 victory. 

(A most exuberant boy at the very top row of the stadium.)

It takes 30 minutes to get from our seats to the shuttle bus that will take us back to the metro station where I’ve left the car. My son bounces and chortles, high-fiving everyone he can.  In line for the bus, two men in front of us turn introduce themselves; one is my age, and the other is pushing 80.  They both wear faded Rams jerseys emblazoned with names like Vince Ferragamo and Jack Youngblood, stars of a bygone era.  They are father and son, and the older man tells David he started taking his own boy to Rams games half a century ago.  “It was hard when they were gone,” the younger man says, referring to the team’s two-decade Babylonian Exile in St Louis; “I didn’t think I’d live to see them come home,” says his father.  “And now, we have all this.”  He gestures to the magnificent stadium.

I pull my son close to me.

As we wait for the bus, two much younger men behind us, beers in hand, good-naturedly taunt passing Tampa Bay fans.  One waves to the east. “Walking back to Florida?  It’s that way!” 

The Bucs fans give it back mildly: “You won today, but wait until we’re healthy.  Don’t get cocky.”

There is more back-and-forth, all of it tame.  I whisper in David’s ear that as long as everything stays friendly, this kind of teasing is perfectly acceptable.  “As long as you’re smiling, and they’re smiling, it’s okay!  This is just having fun.”

I wish we lived in a world where political differences were as easily reconciled.  I know that politics is more than a football game, and that it’s foolish to wish that the gulf between those who vote “red” and those who vote “blue” was no more intense than that between blue-clad Rams and red-drenched Bucs.  I wish we could boo the other side, cheer for our own, and still believe that the other team played by the same rules, shared the same ambitions and anxieties.  I know that’s how I want to see politics, and I know that that viewpoint rests at the sad little intersection of naïveté and privilege.

I know too that fathers can have conversations with their children that have nothing to do with sports. My father taught me about music, about geography, about love and kindness.  I am not as wise as my papa, nor as successful, nor as stable – but I have stories to tell, and kindness to share.  With Heloise, we talk about music and we talk about fashion and we talk about family history; with my son, for now, we talk about the Rams, the Clippers, the Dodgers and the Galaxy.  Sports gives us a trailhead into a refuge from mundanity, a world where something of interest is always happening, an escape from incapacitating anxieties and numbing, repetitive duties. 

My betters will sneer that if sports are that important to us, then we have an impoverished capacity for intimacy, and a diminished imagination to boot.  Perhaps they are right. I lived for a long time in a world where I was paid to have ideas and share them; sports were less important when I lectured than they are now, when I stock shelves. Passing and catching overcome the hard condition of the world, and with conditions so much harder than they were, passing and catching matter so much more.

I began this piece with a line from a Howard Nemerov poem about football.  I’ll close with one as well.  Long after I am gone, my son will remember – I hope – that his daddy watched games with him, and found a way to take him to a few.  He might remember that I encouraged his joy, joined in his disappointments, and tried to use this shared passion to teach something about courage, kindness, civility and grace.  The poet writes:

They have the stories of the tribe, the plays
And instant replays many times replayed.
But even fame will tire of its fame,
And immortality itself will fall asleep.
It’s taken many years, but yet in time,
To old men crouched before the ikon’s changes,
Changes become reminders, all the games
Are blended in one vast remembered game

Perhaps David will remember the day Tom Brady fell before our defense; he may remember the greasy pizza and the crowded bus we rode. Or he may confuse it with another game, another day, another triumph or another heartbreak, a day with hot dogs instead.  Sooner or later, all the particularities fade, and it is all just one vast barely remembered game, with the only remaining certainty being love.