The last time I played tackle football, I had just turned twenty-five. It was fall, near Election Day, and I met up with friends on a small turf field at a school in Brooklyn. Every so often over the years, we had collided on this little patch of green. It was there that I still felt like a kid bursting with energy, but with a modicum of power. I played, with deceptive fury, to win.
One friend of mine, who unlike me had actually played high school football, was a tough defender, well-schooled in the art of tackling I had only learned secondhand. We played softball together and perhaps because I was the superior player there, I would tell him he couldn’t tackle me. It was a jest, though infused with what I thought was a hard-earned truth; I was tough to tackle. The games were friendly, in the sense that none of us were looking to send each other to the hospital. We were a mix, as a lot of Brooklyn men are, of blue and white-collar, some us with college degrees, others long plunged into the workforce. The field was, at best, a third the size of an NFL gridiron, incentivizing quick passes, hard runs, and frequent clashes. Even the fastest of players only had so much room to work with. You were passing and catching in traffic, in limbs, the space closing up on you before you were ready to breathe. Once we had a quorum—five-on-five or six-on-six would do—the next couple of hours would be a glorious rush, a spilled canvass. I returned home sore and alive.
That day, I went out and caught a pass somewhere over the middle. It’s important to pause here and tell you I rarely played quarterback. Like most American boys, I had fantasies of dominating the position but I lacked the height and arm-strength to master it, to be one of those totems of the culture. At an early enough age, I learned that whatever skills I possessed would have to be channeled into running, catching, becoming the wide receiver bursting off the line of scrimmage. Was I great? No. Baseball was my first and truest love, tennis was where I trained, and handball was where I developed the most mastery. Football was something else. Somewhere along the way, I had decided I wanted to test myself there.
The only time I played tackle football in a real league, I was eight. I was short, pudgy, and condemned to the offensive and defensive lines. My father joked, watching the chaos of peewee football, that I was one of the “pushers.” Other boys threw and caught passes. On a boring day of practice, on a field of whirling dust, a punt smacked me in the face-mask. I remember, after the shock, being mildly thrilled to have such close contact with the ball.
Instead, my parents enrolled me in an organized flag league. These were just coming into vogue in Brooklyn in the 2000s. I want to say I went into them to avoid injury, but I was there mostly for the action. We all could catch and run. Without tackling, size differentials meant less. For four years in middle school, I played with great joy and abandon on a field near the Belt Parkway, wearing imitation NFL jerseys. One year, I was a New York Jet, which excited me because I was, at the time, devoted to the team. Another year, I was a Washington Redskin—the racist name had not yet been purged—and won a defensive player of the year trophy that still gathers dust in my childhood bedroom. The games, in my mind, still take on a certain mythic sweep, long struggles in the mud, deep passes against a cold blue sky, noses bloodied in the fourth quarter. I wasn’t a quarterback, and never would be, but I had one gift: hand-eye coordination. Throw me a ball close enough to my body and I’d snatch it out of the air. When I was younger, I’d let it get buried in my stomach, the wrong way, and gathered later on it was better to lead with the hands. I didn’t use gloves. That would come later.
The best players of those years stay with you. Not Manning or Elway or Favre, but those who bestrode your pocket universe, doing on a field what you never could. Johnny, a slick-haired, left-handed quarterback, so hard to wrangle in the backfield, twisting away from defenders to fling a tight spiral to the end zone. Big Angelo and Carl—Carl, the quarterback, always finding Angelo crashing through the defense, first down. Where they are now, I have no idea. I can only say that I remember them.
In high school, I moved on, playing one final year for the Dolphins when I was in the tenth grade. We reached the finals and lost to the Steelers. I played center then, the team too athletic for my services anywhere else, though the league did allow linemen to occasionally catch passes. I remember, on a trick play, scampering to the end zone.
What is it about football? Baseball, to me, is the finest sport invented, but it long ago lost its status as any kind of national past time. The Super Bowl is the last mass event we have. Regular season games are still, in the context of a diminished cable environment, ratings juggernauts. The NFL makes more money than any other major American sport. It is easy enough to be a fan with only sixteen regular season games, all the anticipation gathered and bottled up for mad release on Sunday. The little clash of civilizations. It works so well for television, for gamblers, for the viewer just lolling through with a beer. The violence, even sans context, is compelling to its many viewers. For those who care, there is inordinate strategy. The 3-4 versus the 4-3, the 46, nickel versus dime, the shotgun, the I-formation. Unlike baseball, a football game can be meticulously planned. Coaches are generals, gurus, figures of cartoonish heft when they are victorious. Football highlights are run in slow-motion, orchestral music swelling in the background. There, in technicolor, life is lived in full.
I want to say, like a conscientious citizen, my interest in football diminished as the truth of the sport came to light. There are few Americans now who don’t understand how brutal life after the NFL can be. Former players endure crippling physical pain, dementia, and can succumb to suicide. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is the inheritance of enough time spent on a football field in competitive play. I am haunted by the words of one of the more compelling players of my youth, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antwaan Randle El, who told a newspaper he could barely walk down the stairs at age thirty-six.
“I ask my wife things over and over again, and she’s like, ‘I just told you that,’ ” he said. “I’ll ask her three times the night before and get up in the morning and forget. Stuff like that. I try to chalk it up as I’m busy, I’m doing a lot, but I have to be on my knees praying about it, asking God to allow me to not have these issues and live a long life. I want to see my kids raised up. I want to see my grandkids.”
Randle El said he regretted playing in the NFL, despite winning a Super Bowl.
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t,” he said. “I would play baseball. I got drafted by the Cubs in the 14th round, but I didn’t play baseball because of my parents. They made me go to school. Don’t get me wrong, I love the game of football. But, right now, I could still be playing baseball.”
Embracing the NFL comes with a sort of double consciousness. You know the sport cannot keep the players safe, not in any serious sense, but it’s a compelling game and the players there are paid millions while risking their bodies. I want to say I stopped following the NFL in the 2010s because I decided I couldn’t give my time or money to such a cruel enterprise anymore. But that’s not the whole truth. I had tuned out because the Jets, after the Rex Ryan years, stopped winning and I was too busy with young adulthood. I didn’t have the residual energy to throw myself into a fantasy football season either. The NFL just didn’t matter to me anymore. Chad Pennington, my favorite player in my teen years, was long gone and I was gone with him.
But there were the pick-up games. I can’t remember how they started, only that I found them through softball friends and we’d meet up in the fall and winter, on occasional Saturdays and Sundays, to have it out. I wanted to catch as many passes as I could and pit myself, in some atavistic way, against others. We were all of relatively similar sizes and strengths, no one guy too enormous or gifted to ruin the rest of us. It all worked.
On that day shortly after turning twenty-five, I caught a pass. My friend, the former high school football player, came in to tackle me. It was a clean hit, from the side, and as we fell he rolled on my ankle or I buckled underfoot and the pain tore through me. I knew immediately something was wrong. The pain was sharp, immediate, menacing. The guys gathered around me. Could I walk? Was it broken? I didn’t know. I was helped up and I limped off to the sidelines, leaning against a fence. Against all logic, I wanted to keep playing. The stakes were nonexistent but it was a Sunday and I wanted back in. My foot, of course, wouldn’t let me. The guys told me, wisely, to get it checked out. As the pain increased, I feared I had broken it. Ankle or foot. Placing pressure on the foot was impossible.
I drove to my parents’ apartment instead of my own. They had ice. We decided to go to the emergency room. After waiting through an X-Ray, I was told, with great relief, it was merely a terrible sprain, not a break. I had never been on crutches before.
The next day, I went to work at the New York Observer. Our offices were in Midtown and I was in no shape to ride the subway. Instead I drove, out from my apartment in Sheepshead Bay, paying gross amounts of money to stash my car in a garage near the West 44th street office. I sheepishly explained to my colleagues it was a football injury. A football injury, really?
My recovery was strange. Amazingly, I only needed the crutches for one day. This was a blessing because I had only the dimmest idea of how to navigate myself on them and pressing down my bodyweight bothered my hands. On Election Night, I was able to hobble out of a taxi cab to cover Andrew Cuomo’s party at the Sheraton in Midtown. I could walk, with only lingering pain.
Days later, I would try to run. It didn’t work. Excess pressure was too much for my foot. In a fall softball league, I was on a team that had reached the playoffs and I became, overnight, the player who needed the courtesy runner at first base. I could barely get there. In the championship series, I insisted on playing the outfield, displacing a weaker player, and promptly failed to corral a fly ball. We’d go on to lose.
My foot didn’t seem to heal much as the weeks went by. I wanted to play handball and couldn’t. I wanted to go to the gym and couldn’t. My plight was minimal, as plights go, but I realized slowly these painful weeks would become painful months. Walking was a chore. This was my winter, my spring. Like that, I never played tackle football again.
I miss the camaraderie of that era, showing up at the park, tossing the football around. My foot and ankle are long healed. I was fine, mostly, by the summer of the following year. I kept playing softball, and still do. Football, though, was another matter. I couldn’t bring myself to go back. There was the memory of the injury and the feeling that, maybe, I was playing on borrowed time if I kept showing up at the little turf field. The next sprain would be a break. A sharp elbow or knee would find my skull. Like Randle El, perhaps, I’d regret all of it.
Flag football continued elsewhere, a Thanksgiving tradition that withered with the pandemic. But I’d like to get back out there. Do you know what it’s like to catch a deep pass thrown just past the cornerback, your eyes straight up at the sky, the ball falling into your outstretched fingertips as you run full tilt? There is that moment you aren’t sure the ball is yours, that it’ll pop off your hands and hit the grass. And then, like a miracle, it secures itself and you can look down again, at the open field in front of you. In your head, there is a voice marking down where you are and where you’re going, the thirty, the twenty, the ten, touchdown.