(Or, pretentious reflections before another NFL season)
What draws me to football is often the story, the narrative. There are overarching narratives: the Minnesota Vikings, a long storied history, always so close to transcendent glory, but always failing in tragic and comic fashion and falling just short. It is the narrative of a quest (will they ever finally reach the goal?) but it is also a narrative of tragedy (no, they cannot). And there is the narrative of a season for each team. All the little dramas, all the conflicts, all the events and plot. A team could be successful but for one tragic flaw, one weakness, one area of the game it performs poorly at. The drama may come from the team's repeated efforts to improve on (or cover up that weakness), or it may come from the team's repeated failures because of that weakness. Each season has a narrative, each franchise has a narrative, each game has a narrative, each player has a narrative. Many of the expected narratives have already been constructed for the 2008 season. "Tarvaris Jackson is the weak link on a Super Bowl contender: can he perform?" "How will the Patriots respond to a season that included 18 straight wins but one ultimate loss?" "Will Aaron Rodgers be able to replace a beloved legend?" These are the "stories" we'll follow, and we don't know how they'll end, but we know the dramatic issues the stories will be full of. We know the theme. Mostly it is a quest narrative, and it is also a plot with explicit conflict, explicit action. Each game is a clear moment, episode, event.
And there are the characters, characters in action. They are characters we come to "know," and we know them by their works. We assess them, judge them, interpret them, psychoanalyze them, root for them, root against them, we relate to them, we empathize with them, we become frustrated with them, we are annoyed by them--in short, we do the same things we might do to characters we encounter in fiction. There are villains and there are heroes (though we know that often it is we who choose which are the villains and which are the heroes). I can't say these characters are as familiar to me as those people I know in my life. But I can say they are as familiar to me as the characters I've come to know in novels I've read and enjoyed. Just read the names, and you'll find you "know" the character too. You've assessed the character and have an opinion of the character. Bill Belichick. Brett Favre. Terrell Owens. Brad Childress. Tom Brady. Randy Moss. Adrian Peterson. When you see the name, the character comes to you. The name itself means something to you that probably can't be paraphrased or easily articulated.
Every game and every season is something of a morality play, with the characters acting, with real events, with a driving plot, leading to a conclusion. Ah, the conclusion. In life there is no real conclusion but death. But in fiction, even if the ending is ambiguous, even if the ending is a cliff-hanger, even if we do not understand the ending, even if a writer like John Fowles decides that one ending isn't quite enough and we'll have more, the book still ends. There's always a last page. The author may decide to leave characters and readers hanging in an unresolved conclusion, but you still get to put the book away when it's finished. How often in life do you get to put anything away and call it finished? And that is where football is like a novel. We know that it will end. All the complexities and open-endedness and confusions of life may play out in the chaos of the line of scrimmage or the bouncing of an odd-shaped ball. But unlike real life, the game is going to end with a winner and a loser (in rare cases, a tie). Unlike real life, each season gives us teams with a record, division winners and playoff teams and those that aren't. There's something. I know that sometime in February 2009, I'm going to see a conclusion to this mad thing called an NFL season that's about to start. The season itself is full of open roads, potentials, possibilities, mysteries--anything might happen. But in February, one team will have done what it takes throughout the madness to emerge as the Super Bowl champion, to be the winner, to have come out as the hero of the narrative. Along the way there will be fading characters, emerging characters, and scapegoats. There will be emotional highs and lows. But the game will end with a winner, and the season will end with a winner. Sure, there's still a future, still a time for hope--it's not the last book you'll ever read. But there's a finality, an ultimate meaning that the season gives us.
And so it comes upon us. Another NFL season is about to start; a new book lies waiting to be opened. I have expectations of the book. I'll open it, and get a sense of the tone, find the narrative, follow the interesting characters and pay little attention to the uninteresting, take interest in the episodes that make up the plot, see patterns and themes and meaning. I'll be moved emotionally, and I'll develop ideas. Along the way I'll talk to people who are reading the same book, find their opinions on it, argue with them about it. I'll share my interpretations and theories, and I'll listen to theirs. I'll certainly laugh and smile and cheer and dance and feel a buoying euphoria. I'll also yell and get frustrated and sad, feeling weighed down by disappointment. I might cry, but I also might learn something. I'll carry the book with me when I'm not reading it, mulling it, letting it color my worldview and shape my mood. I'll think about it and long to return to it while I'm not reading.
And for me, at least, watching football and reading books are not just a minor hobby, an entertainment to pass the time. Reading books is not only a part of my career, but it is a part of my soul: what I read changes me, teaches me, moves me, provides my religious sensibilities, my morality, my philosophies, my hopes and aspirations. And watching football is something like that, no small part of life. Football takes my intellectual and emotional energy in big clumps (not to mention my time), but it also provides something--fun, joy, energy, passion. It will affect my thoughts and feelings for much of each week.
Football is the book I don't want to put down.
And now it starts again. I'm guessing, if you're not only watching the Vikings but bothering to visit a blog in August to read about the Vikings, that football means something big to you too. I'm not alone in anticipating not just the start of a professional sports league's season, but a shift in the rhythms of life. Schedules are altered. The devotion leads to a whole different way of thinking, of acting, of being. Some deep part of us is affected. Sports are not trivial--that which inspires real passion cannot be. And here it comes.
Are you ready?