“How did the ref not call pass inference? He practically punched him in the face!” The once-alien words tumbled from my mouth as I screamed into the roaring night air, surrounded by 90,000 people who were howling the same thing.
For three years, my autumns were laid at the altar of American football. Despite having had little to no interest in the sport for most of my life, I had been in the thick of it as a member of a Division I college program’s marching band. I went to every home game and a smattering of away games too: I boarded planes, played parades, and cheered and cried with every twist and turn of the turbulent season, all in the name of a little brown ball and the human giants who battled to control it. When my senior season ended, I cried, and then I kept watching football, both collegiate and professional, though I was no longer directly part of its world.
Where I grew up, football was a thing of heightened reverence, a universal water cooler topic and a touchstone of our high school sports programs even though it was far from the most successful one. I was a concert band kid, but a lot of my friends (OK, just about all of them) were in marching band, trailing our team from field to field.
Though I didn’t like the self-congratulatory spectacle of pep rallies and overblown rivalries, I wanted very badly to be a part of the kind of camaraderie that blooms out of pressure cooker routines. My friends would share stories of bus rides from hell, playing in the rain, and of course, the obligatory band camp escapades. I lapped it up and promised myself that even if I ended up going to a school without a stellar football program, I’d join whatever marching ensemble it had.
I would eventually get my wish and then some, but at the very beginning, my feelings about the band and the game were totally divorced. After having a very confusing freshman year, including only a handful of trips to our school’s football stadium, I went to my first band camp a week before school started. I was out of shape, boiling in the dry 90 degree heat, learning an instrument from scratch, and teaching myself all of the music by ear. Every evening ended in dirt and grass and streaky sunscreen going down the shower drain, and every morning meant a new series of aches from the top of my burnt scalp to the soles of my blistering feet.
During that first week of unending pain, various football players and coaches would come talk to us about the upcoming season. I rarely understood anything in those early sessions, but I did feel bad for comparing my struggles to the grueling regimens the team, and really any collegiate athlete, goes through.
Then, I realized that I’d have to keep up my progress while concurrently attending school. I’d probably have to miss some school in order to keep up with the season’s schedule. And then it really hit me: this was all attached to some other thing, which I knew next to nothing about, but which was going to take place in front of who knows how many people at our first home game. I was about to leap into the heart of a volcano.
The afternoon of our first “jock rally,” which take place the day before a home game, I had my first close-up interaction with the players. They loomed over my petite frame and walked with lumbering steps, belying the speed and agility they’d display on the field. Our quarterback, whom I’d seen in action before, was a caricature of the good ole All-American man. The event was a spirited rousing session, but I felt like I was playing along, relaying words and phrases that didn’t quite mean anything to me.
It’s difficult to describe exactly what it felt like going into that first home game, but the first thing that hit me was the noise. Our football stadium is named after an ancient Roman amphitheater, and even during the team warm-ups, the place was awash in constant bursts of sound: our drum major tweeting out commands; punters grunting as they practiced kicks; catcalls and invectives hurled toward the field from the visiting team’s fans.
I was sweating through my uniform, hair plastered into and entangled with the guts of my helmet. My instrument was heavy in my hands, and doubt and dismay pooled in my gut. What was I doing here, in this facsimile of the American heartland? Who was I fooling? I could still barely play a note, still had very little idea of what happened on the field, and all around me were fans, people who not only understood the game but lived and breathed it. It was all enough to make a person give up, to trade a spot on the sideline for a seat in the nosebleeds.
But then the drum major signaled the band, I stepped onto the field for our pre-game show, and I began to understand.
On the surface, marching band and football are connected only by the fact that they are two sides of the same coin, two cultures celebrating the same weekly weekend holidays. But while the physiological and sociological makeups of both groups are different, what connects them are the strategies, the rituals, and the internal focus against the face of millions of external stimuli as they strive to perform. I lost myself in the band every time I donned my uniform, and then regained my voice cheering on our team. Though the experience hasn’t been the same since I left school, I still follow football, albeit not nearly as closely as I used to.
The sport is not at all a perfect thing, especially in its professional-level incarnation, the NFL. Between the way it underpays its female cheerleaders, underplays the health risks associated with the game, and continually fumbles when it comes to meting out penalties for players accused of sexual assault and sexual abuse, football the business, even when things are going “well,” is dangerous.
These issues aren’t tied to football specifically, but they rightly color the joy of the game itself, the clockwork set in motion with the snap. That’s no excuse to ignore them, but I understand why it’s tempting to push that all aside and insist that you’re here for the drama, the clash of personalities and bodies on the gridiron.
It’s amazing, the feeling when you connect with something bigger, and there are few things bigger than football in America. It’s easy to get swept up in the movement, in the moment it happens, but it’s good, even necessary, to keep a part of you out of the field, and then once the game ends, to step away to the sidelines and leave the torn-up turf behind.
(Image via Shutterstock)