It was an easygoing, unassuming late-summer Saturday in Rhode Island. I had completed my weekend house-husband chores (saving the stinky litter boxes for last, as usual), then prepared for a long, languid afternoon of relaxation on the patio. I contemplated the birdfeeder, turning out a few chamber-couplets about finches into a Moleskine. Finally, I switched to the French pop station on the XM radio and tucked into a long novel about cowboys.
Then, far behind me in the house, the phone started ringing. Then again. Custom ringtones in quick-cut edits, like a 20-second rotation from a mad deejay on a scratchy AM radio station.
I couldn't ignore it for long, and retrieved the phone from the kitchen table. There were text messages too.OMG app stateMid-majority football baby!! 34-32i know u don't like fb but appst just beat MICHIGAN
In the 48 hours that followed, I returned a lot of those calls and texts. It was the most incredible upset they'd ever seen in any sport, this was bigger than George Mason. There was a lot of "where were you when?" involved, people who'd never forget where they were when they heard the final score. One basketball head coach I talked to, who will remain nameless, cried real tears when recalling the final plays.
I figured I had to see this for myself. The Big Ten Network, a new television channel with 24 hours to fill and only 11 teams to do it with, broadcast replays of the Appalachian State-Michigan game numerous times, well into the working week. I set the TiVo to record one of the encores, and on Monday evening settled in to watch what had been described to me as Weber State over Carolina, Valpo over Ole Miss and Northwestern State over Iowa all rolled into one.
The last thing I remember was Michigan scoring on its opening drive. The next thing I knew, the clock read 3:30 am, and Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley were on the television.
Alright, I thought, I must have been really worn out and just didn't know it. I tried again Tuesday, starting the show in the late afternoon. I got as far as App-State's return serve to tie the game, but soon was out cold once again. This wasn't going to work, no matter what, and I gave up.
Football didn't design itself so that there's extended breaks between plays, time that can be used for beer retrieval, web surfing, general buddying around or -- in my case -- for heavy eyelids to succumb to gravity's spell. It didn't choose to design itself so that entire three-hour games can be distilled into half-hour cubes on the NFL Network, tight packages that don't have to skip any plays whatsoever. It's not football's fault that screen burn-in is always an issue, what with all the reverse headshots featuring backs of helmets and jersey nameplates. It's not going out of its way to be boring.
But, for better or worse, football is our national game now. Too bad that it's what future civilizations are going to laugh at us for. Forget paint drying (oxidation is way cool), American football is about as boring as reading something, written by someone you've never met, about watching TV.
That won't stop football fans from taking their sport deathly seriously, however. The failure of the XFL (which I thought was totally hilarious, especially after a few beers) showed conclusively how little of a sense of humor most people have about this sport. And that's helped to define us as a sporting nation, in a world where many people see spectator sports as their only outlet for pure, unbridled joy.
Football, to me, is an excuse to neglect your family on the weekends, as a buffer to sustain dead marriages. Football is popular for two reasons: a.) people like violence (at least the kind that doesn't involve you), and b.) most American men need something, anything, to talk to their friends about. If it wasn't for football, one might actually have to spend quality time with his wife.
So they watch football. And the media coverage of football. Football is a game that has become 15 percent sport and 85 percent extraneous matter. The reports from training camp, the player profiles drawn in heroic bas-relief, the ex-players debating concepts like "knowing how to win." Indeed, the football broadcast in 2007 has become the final evolution of the spambox, padded with balding cures, penis pills, dangerous financial offers, and tits. And like spam, it's all very difficult to filter out.
Living without football is nearly impossible for a consciously-objecting sports fan. Reading the newspaper helps -- you can skip pages and fold them back so you don't have to see them. Carefully monitoring RSS feed settings is somewhat effective, but something always leaks through... on the sports web, speaking football is as common as speaking English.
But television? Forget it. SportsCenter is out, with its slick nightly presentations of slow-motion gladiatorial combat set to Carl Orff's scenic cantatas. ESPNews requires a brain glaze that only operates at the top and bottom of each hour. Even ESPN-U, with its constant replays during the week, can get dicey. Better to just leave the TV off until hoops season starts.
Which it has. And last night, while settling in on that same couch, the phone started flickering again.
"I know, I'm watching it too. Gotta go."
A ragtag team in red and black, wearing jerseys appearing to come from Adidas' remainder store, was playing in one of college basketball's most holy cathedrals, overcoming a program with more history and arrogance and entitlement than you could fit in 10,000 "Big Houses." This had nothing to do with athleticism or skill. They used the old-fashioned tools of a thousand underdogs before them: defiance, the inability to feel intimidated, and attacks from around and behind the enemy flank.
It was a viewing experience enhanced by my own personal perspective. Two seasons ago, I drove out to Boiling Springs, N.C. to see the Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs for myself. Traversing a seemingly endless series of thin, twisting roads in the inky 7:00 p.m. blackness of Standard Time, out of cellphone range, I wondered if I was helplessly lost. I finally found the gym, but I wasn't late: the officials hadn't made it out yet, presumably because they had become lost too.
Campbell easily handled the home team that night. Afterwards, in the hall, I watched as the kindly old bushy-haired head coach, who wears an expression that could only be described as "perpetually startled," was upbraided by his athletic director for not coming up with big wins. That's what I ended up writing about.
I wonder what that A.D. is thinking today.
Last night was GWU's finest hour
, and we were all awake for it. (Those of us with ESPN-U, anyway.) The action flowed easily, there was a break in the middle for all of us to catch our collective breath, and the whole thing was wrapped up in two short hours. That left plenty of time for celebratory Chinese food afterwards.
But Gardner-Webb, or a thousand Gardner-Webbs, won't change the fact that football is America's game. It's a game for the bad side of America -- the part that rewards the thin and pretty, and leaves the rest to toil anonymously and thanklessly. It's a game for the loss of maverick independent spirit, for "you can't do that." Anything isn't
possible in football. The day a lineman becomes a quarterback is the day a plus-size beauty becomes a Vogue
App-State over Michigan was a cultural mirage. Football is still a game of specialization, rigidity, and the death of possibility. It's full of penalties for rising above your station. There's nothing like sprinting out into wide open spaces, towards the fulfillment your goals, and then being flagged for being an "ineligible receiver."
But Gardner-Webb over Kentucky, at Kentucky, was the real thing. It was a victory of Any Given Wednesday, when nine-win Champions of Nothing rose up to slay enemy princes and kings in front of their own stunned courtesans, after years of stabbing themselves with their own blades. It was one for the world of endless promise. And that's a world that football will never know.