The Athletic Cup

The fascist rules. The inner calm. The funny pants. Chasing the grail of football's myth--and utter lack of meaning.

Move on to the pants. Generally constructed from dark, slightly reflective material and terminating at a cuff just below the kneecap, these include pockets designed for knee, hip, and rump pads. The latter two are considered expendable; the kneepad is not. It is insane not to wear kneepads. According to my girlfriend, I look good in these pants. This is also a fact.

Beneath the pants, there is a tight garment made of stretchy, itchy spandex-like material. This is officially called a girdle, though for obvious reasons we avoid calling it so whenever possible. There are also pockets in these for hip and rump pads. There is a slot for the athletic cup, the plastic codpiece designed to protect the groin. Fact: In every team I have been on, from peewee to high school to college, the cup has been considered a pussified affectation. This leads to a lot of terrifying injuries, which we sometimes chat about during lulls in practice. My friend the Berserker tells a story about a guy who got kicked so hard that his testicles disappeared into his stomach like a pair of frightened gophers. I, frankly, don't believe him.

The Berserker spends a lot of time scooping his hand down the front of his pants to adjust his cup. This mortifies the Berserker's mom. We all spend a lot of time with our hands down our pants. I'm not really sure what to make of this; perhaps Don DeLillo might.

The helmet, designed to prevent brain injury, is pretty obviously redundant in a lot of cases. Just kidding. In fact, the helmet is indispensable. It is, however, also extremely susceptible to temperature change: In heat it becomes a private sauna for your cranium; in the cold the molded plastic inside hardens and you feel like you're wearing a concrete hat. We have been instructed not to sit on our helmets. We do so anyway, although they aren't made for sitting on, and are not very comfortable.

 

Practice

Semi-personal revelation: Between the time I started playing football, at age eight, and the time I stopped, my senior year of college, I spent an estimated 3,760 hours, or 1.7 percent of my total life span, on a field, practicing in the snow and the mud and heat so intense it turned the air wobbly. This is a modest time commitment by the standards of the sport. To get really good, players spend at least that much time in the weight room, pumping Volkswagen-equivalent amounts of iron.

Like a lot of time-intensive activities, football is built on repetition. Repetition. Depending on your position--I was a defensive end--it is likely that you will conduct the same drills throughout your career. Each practice begins with calisthenics, including jumping jacks, leg lifts, and, if you happen to have a coach inclined toward sadism, belly busters, which, don't even ask. This is followed by a period of stretching that athletic trainers consider the most important part of the routine and players consider the least. My friend the Snake and I sometimes take this opportunity to toss a ball around, or, if we're feeling lazy, just lie on our backs in the grass and stare up at the wispy cirrus clouds drifting overhead.

If it's late summer, when training camp begins, we're allowed a break to hydrate. Water is dispensed from a vertical pipe with a dozen spigots spaced along its length. This device, while eminently practical, is extremely sensitive to pressure changes and, if you're not careful when turning it on, can send a blast of warm, chlorinated liquid in your face. When 80 football players crowd around the water pipe and shove their faces in its spew, the scene resembles nothing so much as a pig's feeding trough.

At this point football's militaristic taxonomy kicks in, and we are segregated by position. Linemen, who are football's cannon fodder, spend their afternoon rolling in the mud and the dust and smashing one another. Backs and wide receivers, meanwhile, rarely get their uniforms dirty, and almost never hit one another. The logic being: Infantrymen are expendable, but officers with good hands and fast legs are invaluable. At the top of football's evolutionary ladder is the quarterback, who generally hovers mothlike around the coach and who enjoys an ex officio exemption from all contact. Even to disturb a quarterback's personal space is to incur the coach's wrath, which generally entails some combination of the words goddamn, idiot, and candy-ass.

Much of the equipment utilized in drilling has a distinctly Sisyphean flavor. Take, for instance, the blocking sled. This device, measuring approximately 12 feet by 4 feet and consisting of six bright blue nylon pads on spring-loaded chassis, is designed to simulate an opposing line (albeit an inanimate one). Someone has gone through the trouble of painting tiny heads on the pads, to heighten the vérité, I guess. A close cousin of the sled, the tackling dummy is a four-foot phallus that pops back into position after it's hit. The Animal, a mountainous lineman with a really bitchin' dragon tattoo on his right leg, discovers that the dummy can also be used as an offensive weapon and, for the rest of the season, takes great delight in hefting the dummy up to shoulder level and cold-cocking people when their backs are turned. These drills, medieval in spirit, are designed to separate the wheat from the chaff, then stomp on the chaff's face.

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