The Athletic Cup

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

We learn that the best adaptive strategy is disassociation. We separate body and mind, let one do the heavy lifting and put the other out to pasture. We move in a trance; pain morphs into tranquillity. We gaze at the changing leaves, suck the clean air in and let it go.



Nate Pack

After practice, we gather in the locker room, amid clumps of turf and balls of athletic tape and the acrid tang of sweat. We are assigned lockers at the beginning of each season, identifiable by a piece of tape inscribed with our name and jersey number. There is no discretion as far as numbers go; my personal number, for instance, happens to be "69," and it takes me until my sophomore year to figure out why some people think this is hilarious. I learn by then that the best way to deal with small indignities like this is to ignore them. Playing an organized team sport, especially one as rigidly, completely organized as football, requires the surrender of individual ego, not necessarily for the team's good, but for one's own psychic health.

The locker room is the ceremonial center of the game, the place where a lot of the tribal bonding-type stuff goes down. Everyone has weird rituals designed to bring and/or sustain good fortune. One player wears the same T-shirt for the entire season; luck apparently being dispelled by laundry detergent, the shirt eventually qualifies as a biohazard. Others spend hours taping their wrists and ankles and ribs, until they come to resemble AWOL intensive-care patients. I have lucky socks. The lineman occupying the locker next to mine eats exactly three hard-boiled eggs before each game, despite the fact that this gives him vile, sulfurous gas. If you suggest a dietary change, he gives you the look one might offer a stupid child. Don't mess with luck, is the message.

There is, during this fart-punctuated repose, an exchange of war stories. Chunk, a big, good-natured lineman with slightly crossed eyes, tells us that he was once hit so hard during a game that he involuntarily evacuated his bowels. When he regained consciousness a half-hour later, severely concussed, he was covered in blood and excrement. He smiles proudly as he shares this, as though he were describing a noteworthy achievement instead of a mortifying embarrassment. "Now that was a hit," he reminisces fondly.

There's a strong tendency, I notice, toward this kind of braggadocio. There's an equally strong tendency toward self-sacrifice. This manifests itself as a willingness to throw one's body in the path of danger, to play with broken bones poking up beneath the skin, to suffer foolishly, gladly.

During the course of The Sweet Season, there's a running back who, after tearing his posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments ("profoundly messing up his leg," in layman's terms), decides to keep playing despite a doctor's advice to the contrary. In telling the story, Austin Murphy exhibits a bit of the vicarious masochism common to television sports commentators (e.g., "Ooo, that must have hurt. Let's take another look!"). "I didn't know he had stainless steel cojones," Murphy writes. "It is an overused word in sportswriting, but I apply it to [him] because it fits: He is a warrior." It is an overused word; it's also a stupid idea, pervasive in the game. Isn't it better to have knees than cojones?

The Snake, my closest friend on the team, is a defensive back who'd been a high school star on the Iron Range. Though he was too small to ever become a stand-out college player, he found a place as a "hit man" on the kickoff team. These are the two players who line up farthest from the ball and, after the kick, sprint down the field and hurl themselves at the protective wedge of men formed by the receiving team. You are running full tilt into a wall, in other words. It's a nearly suicidal job; you have to be wildly devoted, even a little crazy, to apply.

And nearly everyone who does it gets seriously injured at one point or another. The Snake is no exception; by his senior year, he's had a number of invasive surgeries, followed by long rehab periods during which he hobbles around on crutches. "I have more titanium in my knees than the space shuttle," he jokes. What is truly impressive and frightening, though, is that he simply won't stay down. When on crutches, he bemoans the fact that he isn't out hunting heads. When off them, he goes out hunting, gets stomped, and ends up back in the hospital. It's a pathetic, pathological kind of bravery. We all admire him for it.



Like military and corporate leaders, football coaches use a lot of acronyms. I wonder sometimes whether this is the reason that ex-athletes tend to thrive in corporate-type environments; they already speak the language. My own all-time personal favorite is "GOYA," which one coach shouted at us at regular intervals. It took me two years to realize that he was not invoking the Spanish painter, but exhorting us, "Get off your ass." There's an almost fetishistic obsession among a lot of coaches with order, with routine, with ritual. They are the embodiment of The System.

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