I love football.  I played for nine years—from fourth grade all the way through high school. 

But like any love, it has caused much bittersweet sadness.  When I read (I think it was a review of a biography in the New York Times Book Review) where some very successful chef in New York, a guy who owned several restaurants, described himself as just a failed footballer trying to eke out a living in the restaurant business, I thought to myself, “that’s about right”.  Except that the football to which he referred was not of the oblong American variety, it’s an apt description of me.  Whatever I have managed to accomplish in this life, meager as it all has been, there’s no escaping that it was done with a pensive, heavy regret at having failed at football.  I’ve variously been in my life a failed football player who flew helicopters for the Army; a failed football player who practiced law; a failed football player who managed somehow to get himself married and have a couple of kids, and now, a failed football player who spends his days in exile from mostly all of it.  It would have come to this eventually anyway.  You can’t play football your whole life.  I’m about fifteen years past the time I would have been thinking of retiring anyway, had my talent allowed me to keep playing.  But then I would be an ex-football player, which seems a better thing than a failed one.

Because I love the game, I don’t go to games.  Unless you’re standing on the sidelines waiting to get in the game, or actually out there slobberknocking some guy to the ground, there is no better vantage point from which to view a game than a television.  Sitting in the stands next to a bunch of overweight, half-drunk ignoramuses who probably wouldn’t know which side goes in front on a pair of shoulder pads, while barely able to see over or around the outlandish accouterments (everything from foam fingers to cheese heads and especially for my favorite team—those ridiculous hounds tooth hats) worn by the fans in the stands is no kind of way to actually see a football game.  Practically every game played at the semi-pro (college) and professional level these days is televised.   So I don’t go to games.  I just watch them in the comfort of my cozy little three-two dump in Homewood, Alabama.   And for really big and important games—ones where I actually care about the outcome and I’m just watching out of love for the game–I prefer to watch alone, or at the most, with my wife.  As she’s always asleep by about the middle of the second quarter, watching a game with her is tantamount to watching it alone.   But she’d object that she’s a big football fan.  Harrumph. 

Watching a football game is not a social affair for me.  It seems as queer to me to make a party out of a football game as Merle Haggard and Muscogee, Oklahoma residents thought it queer to make a party out of loving.  It interferes with my enjoyment of the game if I have to make idle conversation.  I will sometimes, but rarely, trundle off to a bar to watch a game, but only if I’m pretty sure I’ll be watching it with strangers, so that I don’t have to talk with anyone about anything but the game unless I want to.  (I don’t watch many games at the Oak Hill Bar and Grill, my local pub, sort of, for the very reason that I’m apt to run into someone I know). 

But watching the game on television is hardly ideal.  College broadcasting is utterly banal.  From the sophomoric commentary on ESPN, a station that openly encourages legions of young college men to delay adulthood indefinitely (most of whom also probably wouldn’t know the front side to a set of shoulder pads), to the cheering, snorting and kvetching on CBS with Verne and Gary, college broadcasting and broadcasters are an insult to the intelligence of anyone that understands even a little bit that all the emotional nonsense of rivalries, team loyalty, traditions, etc., are for idiot fans who just don’t know any better.  That stuff means very little to the players and coaches, who are mainly there to just do their jobs.   Anyone who believes Nick Saban’s loyalty to the Alabama Crimson Tide extends past his $5.2 million per year contract is simply a fool, and a tool, of collegiate football promoters of all sorts (the SEC and NCAA come to mind), but especially of the college broadcast networks.

NFL broadcasting coverage is several magnitudes better.  Chris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman, both color analysts, one for NBC and the other for Fox, respectively, treat their viewers as adults who are reasonably knowledgeable about the game.  And they both are eminently likeable.  Collinsworth regales the audience with his tales of coaching his son’s little league team.  And I remember well a comment Aikman made as a player, which reveals something of his character as a color analyst in the broadcast booth.  Troy was asked whether he felt an inordinate amount of pressure to perform in the upcoming Super Bowl game his Cowboys were playing (he was their quarterback), as it was the first time in many seasons the Cowboys had finally made it back to the big dance.  His answer went something like this: 

Pressure?  Pressure over a football game?  I’m a grown man getting to play a game I love.  You want to find someone who’s feeling pressure, go talk to the single mother with three kids who’s trying to make her money stretch to the end of her month.  That’s pressure, real pressure.  This is fun.

Kudos, Troy.  You get it.

But high school games are the worst.  Until my son joined his high school marching band, I could count on one hand the number of high school football games I had attended where I wasn’t suited up and ready to play.  High school football games are nothing but local social events.  Everyone, even people without kids, even people whose kids don’t play on the team or in the band, attends the games for my son’s high school football team.  The team has been variously good and awful, depending on whether the state of Alabama High School Athletic Association saw fit to make them 6A (the category with the biggest schools) or 5A.  The school had won several state championships in 5A when Katrina sent more than just a few New Orleano’s to Homewood, bumping the school past the 6A cutoff in 2006.  They haven’t made the playoffs since.  But they’ve been pulled back to 5A this year, so they’ll likely do quite well, and then a legion of idiots will march to the front of the parade to take credit for their success, and legions more will agree with them that it must be the coaches and players that are much better now, completely ignoring the fact that the only thing that changed was the level of competition. 

The marching band at the high school, which bills itself as The Greatest Marching Band in Alabama (or the country, or the world, or the universe… something like that), rather enjoyed the team’s dismal performances of late.  For the band, football exists to provide an excuse for a half-time show, and the half-time show’s entertainment value is enhanced if folks aren’t much distracted by cheering the action preceding and following the band’s moment to shine.  The band won every half-time show, or so they figure, and that’s enough.  But it was really hard for me to pretend I gave a damn about the band.  I mean, in high school, we sneered at the band geeks, but now, my son was one. 

My favorite NFL farm team has had a pretty good run these last few years.  The Alabama Crimson Tide has won and won and won, and most people expect that it will continue winning, so long as “S–The Coach” (really, people have bumper stickers to that effect, modeled after “W–The President” stickers seen on SUV’s all over the placid suburbs a few years back) stays around.  Saban is a great coach because he’s figured out what big-time college football is about.  It is about enhancing a high school phenom’s chances at going pro.  He’s sent more athletes to the NFL than anyone the last few years.  Great players make great coaches.  Saban doesn’t win many games he’s not expected to win—a hallmark of a coach who is doing the mostest with the leastest—but he knows how to recruit great players (not just athletically great, but also great between the ears, in football sense) and get the most out of them when they arrive.   But give Saban credit.  It’s not just his recruiting that’s great.  That victory over LSU in the rematch last season was one of the most perfectly coached games any team, in any era, has ever played.

The Tide starts its season Saturday night (September 1, 2012) with a big test of Saban’s coaching ability.  They’ll be facing a Michigan quarterback whom Saban said is the best the Tide has seen since Cam Newton engineered a 24 point comeback over the Tide in the 2010 season.  He didn’t say Denardo Robinson was better than Cam—I doubt we’ll see anytime soon another college quarterback so capable of taking over a game as Cam was in his one brief season.  But Robinson is very good, and Alabama’s defense is very inexperienced.  This almost feels like a trap game.  Michigan is gunning to regain lost glory.  Bama is coming off a season of defensive football and football players, most of whom moved on to the pros, for the ages.  If Saban can pull this one off, the Tide might just be in the hunt for a repeat at the end. 

I would never pick a team to repeat as (mythical) national champions.  It’s usually just too hard, especially in the college ranks, to keep kids focused, especially if a core of guys with rings remain, after the national championship run.  But Saban’s got a bunch of new kids hungry to prove their mettle, especially on defense, and a solid offensive team led by a now-experienced quarterback.  The Tide has at least a niggling chance to repeat. 

My guess is that the Tide’s biggest challenge to winning the SEC this year will come from Arkansas.  Arkansas returns the nucleus of a very good team that last year lost only two games—to LSU and Alabama.  It has a very good and experienced quarterback, and returns the bulk of its starters on defense.  If Bobby Petrino were still coaching, I’d pick them as favorites to win the conference.  The new coach is the wild card. 

Whatever happens, what a relief that football is back.  Ben Franklin once said that beer is evidence of God’s love for mankind.  Football coming as it does after another long, hot, miserable summer is evidence that God, if perhaps not actually loving us, at least doesn’t hate us too vociferously.   That the SEC suffers the worst summers yet gets the best football indicates God’s keen sense of equity and justice.

Roll Tide!