I grew up in Syracuse, New York, a college town that became a football town with the creation of Archbold Stadium more than a century ago. State-of-the-art in 1907, Archbold Stadium was the third concrete arena built in the United States. I was only eight years old when the Carrier Dome replaced Archbold Stadium, but I remember how my hometown buzzed over its construction and subsequent opening. The Dome sits atop SU Hill like a white longshoreman’s cap, visible from every highway. I know who Jim Brown and Larry Csonka are and I’ve never seen them play a down. Football is in the air, like grey skies and lake-effect snow.
I played for the East Syracuse-Minoa High School football team. I had never played Pop Warner, didn’t know any of the coaches, and had no friends on the team, so people often asked why I decided to don a jersey for the first time at age fifteen. I told them, “Because I love the game.” In truth my heart tended more toward art, writing, reading, and singing. I memorized the Orangemen players and the stats, I enjoyed watching pro football on TV, but I didn’t understand the killer instinct my cousins and brother possessed. All three of my Irish-Mohawk cousins captained All-State football teams, one after the other, while my brother played linebacker on an ES-M team that had back-to-back flawless seasons. Playing football felt like a way to see not just how my family ticked, but to better understand the temperament of my hometown.
This isn’t to say I had never touched a football. The neighborhood boys all played Kill the Carrier (or “Smear the Queer” if our parents weren’t within earshot to scold us) by throwing a football in the air and tackling whoever caught it. Our yearly Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving is a proud family and neighborhood tradition going back thirty years.
One Mud Bowl – so named due to unseasonably warm rains which turned the field into gravy – I batted an end zone pass from a guy’s hands, stopping him from scoring while also getting possession back for my team. Amid high fives and backslaps in the huddle, my cousin Shannon decided I was a hidden threat. I was twelve years old, the youngest on the field by at least five years; they’d never expect him to hand the ball off to me.
Our first play of the new possession, Shannon slapped the ball into my stomach. I wrapped the ball in my arms and charged up the middle, feeling like my idol, Tony Dorsett. My high lasted about two seconds.
The guy whose catch I had just batted away? He was nineteen years old, weighed two-hundred and sixty pounds, and had played center on a high school team that had taken the state championship the year before. He met me at the line, plowed his shoulder into my prepubescent body, knocked me off my feet, and drove me a good ten feet through the mud. When our momentum stopped, he nodded and whispered, “Yeah.” He’d intended to teach me a lesson and he had.
I had never taken a breath-robbing hit like that before but I’d seen it happen enough times to know what was expected of me. Through a haze of over-bright vision and pain that came from everywhere and nowhere, I took the hand offered by my opponent, let him pull me to my feet, and said, “Nice hit.” There was a fair amount of laughter when I returned to the huddle, but also more congratulations. I’d sucked royally as a running back but at least I could take a hit.
Before starting football my freshman year of High School, I spent the summer trying to bulk up and get in shape. I hit the weight room five days a week, alternating legs and upper body, and ran a mile each day. This also became my routine throughout the year. Before my varsity season (which I would never play) the Syracuse Herald-Journal listed me at six-foot-five and two-hundred-and-fifty pounds. Thirty-five pounds and two inches of that only existed in my Coach’s imagination, but with the right set of shoulder pads it was almost believable.
My freshman, sophomore, and junior years, the ES-M Spartans posted records of 4-and-4, 3-and-5, and 2-and-6, respectively. Then something amazing happened.
After twenty-three years as Head Coach of the ES-M Spartans, Jack Griffin retired. Since most of the senior lineup had already started varsity as juniors – and finished with a 2-and-6 record, remember – the local papers all picked ES-M to finish last in the league, if not the state. But new Head Coach Paul Belodoff took those same Spartan players and led them to an undefeated season in league play, taking them to the playoffs inside the Carrier Dome itself.
I watched it all happen from the sidelines. My senior year, I had to chose between a large part in the school play or a spot on the football team. I’d already endured double-sessions under the August sun, the most brutal part of the season, so I was able to choose the stage without being accused of wimping out. In Drama Club, I met people who shared my sensibilities for the first time. It was amazing. It gave me room to grow into myself.
When I moved on to college, I had 21 credit hours, a work-study job as an usher, a job delivering pizzas for Archie’s, an unpaid internship running spotlight on the main stage, and my old job at Leo and Sons Big M Supermarket. I don’t recall watching a minute of TV that first year. Football left my life and I just never picked it back up.
I offer my football pedigree because Steve Almond’s Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto has convinced me that organized football needs to stop. I want to make that statement not as a bookseller but as a former player who once loved the game and who knows that you can let it go and be just fine. I want to make that statement as a guy who had no strong feelings about the recent health concerns coming out in the media before reading Almond’s book but who can’t turn away from the truth it reveals. I believe Against Football is an important book.
The important label might make it sound dry as dust, but if you know Steve Almond then you know he couldn’t be dull if he tried. Part reportage, part memoir, part manifesto, any reader with an open mind won’t be able to deny – reluctantly or otherwise – that football’s place is in the past.