Football makes the forthcoming fall/winter season more bearable
By John Burbridge
Organized baseball with umpires calling balls and strikes is the sport I participated in the most during the splendor of my youth — a “career” that encompassed Little League, Senior League, high school and men’s recreational.
But as a not-so-splendorous spectator, baseball ranks as an also-ran when it comes to my favorite sport.
That honor goes to football, so I guess an apology may be order.
Conservative columnist and renowned baseball aficionado George Will, for one, probably needs an explanation. He considers football a melding of two evils: violence and committee meetings.
And in between these committee meetings there’s usually a combined total of just 15 to 20 minutes of action spread out over more than three hours.
A brother-in-law of mine who is a milestone-winning high school tennis coach often bends my ear about the relative lack of news coverage tennis players get in comparison to football players even when the former engage in far more competitive motion.
And then there’s the aforementioned violence of football which, in addition to the immediate trauma, has proven to cause residual damage — physically and mentally — to the former gladiators we either loved or loathed contingent to the mayhem they were able to inflict and/or endure.
Being a Chicago Bears fan, I have to admit that I reveled when Gary Fencik leveled NY Giant receiver Jimmy Robison in a way that it looked like Robinson was going to need a new spleen; when Wilbur Marshall appeared to have stopped the heart of Detroit Lions quarterback Joe Ferguson with a hard-charging helmet to the chest a good full second after Ferguson released the ball; and when Oakland Raiders punter Ray Guy refused to fill in as quarterback during a game against the Bears in 1984 — the game is infamously referred to as one of the most violent in NFL history. One of the casualties was Bears’ QB Jim McMahon who nearly died from a lacerated kidney.
In today’s NFL, Fencik and Marshall would be fined and suspended for their devastating hits and several members from those Bears and Raiders teams would be serving time for felonious assault and battery.
Football at all levels has taken a proactive approach to make the sport “less dangerous” if not “safer”. Fan reaction has been mixed.
One disgruntled fan — a former Commander-in-Chief who was “disgruntled” with the NFL in more ways than one — remarked that the game has become “soft like our country has become soft”.
Maybe I’ve become softer in that I no longer look back on football’s “gory days” in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and even the early 2000s with much nostalgia. The thing I remember the most from those decades is not the brutal body and head blows but the brutal play from the quarterback position.
Week after week we would witness the exploits of Mike Phipps, Rusty Lisch, Heath Shuler and Bobby Hoying promoted beyond their competence due to their teams’ respective starting and/or second-string QBs being laid low due to injury.
Now with more protective measures in place, we can be entertained by imminent hall-of-famers playing well into their mid-40s while still remaining masterfully effective.
But no matter what era and the level of savagery allowed or disallowed, what I like most about football is the dramatic narrative a game produces. Like with a play or a movie, you’ve got a First Act (First Half), a Second Act (Halftime) and a Third Act (Second Half).
Baseball is not structured that way. It’s more quark-chart-like than story-board-like.
If you look closely enough, a moral and a theme will emerge from about every football final. Often the endings of baseball games arrive with none of the above and sans a coherent plot to get us there.
When life takes an inexplicable turn, the common euphemism is “That’s baseball”. If you substitute “That’s football”, it’s not appropriate. Yeah, there are unexpected turns and lucky and unlucky bounces in football, but the players and coaches have more dominion over their ball sport’s quantum mechanics.
The thing I will give baseball over football is the divergence in the beginning and the ending of seasons they herald. Baseball comes with the start of spring and the end of winter. Football symbolizes the fade route of another summer that seems to get shorter the longer you live.
That’s where we’re now amid the calendar year.
And sometime in early November or late October or even late September, we’ll get the first snow-covered highlight from a Denver Broncos game at Mile High Stadium to assure most of the country that they’ll also be getting dumped on in the near future.
Then again, it’s usually the elimination-game excitement of the NFL playoffs that helps us — or at least me — fight off the depression that comes during the post-holiday winter months when all the lights and decorations have been taken down and stored away and all we have are cold and gray.
The Super Bowl gets us into February and past Groundhogs Day Eve (Feb. 1), historically the coldest day of the year on average throughout the midwest and plains states.
When we summit that peak, it’s all downhill from there. Then just a couple of weeks later we’ll hear that blessed announcement: “Pitchers and Catchers Report”.