A couple of years ago, I watched the Steelers pull out an improbable last-minute playoff win against the Cincinnati Bengals in a nasty, rain-soaked night game marred by ugly penalties and vicious hits that knocked out multiple players with concussions. The Steelers, my Steelers, won, but it felt like both teams — and the NFL — lost. It was the type of game I hoped I’d never see again.
But I did. When the Steelers and Bengals met in Cincinnati this past Monday night, the rainy conditions called to mind that infamous playoff contest, even if the stakes were lower, thanks to the Bengals’ mediocre record. That wasn’t the only echo. This time the penalties were even more numerous and the hits more vicious, resulting in two players leaving the field strapped to carts. One of those, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, remains in a local hospital three days later, as doctors monitor a spinal injury that has impacted his movements from the waist down. As my own six-year-old boy slept peacefully in his room down the hall, I couldn’t help but think: That’s somebody’s son out there, lying motionless on the field. The Steelers got the win, again on a last-minute field goal, but the victory hardly felt worthy of celebration.
I can vividly remember curling up with my dad on the floor, watching a late-afternoon game, the room darkening as dusk fell. And to this day, football remains an important point of connection with my parents and siblings.
There’s no question the NFL — and football in general — has a problem. It’s not just the head-trauma horrors of concussions and CTE that we can no longer ignore. Or the devastating injuries to backs, knees, and shoulders that have derailed the seasons of too many of the league’s biggest stars this fall. Or the recent tragicomic legal sideshows, from Deflategate to the on-again-off-again suspension of Ezekiel Elliott for alleged domestic violence — one of a disturbing number of such incidents players have been involved in (see: Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Josh Brown). Or the ugly fight over embattled NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s contract extension. Or the bewilderingly inconsistent — okay, at times downright poor — quality of play on the field. Or, not least, the most divisive issue facing the league: the national anthem protests. It’s all of those things and more, and it has produced a growing contingent of supporters who are increasingly conflicted over how to feel about this troubled sport as fans — and as parents.
Yet I still watch.
Though I haven’t been to a game in a stadium in years, I track scores on Sundays and do my best to catch bits on TV. I’ve played fantasy football and occasionally in the past gambled very modestly on games — two of the things that turn casual fans into deeply engaged ones. When I married my wife, who tolerates — only just barely — my relationship with football, I knew the sport would not be a part of our family culture in the way it was for me growing up. But it still meant something to me.
My bond with football formed early. Growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s and ’80s, the Steelers and football were — and still are — religion. It was the era of the Steel Curtain, the Terrible Towel, four Super Bowls in a decade. Some of my biggest boyhood heroes were Joe Green, Jack Lambert, and Lynn Swann. For years my parents had seats in the old Three Rivers Stadium, and occasionally I got to go with my dad. Mostly, though, I watched at home. On fall weekends, our TV was always tuned to football — college on Saturdays; NFL on Sundays. I can vividly remember curling up with my dad on the floor, watching a late-afternoon game, the room darkening as dusk fell. And to this day, football remains an important point of connection with my parents and siblings. Though I haven’t lived in Pittsburgh for more than a quarter century, the Steelers will always be my team.
Football has always been a brutal, smash-mouth sport that leaves bodies wrecked. But I can’t quite let go of the idea that football is also the innocent game I played in the backyard, that I fantasized about as I threw imaginary Hail Marys to myself in the living room
At a young age, I loved to act out game-winning catches in the family room or my bedroom, tossing a ball and diving across a bed or sofa to snatch it in spectacular fashion. My inspiration came from the weekly highlights produced by NFL Films, featuring balletic pass plays and bone-crushing hits — often replayed in dramatic slow motion — to a rousing orchestral soundtrack familiar to any football geek over 40. In our awkwardly narrow and sloping backyard, my brother and I would often throw the football with my dad. We’d even put on helmets and pads and practice blocking and tackling, with dad egging us on and stoking our not-always-healthy fraternal competition.
Like many in my generation, I starting playing organized football as soon as I was old enough, joining a pee-wee league at seven (my dad was a coach), and continuing through high school. I prided myself on being tough, and in those ignorant days when we knew less about concussions that meant engaging in a lot of helmet-to-helmet collisions. Seems odd to say now, but I actually enjoyed that part of the game. I’ll never forget a nasty hit that broke my facemask or another that left me on my back, concussed and momentarily blacked out. My senior year, I sat out the first game because of a spinal compression issue in my neck. After an MRI seemed to show no imminent danger, doctors said that whether or not I continued playing was up to me.
In football, the noble truths are as real as the ignoble ones.
The following week, I got back out on the field, wearing one of those old-school neck rolls that provided little actual support and failed to prevent a couple more “stingers,” the name given to the burning pain and subsequent numbness that results from vertebrae impinging on a nerve. I’m pretty sure I didn’t reveal the stingers to anyone, certainly not my coaches.
Among the expanding list of former players whose brains have been found to be riddled with CTE, the first was Mike Webster, the stalwart center on those Super Bowl-winning Steelers teams I grew up idolizing. His Hall-of-Fame career left him with dementia and depression, living at times out of a truck before he died of a heart attack at 50.
My son is now old enough to start playing football, but you can count me among the growing chorus of parents taking the stance of “not my kid.” And that, more than anything, is what threatens the future of the sport. Still a bit young to sit through and enjoy a game, he finds the commercials far more interesting. And I wonder: Will he ever become a fan? Do I even want him to?
It’s arguably the sport that taught me the most about discipline, resilience, and teamwork as well as valuable lessons about how to win and, more importantly, how to lose. And despite escalating ticket prices and the profusion of luxury boxes, football does bring people together in momentary, imperfectly democratizing fashion.
One thing is for sure: He’ll never have that kind of intuitive understanding of football that comes from playing — not just the rules but the rhythm and flow of the game. Nor will he ever, I suppose, fully appreciate its complexity or its mythology, its ideals. This will take some getting used to.
Football has always been a brutal, smash-mouth sport that leaves bodies wrecked. And that’s just on the field, as fan-on-fan violence is a less-discussed ignominy. Attending a game at Three Rivers Stadium as a boy, I had to watch as a drunk fan in the row behind us repeatedly tried to pick a fight with my dad, before finally “accidentally” dumping a beer on him. To my dad’s credit, he walked away, soggy and stinking of Iron City, without escalating the confrontation.
But I can’t quite let go of the idea that football is also the innocent game I played in the backyard, that I fantasized about as I threw imaginary Hail Marys to myself in the living room. It’s arguably the sport that taught me the most about discipline, resilience, and teamwork as well as valuable lessons about how to win and, more importantly, how to lose. And despite escalating ticket prices and the profusion of luxury boxes, football does bring people together in momentary, imperfectly democratizing fashion. In football, the noble truths are as real as the ignoble ones.
Which brings me back to the anthem protests, football’s biggest story this fall. The Sunday after President Trump stoked the controversy with his suggestion that owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who fails to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner”, even Americans who have no interest in football took notice as players across the entire league knelt and locked arms, or remained — as the Steelers did — in the locker room during the anthem. Depending on your views, this significant moment for the NFL and for the country was either the season’s high point or its nadir. I’ll make a case for the former with anyone willing to have a reasonable discussion. Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out how to talk to my son about the issues at stake, about athletes as activists and role models, about how to make some sense of the messy cultural-political moment we are in. It’s serious stuff to discuss with a six-year-old.
In the meantime, my Steelers — tied for the best record in AFC — have another big game on Sunday, and, yes, I will be watching. Perhaps my son will join me on the sofa to catch a few plays. Or not. And I’m okay with that.