Autumn is in the air. I know this because my wife and I are preparing for that fond farewell that occurs just before our relationship goes into cryostasis. I am talking about football season. To be completely fair, she has become very patient and even participatory in most respects. Yet, she and I both understand that while she has made a concerted effort to care about one game a week, and even manage her own Fantasy Football team called "The Tutu Ponies," I still care way too much about all the games, college and pro. And from whence does this fanaticism spring? To be honest, I wish I knew.
To say that I grew up watching football would paint too simple a picture. I watched football as much as I watched PBS. I knew who Alistair Cooke was long before I could recognize John Madden in a lineup. That didn't mean I lived in a vacuum, either. My parents had season tickets to the Colorado University Golden Buffaloes home games, and my brothers and I were in regular attendance, either sitting next to my parents, or in the "Knothole Section" behind the north goalposts. When my brother was in the Boy Scouts, he volunteered to be an usher: Wear your uniform, stand around for a couple hours before the game and then you're in. From there, it was a short hop to working concessions, and all three of us took our turns at learning just how unforgiving a job trying to sell cold hot dogs to drunken college students can be. Still, it was another way into the stadium.
Then there was the year that I played "organized" football. In fourth grade my parents bought me cleats and a pair of padded pants, and even though I didn't wear it as often as I should have, my first athletic supporter. These pieces of equipment were no match for the item that held the most fascination for me: the mouth guard. I remember standing in the kitchen and watching the water boil, waiting for the right moment to drop the hard rubber U briefly into the intense heat. Then just as quick, you popped it into your mouth to get just the right fit on your upper plate. Mine had a special minty-flavor. Clamping my mouth shut around it with the tab hanging out became a mild fixation. I hoped that it would protect my teeth as well as keeping my breath kissing fresh.
I assume that Young American Football was a lot like Little League. I never played Little League, so I can only extrapolate. Being one of the slow, thicker kids, I was ready to play the football equivalent of right field: Right Guard. I thought it was pretty cool that there was an anti-perspirant named after my position. I understood that my job was essentially to push the kid across from me around as best I could until the more coordinated and speedy kids behind me could run, pass, or punt around me. I kept shoving until I heard the whistle. That was my job. I don't remember how many games we played that year. I don't know how many we won. I do remember that my parents came and watched, much in the same way that they watched the Buffs. The games were on Saturday mornings, so I'm sure they had to rush around when CU had a home game.
I only played one year of Young American Football. It was another four years before I got up the nerve to play again. Bought a new pair of cleats. New pants. This time, the coach would check to be sure we were wearing our supporting undergarments. And I got another mouth guard. The games were on Friday afternoons, so my parents didn't have to schedule around them quite so much. I don't remember how many games we won back then, either. I do remember I had the same job, having managed to grow enough to be considered a "middleweight," but without gaining any particular speed or talent, I was back shoving the kid across me until the whistle blew.
In high school I saw every game, mostly because I was in the band. The Pep Band even went to the away games. Don't ask me how many games they won. Not many is my memory of it. But the cool air of approaching Fall, the bursts of action followed by the seemingly endless strategizing, the smell of popcorn and hot dogs. Friday night high school, Saturday afternoon college, and Sunday the professionals. That was the rhythm of my youth, and today it begins anew. Game on.