Monday, February 8, 2010

Blackouts in the parking lot, black spots on the field: Football’s symbiotic relationship between fans and players

Took the picture in the north lot.  The guy was looking for the set of Leatherheads.

Paradox: A person, situation, or action exhibiting inexplicable or contradictory aspects.

Football is a paradox.  The game bonds fans and players, but also damages them.  The fans bond by watching the violence.  The players bond by surviving the violence.  Before the game, fans fire up the Margaritaville blender and players dress themselves in metal and plastic.  Fans think they can handle the binge drinking, but many cannot.  Players think they can handle the hits, but many cannot. 

The fan is lucky if he passes out before kickoff.  Otherwise, he could find himself wasted and disoriented.

Chugging vodka with an orange juice chaser was my friend Travis’ pre-game ritual.  Once after a long night, he started early the next morning to get ready for an afternoon kickoff.  At Husky Stadium, he passed out in his seat, got up and swan dived down the stairs.  Later, the story goes, he drunkenly wandered along a highway shoulder until the state patrol picked him up.  He ended up with a gash on his face. 

The player is lucky if he rides the bench after kickoff.   Otherwise, he could find himself dazed and confused. 

This is my friend Chad's description of a stinger, “One whole side of my body went numb and they [the University of Idaho coaching staff] took me out of the game for a thirty second breather.”  A stinger is an injury to the nerves that travel from the neck and down the arm.  It happens when the head and neck are forcibly moved or hit to one side - it’s pedestrian to football. 

The up side:

In 2009, my friend Cod hugged his dad for the first time in years when Jake Locker drove the Dawgs down field to beat USC.  Locker’s actions were equivalent to the Pope giving communion.  Cod and I started calling Locker, The Pope, in 2007, after he ran over Syracuse.  Like the Pope, Locker became a symbol.  Even after UW went winless in 2008, it wasn’t his fault.  Seattle’s football czar, Hugh Millen, was critical of his alma mater, but never of Locker.  He admitted (I am paraphrasing), people in chat rooms think I would walk through hell with gasoline shorts on before I would criticize Jake Locker.  When Locker said he was staying for his senior year, Cod texted me, “The Pope is coming back.” 

The down side:

Football culture teaches players to disregard serious symptoms like vision problems, headaches and vomiting.  Malcolm Gladwell compares football to dog fighting.  His argument is convincing.  Players put on pads and dogs don’t cower, even amidst their demise.  After a concussion, a player was game sick, zooking for days, but still suited up.  He saw three opposing players when there was really one, and hit the one in the middle.  The data, Gladwell referenced, alleged that many smaller smacks to the skull caused more damage than the less frequent more violent spine snappers.  A higher percentage of brain injuries were linked to linemen, who get thunder punched almost every play. 

Here are my notes from the Apple Cup: 

In the north lot, Husky fans gather around a pig, roasting in a rusty cage.  Coug fans in cammo hunting jackets watch flat-screen TV’s mounted to a Jamboree.  There is man with a purple Mohawk shot gunning a beer.  “Jake Locker for Heisman” is written on some guy’s back.  Pickup truck beds overflow with cans of Natural Ice.  It’s like Slumdog Millionaire – not enough plastic bathrooms.  People piss everywhere, even the girls.  Old men fight, one with a scraped face sits on the curb and talks to cops.  Three kids’ wheelbarrow a keg past stadium workers and drink a couple red cups in the foyer before they’re thrown out.  No alcohol is served in Husky stadium.  What happens in the parking lot stays in the parking lot. 

The next day the tailgater has a head like a hole.  He recalls swigging off a fifth of Crown and spitting out long chunks of pig fat, but the rest is a blur.  The parking lot has become as sacred as the playing field.  Many fans come for tailgating – and if they make it to game time – it’s a bonus.

Even the Harry Potter of college football, Tim Tebow, was devalued after being knocked out cold for an entire TV timeout.  The only debate was when he could play again, not if he should play again.  Tebow had trouble reading weeks after the concussion.  Sight problems, sensitivity to light, seeing black and white spots, are a few more symptoms that plague the player.  In this game there is a desperate symbiotic relationship between fans and players.  The fan roots for his team to destroy the other.  Glory is all he wants to see.  For the player, the game is fleeting.  Players have a savage window.  The fan knows that.  He knows deep down what the players’ risk. 

The fan needs to peer over the edge in the parking lot.  The player does so on the field.    

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