THE BLOG
12/22/2015 03:07 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2016

Dissecting the Irreversibly Altered Brain of a Pro Football Fan

Digital Vision. via Getty Images

Our hour was up, and I happened to mention the Bears game as we walked off the court.

My tennis partner smothered the endorphin glow by barking that responsible people ought to stop watching pro football, because -- well, because it's simply bad in just about every way.

Intellectually, I didn't disagree. Several years ago, I added football to the list of things that never should have been invented: porn, boxing and booze.

Still, I love football.

"Get over it," my partner said.

My tennis partner, and all the other tennis partners who we're hearing from in the conversation around the new film Concussion -- I fear these people aren't fully aware of what they're asking.

Because they haven't examined the brain of a middle-aged NFL football fan.

Let's get out the scalpel.

***

I was a kid before ESPN came along and injected sports into every home.

Our Hudson, Ohio home had music, so I took piano lessons. Dad was into antique cars, so I went to car shows. Both my parents were into horseback riding, so I did that. I didn't know about sports, beyond the cultured-sounding "human drama of athletic competition," which we saw some Sunday afternoons on ABC's Wide World of Sports.

But when I was 11 years old, I suddenly and totally fell in love with football. I vaguely associate this cataclysm with a "math football" competition among the homerooms in fifth grade at McDowell Elementary. Playing for Mrs. Anderson's Dolphins, maybe I figured that if football could make math fun, it could make everything fun.

It sure made reading fun. Every afternoon I rode my bike to the Hudson Public Library until I'd read everything they had on the NFL. I don't remember checking the books out. I remember reading them in the library, and hearing in the silence the roaring echoes of real stories about magic men with magic names. Johnny Unitas. O.J. Simpson. Bart Starr. Jim Brown. Gayle Sayers. Joe Namath.

For a boy growing up in a WASPy little Ohio town where everyone was named Murray or Sullivan or Butler or Keane, these men's names were as strange as anything from Tolkien. Curly Lambeau. Big Daddy Lipscomb. Bambi Alworth. Roman Gabriel. Sam Huff. Ray Nitschke. Chuck Bednarek. Dick Butkus. Hell, Zeke Bratkowski!

I read about The Sneaker Game, the Heidi Bowl, the Ice Bowl, the Immaculate Reception, Wrong-Way Regal, Ghost to the Post, The Longest Game, the Sea of Hands, the Perfect Season and The Greatest Game Ever Played.

I gaped at the pictures of the sun-splashed September grass, the crisp-clear October air, the mud-caked men of November, the frozen granite fields of December and the Super Bowl palm trees of January.

It was all impossibly rich -- and to me, impossibly beautiful.

As bewildered as my parents may have been at my Fosbury flop into football history, they must have been glad to see me spending so much time at the library.

Maybe as a form of encouragement, my dad started watching Cleveland Browns games with me on the big TV, up in my parents' bedroom. Our English Springer Spaniel had lived the first few years of his life in a civilized house, and so when Dad and I would yell and slap high-five, the dog reasoned that a fight had broken out. He would bark madly, shattering the Sunday afternoon peace and prompting shouts from my startled mother, below. "Jesus! What's going on up there?"

Incredible things were going on up there. That year, the Browns happened to have a season seemingly made for me.

Brian Sipe was a fragile little quarterback that an undersized 11-year-old could relate to. With a black rubber sleeve protecting his weak right elbow, Sipe heaved the ball over the line like a shot put over a woodpile, and it somehow wobbled into the waiting arms of enough resourceful Browns receivers that Sipe somehow won the MVP of the American Football Conference that year.

That wonderful team was known as the Kardiac Kids, because every victory was last-minute. (And so were the losses.) I could go on about the Kardiac Kids, and their coach, Sam Rutigliano, a kind of Phil Donohue figure who said things like this, after a tough loss: "There are 800 million Chinese who didn't even know we played today. We'll get over this." I could name every player on the roster, right down to Dino Hall, the short, slow, butterfingered kick returner who we loved anyway. In fact, it is very hard for me to stop writing about that team. Let's move on, before we get to the bitter playoff loss against the Oakland Raiders, when Sipe threw a terrible interception in the back of the end zone when all we had to do was kick a short field goal to win the game and I walked out of my parents' bedroom and sat on the stairs and sobbed.

For several straight years at Christmas, I only wanted jerseys and helmets of NFL teams. I played "electric football," a toy that was imbecilically conceived, and terribly noisy to boot, involving a motor that shook a sheet of metal. The teams my game had come with -- the Cowboys and the Broncos -- were forever insanely vibrating in the opposite direction, or around in circles until the ball carrier skidded out of bounds with a 30-yard loss, all over the buzzing din of a vibrating sheet of metal. Electronic football -- a handheld game in which little red dashes represented football players who you wore your thumbs raw trying to avoid -- was by comparison much more satisfying.

I played football during recess, of course; and still remember a touchdown run around the right end at McDowell; the kid thought he had me, but I was too fast. I played football at friends' houses, once intercepting a pass in perfect stride and returning it all the way down the left sideline for a touchdown. Mostly, I played football by myself in the backyard, usually in full uniform including Walter Payton-style mouthpiece. I punted the ball straight up in the air and tried to judge the bounce in order to catch it, juke an invisible safety out of his invisible jock strap and dive for a touchdown, across the septic tank drainage trough.

Meanwhile, football and other sports were the way I began to expand my vocabulary and explore larger questions. I remember my parents chuckling when I directed them to watch a replay highlight that contained, as I put it, "the moment of truth." I remember them listening patiently to my politically precocious dinner-table comparison between quarterbacks, running backs and receivers as "white-collar workers," and offensive lineman as "blue-collar workers," and my enthusiastic sixth-grade social studies conclusion that society needs both kinds of workers, just like a football team does!

I did not play football in junior high, because my mother took me to the family doctor to ask if it was safe. She knew football had destroyed Dr. Friedman's knees, and hoped he would tell me so. But Dr. Friedman said, "Carol, the worst thing that could happen is he could break his leg." And I thought, "I could break my leg?" And because I didn't play in junior high, I didn't play in high school.

***

But that was so long ago. When I was a kid. And before free agency, and all the big money and fantasy football and the NFL channel and all the endless hype and "Patriot Nation."

These days, football is hardly ever on my mind. I'm a 47-year-old man with a demanding career and a mortgage and a family. Who has time for football?

Of mean, I like it when football season rolls around. I'll watch a compelling game on a Sunday. I often read a book in front of Monday Night Football, partly to spite my dead parents, who always made me go to bed at 9:30, with the first quarter just barely in the books. And if the Thursday night game looks good, I'll turn that on too. I like the sound of football in the background.

There are times when I turn to football for comfort. Often when I'm anxious about work, I find myself searching for old Browns footage on the Internet. The day I got my wisdom teeth out, I discovered the entire recording, commercials and all, of Super Bowl III on YouTube -- ice cream, Vicodin and the Jets and the Colts. Before my daughter was born, I had a couple of nervous hours to kill before my wife was going to be induced. I found myself at Barnes & Noble, leafing through an NFL history picture book.

You've heard of shadow boxing? I do shadow quarterbacking. When I'm waiting for the coffee to make, I throw quick phantom screen passes. Out jogging in Chicago, when I cross the street, I often find a tree to serve as a first-down marker before I skip out of bounds, on the sidewalk. Or I make a crosswalk the corner of an end zone, and scoot in for another touchdown, discreetly raising my falafel over my head in triumph. When I'm waiting for my daughter to get out of school, or waiting in baggage claim, or waiting for the bus to come, I surreptitiously drop back, look right, then look left and try to pick out the first person wearing a certain color and pretend to quick-release the ball before the imaginary safety sees where I'm going with it.

(If it's not there, I throw it away.)

***

I got to play real football once. A few years ago, I wrote a gonzo-journalism story, a la George Plimpton's Paper Lion, that had me working out as quarterback with a women's semi-pro tackle football team. A couple months of twice-weekly practices would culminate in my playing a dozen downs in an intra-squad pre-season scrimmage. During the course of those practices, I completely forgot my journalistic purpose, so utterly absorbed was I in the joy of playing in pads -- and in the shocking difficulty of learning to properly call and execute three simple plays.

Very few goals in my adult life have mattered as much to me as completing at least one pass in that scrimmage. Which I did, thank you very much, in front of a large crowd of friends and family, some of whom had flown in from across the country to see it. (I also threw an interception, was responsible for a delay of game penalty and was roughed up repeatedly by those big dames.)

But actually it was while living out this childhood fantasy -- and God, I wish I could do it again! -- that I took in the horror of the game. It's one thing to see NFL players getting their "bell rung," getting "dinged," "banged up" or "shaken up" on the play. It is quite another to see Karen, who you've been working out with for a couple of months, come off the field after the opening kickoff, screaming because she heard a loud pop in her knee -- because everybody heard a loud pop in her knee.

The number of wounded, and the severity of the injuries, and the physical and emotional (and unnecessary!) anguish of the injured was something I did not appreciate until I saw it on the sideline, happening to people who had become my friends.

If football were the only sport in the world, maybe I'd say: well, it's worth it. Better this than no sports at all. But there are so many sports that don't involve people hurling their bodies in every direction into meat piles. That don't involve the inevitable and constant breaking of bones, tearing of tendons and ligaments. That don't have as part of their play-to-play routine, the jarring of delicate human brains.

Football is a human demolition derby, a bone-crushing, meat-grinding machine. I would never let a child of mine play tackle football no matter how badly he (or in my daughter's case, she) wanted to play. And I have a hard time looking parents in the eye who do let their children play football. Parents have two essential jobs, it seems to me: to introduce children to the beauty of life, and to keep them alive and unhurt so that they may enjoy that beauty during long, happy lives. A friend once invited me to see his 10-year-old son play. In the first quarter, he went down hard on a shoulder and they had to cut his jersey off him while he screamed.

Tennis, anyone?

I also see the beauty in football. I do not watch football just for the hits, or primarily for the hits. I watch it for the patterns, the moves, the dead runs, the all-out dives, the amazing catches and inexplicable drops. And yes, for the nostalgia -- for the memories it brings back, of the happy discovery of an 11-year-old boy.

But there are so many other beautiful things.

So we really should knock it off with tackle football. We should stop playing it, and we should stop watching it, we should stop fantasizing about it and sentimentalizing it.

We should get over it.

But it's not that simple.

And if you cut open our brains, you would see why.