It took me a long time to figure out football. I'd watched games with my father when I was a kid, but only gleaned the basics. I had no idea the seriousness of these four hours until I met my husband and had kids -- boys. As the only female in the house (even our dog was male), I was forever being ejected from the den during televised games for talking too much or asking non-football-related questions.
When the boys were still very young, we bought season tickets for our local professional team. At first, their knowledge was on par with mine. They were enamored by the crowd, by the music. When the crowd cheered, they'd jump to their feet and ask, "What just happened?" My husband taught them well. They soon knew the names of our star players and the colors of our jerseys which, sadly, surpassed my own basic knowledge by a yard. At the start of each season, we'd identify new cheerleaders on the squad and pick our favorites. My six-year-old son, who grew fast out of his own clothes, remarked on their sexy costumes: "Hey!" he pointed at the midriff tops. "Their shirts are too small."
That was when I first began to consider cheerleaders. What is a cheerleader? At first I thought they were simply ardent fans, organized and coordinated to be sure, but only interested in generating team spirit and wearing fringy costumes probably designed by Frederick's of Hollywood. They lead fans through complex chants such as "De-Fense" and the much more intricate "Move Those Chains, Huuh." But, after a few years, I realized they were much, much more.
When the players are on the field, the fans are intensely interactive. They call out the plays, make recommendations, alert the "D" line of pre-snap shifts. Fans are, they will tell you, an integral part of the game. Tense, focused, united and, of course, crucial to the outcome.
In between the plays, however, the tension abates and fans may well wander into an abyss known as "free time." This is when the cheerleaders come to the rescue. They wiggle and shimmy, coaxing the men back into the stoned daze of fandom. "I go to the games to shout and support my team, not to think," my husband told me. He clapped his hands, following the cheerleaders in a chant.
"Can't you talk and look at the cheerleaders at the same time?" I asked. Dumb question.
Later, as the cheerleaders bounced off the field, waving pompoms over their heads I watched in awe as the males in our section, including my husband, waved back. "You know," I said to him. "She's not really waving at you." He didn't take his eyes off those pompoms. "A lot you know," he said.
My children grew up and moved away, and we ask friends to join us at the football games. These are mostly professionals at the tops of their fields, although that hardly matters. Attorneys, doctors, analysts, scientists -- all men are boys at a football game.
During one game, our section became suddenly quiet between plays. "What happened?" I asked the man, our guest, sitting at my shoulder. He only raised his chin. His mouth hung slightly open; I could see a few bits of popcorn on his tongue. Was he having a stroke? The man seated behind us leaned forward and blurted: "A boob fell out." He pointed to the cheerleaders. I looked around me: the men giggled like little girls; the women offered perplexed smiles. A bare boob created all this excitement? I pushed the arm of my companion. He turned to me and smiled. "That was excellent."
Last week we were both feeling low. Thank goodness for a home game! We took our seats in the stadium and shook hands with our section neighbors. We sat in the sun as the band marched off the field to a single drumbeat as my husband made his predictions. He told me which players to watch, what plays to expect. Their quarterback was inconsistent. Our best safety was out with an injury. There was much at stake.
By the time the national anthem sounded, my heart was dancing. The players raced onto the field and we screamed our devotion. "This is exactly what I need," my husband said with two fingers in his mouth. He sent out a whistle that could break glass.
The cheerleaders skipped out, waving their pompoms. I lifted my arms and waved back.