Sep 14, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson (87) celebrates with fans after catching an 80-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter against the New York Jets at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
It’s been a rough couple of weeks to be an NFL fan. Stories that take place off the field have eclipsed the stories taking place on the football field for the first time since I can remember. It seems like the only break we get from these stories is the couple hours on Sunday when the games are played. Even then, the commentators seem to do their best to mention the off-field stuff — almost as if to make sure we don’t let it leave our minds for longer than an hour or two.
This saddens me.
I watch sports, especially football, to escape the reality of life. Sports in America — especially at the professional level — are televison shows first and competitions second. Football to me is like Star Trek to a trekkie. It’s my passion, my addiction and my quiet place. Right or wrong, it trails only faith and family in my life, and I’m confident that I’m not alone. I’ll take a day off of work for football. I’ll never skip football to do more work.
Ah, work. That little thing too many people identify themselves with. You’re a plumber, a firefighter, a doctor, a lawyer or a soldier. Not me. I’m a husband and a father who spends nine hours a day somewhere he doesn’t want to be doing things he doesn’t want to do in exchange for a salary that allows me to live the other 15 hours a day the way I want. That’s how I’ve always viewed work and that is not likely to change.
Sports have been my escape from all the seriousness of life since I was a young boy. I was bullied for many years — not because I was weak or extremely different than anyone else — but mostly because I didn’t wear name-brand clothes and shoes. It wasn’t even that my parents couldn’t afford those things. It was that they knew we didn’t need them. The bullying led to distractions and loss of concentration in the classroom. It led to me hating school. It eventually led to me repeating the eighth grade.
Luckily, I was an athlete.
I had wrestling and baseball to look forward playing in the winter and spring after school. Those were sports where the brands you wore didn’t matter. You were judged by the results. That was heaven for a bullied kid.
We didn’t have youth football in my town growing up, so I couldn’t look forward to practicing and playing that sport until high school. I did, however, look forward to watching our high school football team Friday nights in the fall. It didn’t matter if the game was home or away, my father’s routine every Friday, starting with the minute my brother and I stepped off the bus, was to feed us, dress us for the weather and drive to the game.
Everyone who hears the phrase “Friday night lights” immediately thinks of the TV show by the same name and usually football in Texas or the south. I’m hear to tell you, Friday nights in the the North are every bit as…well…awesome. There is nothing like the smell of hot dogs, popcorn and fresh cut grass cutting through the crisp fall air as you walk past the concessions stand. There is nothing like wrapping your freezing hands around a cup of hot chocolate in the third quarter, only to spill some or all of it on yourself as you jump up to cheer the long run that changes the game.
On the way home, my ears would ring from the cowbells and the images of football players under the lights were burned into my eyelids whenever I closed them.
These were the experiences that kept me going in school. I knew that one day, my dad would be packing up the truck and driving to watch me play — as long as I stayed in school and passed my classes. I knew that football was the foundation of my relationship with my father. Again, I know I’m not alone.
To this day, the smell of hot dogs, popcorn and fresh cut grass brings me back to those days. The sights and sounds of football being played — live or on television — put me at ease.
Recently, the media’s focus on the off-field issues in the NFL brought back other memories from my youth. There was domestic abuse and extensive discussions about it in my own extended family. We learned about it and taught ourselves how to react and think about it. It didn’t need a national awareness campaign. Our family had it covered. We also had incidents of what might be considered child abuse in my extended family nowadays. Again, we lived and learned. We eventually talked about it. We grew as a family.
Nobody went to jail. We were lucky, both from a law enforcement perspective and a safety perspective in both cases. Those incidents could have destroyed our family and almost did. But they didn’t, and to be honest, I don’t need any reminders that those things still happen in our society. I know they do. You know they do. We can choose to act or pretend to make everyone aware and give false hope that we can end it all.
Quite honestly, I don’t feel like it. I do my part. I work. I take care of my family. I volunteer in the local schools. Like most of you, I’m what you’d call a genuinely good person. I do those things and then come home to flip on the news only to see that not everyone else is like me. It doesn’t surprise me, but it bothers me. So I choose to escape. I choose football.
The last thing I need when I choose football is to then have people like Bob Costas, Chris Berman, Cris Carter or Ray Lewis come into my living room and give me their opinion and take on how and why I should care that someone hit their wife or kid. I don’t need people calling on me to boycott a certain game, team or the entire sport. Nobody who actually watches football will boycott football. And they shouldn’t be expected to. Doing so ignores the hundreds of other players in the league who are just like me and most of you — living their lives and being good people from sun up to sun down.
Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald do not define football. Their acts of violence and negligence are not a reflection of some terrible epidemic in our society or a reflection of all football players and fans.
All they and their stories are to me is clutter in a sport I love that takes me to a place that brings me peace.