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Football in the Family

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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Hi Field Gulls -- I used to be commenter MagicJasoni on this blog.  I am now happy to be sharing my thoughts on football and the 'Hawks.  I hope, in the offseason, to post about the History of the 'Hawks by taking a microhistory approach--start very, very small, in some cases just one play--and build it out to a greater history of the team.  I also hope to write about some of the cultural and societal roles football plays in America.  When the regular season begins, I'll be taking a unique look at pre-game matchups the 'Hawks will be facing on their opponent of the week, but I still hope to bring in longer, more reflective pieces as well.  This is my first full essay for the site; consider it an introduction.  Thanks for reading.

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Somewhere in my parents' house, there is a photo of my father, the football player.

He played through high school in a small rural town in Virginia where Friday nights meant you played football or you worked on the farm.  A lot of kids chose to play football.

He's holding a helmet with a pair of bars that cut low across his chin, almost over his neck.  The facemasks were a new addition that year. Before then, he played with only the helmet on. His shoulder pads are huge under the jersey.  He played defensive end and running back. He basically plays rugby, but with the forward pass.

My father rarely talks about himself or his experiences.  He will talk about Civil War generals. He will talk about politics. He will talk more about Civil War generals.  But never about himself.

Unless he's talking about football.

He tells me this story. He was trying to tackle a running back in the open field.  The running back's version of the stiff arm was simply to punch the would-be tackler in the face. My father went to the sideline missing several teeth.  When the dentist surveyed the damage, he wept while pulling the cracked teeth away, then the few remaining healthy ones. This is the story of how my father got dentures.

He tells me this story. He was leaning out to make a tackle and felt his knee give way. He looked down to see his kneecap sitting too high on his leg.  On the sideline, the team trainer had a defensive lineman sit on my father's chest.  He then took his open hand and slapped the knee back into place. My father sat up when this happened. The defensive lineman fell off his chest and to the ground. This is the story of how my father had to stop playing football.

He tells me this story. He was coming home from his Air Force deployment in upstate New York. He tended to soldiers who were returning from Vietnam, but mostly he helped deliver the babies of the women who lived on the base. Many of those babies would never see their fathers. My father was in New York City, waiting for his connecting flight home. He had met my mother and was thinking about starting a new life back in Virginia. On the quarter-operated television, the Atlanta Falcons were playing the New York Giants. The Falcons were an expansion team that year. My father bet the man sitting beside him that the Falcons would win.  The Falcons won, 27-16. It was the first victory for the 0-9 team. This is the story of how my father became an Atlanta Falcons fan.

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Every Sunday, football was on in our house. My father worked swing shift. I tried to tease out what the numbers meant on the screen.  Downs, yards, statistics.  I did it mostly on my own.  I went to the school library and checked out a bookbag full of books about football.  So many that the librarian instituted a limit on the number of books about the same subject a student could borrow at any time.

I learned about Knute Rockne. Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch. Dick "Night Train" Lane.

In Virginia, I subsisted on highlights of football.  George Michael's Sports Machine was my favorite. I saw Steve Largent hit Mike Harden, lifting him off of his feet. Largent: this was a man who played football.  He played it like the legends I read about.  He was enough to make me love the team. He was enough to make me want to be a wide receiver.

I spent most of my evenings in the backyard.  I would toss a football high in the air and catch it. Over and over again.  The sun falling below the horizon was the only thing to bring my indoors.

Sometimes, our local newspaper would have a picture of Largent in their two- or three-page Sports section.  I cut them out and kept them in an album.

I watched the greatest comeback in NFL history. The Oilers opened up a huge lead.  The Bills started scoring points and never stopped. The game ended.  My father came out of the bedroom. He had slept through the entire game.  He was working the graveyard shift that week.

"What did I miss?" he asked.

"You missed the greatest comeback in NFL history," I said.

He shrugged and went to get something to eat.  He had to go to work in a few hours.

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Tucked away in some yearbook is a photo of me in eighth grade. I'm playing junior varsity football.  My shoulder pads are huge on my thin frame. I play defensive end and wide receiver. My bright blonde hair sticks straight up. The coaches name me Q-Tip.  The name sticks. I don't know it yet, but, physically, I'm not a football player.

I am one of those players who stands on the sidelines.  I earned one statistic during my first year of junior varsity.  Our team was leading by over 20 points and the coaches were sending everyone in to play for a while.  I subbed in, but the person I was subbing for didn't believe me when I told them to go to the sidelines.  The head coach called a timeout.  That's my statistic for that year.  A timeout called on my behalf.

The second year, I was in ninth grade.  This time, I appear in the statistics book twice.  Both of them were in blowout wins for our team.  I was called for a false start.  I also got a half a sack, although the linebacker got to the quarterback and dragged him down a few beats before I got there.

That same season, a new assistant coach arrived. He had a mission to make me into a "man."  He stepped on my hands during stretches. He poured Gatorade on my head.  He lined me up during practice opposite of people much bigger than I am.  He wondered why I wouldn't stay after practice to lift weights with him.

I stuck with it.

Until one day.  We were playing in what coaches called the Salad Bowl.  After a win, the starters got practice off, and the non-starters played a game.  I shed a block and sacked the quarterback.  The assistant coach said nothing to me. Instead, he called the quarterback a name and told him he had no talent.

That was when I knew I would no longer play football.  The assistant coach left later that year.  The new coach promised me a chance to play in every game.  I still refused.

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I was in a severe car accident ten years ago. I suffered a concussion that would force me to see a neuropsychologist. My personality changed. My friendships, career, and marriage suffered.  The neuropsychologist asked me how many concussions I had in my life.  The symptoms: flashes of light, odd shifts in hearing, headaches, nausea.  I could only think of one other, from when I was skiing.

"But I did play football in high school," I told him.

He nodded.

Together, thinking back, we counted at least three or four of them.  Three or four bruises on the brain for a wasted timeout, a false start penalty, and a phantom half sack.

This was the beginning of my year of cognitive therapy.

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By form or function, football in our house is rarely on now. I watch the games as much as I can, but video games or dinner or television interrupts.  A Christmas concert during a late-season game with playoff implications. Helping bake a cake for a birthday party.

If I watch a game, it is on my laptop. I sit in the corner of the room with headphones on. My children can identify Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman on sight.

But there's little else to talk about.  Football in our house is always one question: did they win?  And the answer is always yes or no.

My son swims. My daughter takes karate lessons.

On the night the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, I went upstairs to tell them the news.

They were both fast asleep.