FOOTBALL’S ALIVE AND WELL. JUST NOT IN THE NFL.

Yesterday, still two days before Christmas, I could tell without seeing numbers on a scale that I’d blown through the already-generous holiday calorie quota I’d given myself. Sooner or later in life, you come to understand how this works. It’s not just the quantity; it’s the quality (or lack thereof).

So, I couldn’t afford a routine day at the gym. Problem was, age and conditioning usually don’t allow me to go beyond routine. Pushing past my near-permanent, comfortable level would take something special. By that, I don’t mean an extraordinary effort or a novel regimen. I’m a plodder, no matter what. What I needed was to find something on the elliptical monitor’s 50 cable stations that would be attention-grabbing enough to keep me occupied for 30 minutes. Without that, I would have no chance avoiding pangs for over-frosted Christmas cookies and swigs of milk from the carton when nobody was watching.

I knew I would have to get lucky, first to find an open machine on a holiday weekend. Second, the pickings on TV would be slim for my finicky taste. The big college bowl games weren’t on the calendar yet. Holiday shows and year-end retrospectives make me crazy. I get enough news away from the gym, so that stuff was off the table. And the NFL’s small slate of Saturday games were sure to be boring. Maybe I’d find a Matrix marathon.

I fake-stretched longer than usual before dragging myself to the machines. Wouldn’t you know, there was just one open. (I was so close to getting off the hook.) I started slow, per my SOP, not just for warm-up, but so I could concentrate on channel surfing. But there was no sign of Neo. As a result, while I kept surfing, I also visually eavesdropped on what my neighbors had on. The guy right next to me was watching an obscure college bowl game; the part that caught my attention was the crawler. Something about a running back with 200 yards. I decided to bite and quickly surfed for the same picture I saw next to me.

It was the Armed Forces Bowl, Army vs. San Diego State, whose Rashaad Penny would go off for 221 on the ground before it was done. His first touch went 81 yards for a score less than two minutes into the game. I jumped into the broadcast early in the fourth, having missed a lot of the fireworks. Still, the last 10 minutes of clock was the most fun football I’ve seen all year.

It had been see-saw since the start. Penny put SDSU up 35–28 with about five minutes left, the ninth running TD of the game. The ground game ended up accounting for 255 of SDSU’s 280 total yards, and 400 of Army’s 406.

After Penny scored, Army marched (sorry; it’s just the best word). After 14 running plays, and 71 ensuing yards, Army lined up from the SDSU 1 with 18 seconds left. The touchdown to come was almost a foregone conclusion, but the best part was right around the corner. Army was still down one, 35–34. Would Army go for two? Both teams were clearly spent. Overtime would be a war of attrition, three to seven yards at a time. There was really never a doubt. Army lined up in a tight formation from which a wide pitch right gave them the lead by one.

Army’s fluke fumble return touchdown during SDSU’s flea-flicker attempt as time expired sealed the deal for Army at 42–35. There were no individual touchdown celebrations after any of the scores, only a team-wide celebration by the Army players after the difference-making points. They were joyous. None of them will play pro ball any time soon. Even the few who might be good enough have military service first. Their joy was for the game and each other.

It was a blast to watch hard-nosed runs up against solid tackling on both sides. Few penalties. No targeting or personal fouls. Just fundamental team football. Sweeps, dives, traps. Pounding, peppered with small break-aways between 10 and 25 yards. Runs, blocks and tackles played fully to the whistle but not beyond. I never imagined a game that featured one team walking off the field with 6 passing yards alongside 400 running could possibly interest me. But it was captivating.

When the broadcast wrapped up, I glanced down through dripping sweat at my elliptical dashboard to see the timer at over 50 minutes. It felt like nothing. Pay attention, NFL.

Michael McCormack/The Born Fanatic

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