Why Games Matter
What I (re)learn through football about living and believing
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
- T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
I am a military strategist and a historian. So, I spend much of my available time studying wars and the consequences of war. Yet, I must also confess that I spend a lot of time paying attention to what is going on in the National Football League (NFL). Growing up, I had never been one of the guys who thought he knew what was going on in sports. I was the one who watched just enough of the games to recognize the same names that everyone else knew, but I didn’t really understand the game itself or what it was that made certain players exceptional. I was a spectator.
So, when I became a studied fan of the NFL as an adult, it surprised me more than anyone else. I began following free agent transactions, post-game press conferences, and college football in addition to watching the NFL games. At some point (I’m not sure exactly when), I was struck by the amount of time that I was committing to the sport. My family life wasn’t a wreck. Games were a shared occasion for me and my wife, and we still protected time to spend with the kids and to take care of the household. Still, I needed to know, for my own satisfaction, if football was a vehicle for cheap escapism or if it was something more edifying. So, I took an inventory. I found that football provided me with a cathartic annual journey — a kind of safe but compelling emotional pilgrimage.
From Wonder Years to Adulthood
As a youth, I was where I was. My life then was relatively simple. My concerns growing up were of the typically banal variety. So, I had no need for catharsis, or even a real comprehension of what that meant. Adulthood and the Forever War changed that and with it my relationship to the game of football.
I was like a lot of other American kids. I grew up with football heroes and their dramatic moments. I caught the excitement of Joe Montana-to-Jerry Rice and other storied tandems in the game. As a young San Francisco 49ers fan, I believed in the substance of my hometown team’s rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys. It was powerful for me because I shared this conviction with millions of others in the Bay Area and, more importantly, with my family and close friends. Memories of those seasons of 49ers football will always be a touchstone for me — an instant connection to my youth and a gilded image of what once was.
All of this faded away in the decade after I joined the US Army’s ranks in 1999. Adjusting to the demands of military life for an introvert like myself and then the shock of 9/11 two years later set me adrift from my emotional moorings as a young man. I still had my faith, my family, and my duties to keep me grounded as an individual, but I lost touch with the foundations of my youth in a significant way during those years. My core memories were there but in an oddly disembodied manner. It was almost as if they belonged to someone else, and I was merely their caretaker.
It was not until I returned from a tour of duty in Iraq that life finally began to settle into a recognizable new normal. My daughter started going to school, my wife adjusted to raising kids after completing her own stint as an army officer, and I finally began to overcome my “imposter syndrome” problem. This transition spanned about five years punctuated by commanding a couple of army units, going to graduate school, and teaching history at West Point — all of them crucible experiences for me and critical to my professional maturity. It was at the end of this transitional period that I rediscovered football as a way to connect with friends outside of the usual topics of work and family. It did not take long for me to realize that my relationship with the game had changed markedly from what it had been in my childhood just as had most everything else in my life.
As a soldier, I had not lived through the harrowing stuff that movies are made from, but I had experienced the relatively mundane stresses of combat zone life. I’ve felt the fear of never getting the chance to hold my newborn son and the loss of comrades killed or wounded. I also found the unique burden of studying the history of wars in their rich and macabre mosaic of triumph and suffering, meditating on the aspirations as well as the failures that are inevitable when violence is used to achieve political ends. I don’t think one could see anything in life the same way again under those kinds of influences. So, even with something so simple and casual as spectator sports, I returned to football with different eyes and came to know it again for the first time.
Sporting events, no matter how gritty, are obviously not wars. Highly-paid athletes struggle to move a ball within byzantine rules in order to claim a trophy and a ring, supporting an insular multi-billion dollar media and merchandising economy. So, juxtaposed with war, it is easy to frame the story of football as an exhibit in the absurdity of life.
Without a doubt, there are many substantive and trenchant criticisms of the NFL and all that it perpetuates, but I have found that many of the absurdities and injustices in football to be common to society. Disdaining in football what is pervasive in society at large seems in itself absurd. So, for me, the heroic and aspirational character of the game should be allowed to inspire without the burden of guilt. It is for football’s redeeming qualities that I identify with its teams, enjoying the players’ victories, and lamenting their defeats.
It seems unlikely that a spectator sport could secure such importance in my life. This is particularly true when I reflect on how loathe I am to be emotional and how I value focusing on (as they say) things that matter. It seems out of character for me to hitch my heart and my mind to the fate and machinations of football clubs and individual players. Yet, here I am — a football fan. I am probably the last person to paint my face and run into a stadium in super-fan garb, but I parse the team rosters, the character of team organizations, the play calling of each game, etc. Why?
Heroes, Comrades, and Hope
In my new normal, I have found a need (perhaps, a craving) to witness the heroic, to affirm the value of shared commitment, and to experience the catharsis that comes from hoping against the odds. Against the backdrop of acrimonious politics and war, I have found satisfaction in the simplicity and communal experience of the contest on the field. I have enjoyed watching undrafted athletes overcome an unforgiving selection system to secure a spot on a team roster, seeing them battle through injury to stand with their teammates, and believing with them when they refuse to doubt in their opportunity to claim greatness. None of these things have been determined by where I grew up or where I’ve lived, and that is part of what makes my relationship to football different as an adult. My motivation is now less tribal, and my loyalties are now less scripted. My fan faithfulness is more principled in its own kitsch way (principles in real life are not accompanied by flyovers, soundtracks, and cheerleaders after all), and that is where my love for the game moved beyond pure distraction and fulfills my need for meaning.
The games are microcosms of life in a way that the trite use of football metaphors in boardrooms and training meetings can obscure. Individuals who are committed to each other and to a shared ambition press through physical and emotional adversity for the sake of hope, and they do so in all of the flawed ways that people are subject to through arrogance, vanity, and disdain. It is the totality of the parallel between sports and life that many miss in comparing the familiar heroism of athletes with that of soldiers in the field or activists defending a just cause — flawed human beings struggling against the weaknesses of their own flesh, the ephemeral nature of worldly goals, and the capriciousness of society’s adoration. It is in some ways because of the inevitable disappointment from season to season that I embrace the game. These qualities make it work as a proxy to what is otherwise overwhelming in life, fitting the complexity of the real world into a constructed universe that I can easily comprehend and thereby meditate on. I can find an understanding of life through the politics, personalities, and tactics of football.
So, I came back to the NFL very much on these terms — my own terms. I came back looking for something that resurrecting childhood loyalties could not by itself fulfill. My search brought me to that strangely unthinkable place as a sports fan: I switched teams. I walked away from the storied team of my hometown and youth to pick up the colors of a team as far removed from that organization in every sense of the word that one could imagine. Honestly, I think I will forever be amused by my choice. Having grown up a 49ers fan, I became a Green Bay Packers fan.
Go Pack Go?
I more or less stumbled into Packers fandom through fantasy football. It is strange but true. I had decided to give it a try at the invitation of some colleagues at work. I was a new faculty member at the time, and I thought it would be a good way of getting to know my colleagues and forcing myself to unplug from my work. So, I blundered my way through the fantasy draft process and ended up with a team anchored by Brett Favre, Donald Driver, et al. Bizarrely, I suddenly had an interest in what was going on in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
In the season that followed, I applied my historian’s habits to football. I absorbed the Packer’s origin story: Vince Lombardi, Acme Packing Co., community ownership of the team, etc. I became aware of a cast of individuals previously unknown to me: Aaron Rodgers, Mike McCarthy, Ted Thompson, and others. I never met them, but I became familiar with their media personas and shared in their routine struggles against circumstance within the NFL. The team went from being an NFL product that I consumed as a fun distraction to becoming a family of individuals that I followed and cared about. The 2016 season deepened that connection.
“I feel like we can run the table.”
— Aaron Rodgers
Sometimes life comes down to simple acts of faith where situations offer no alternatives other than resignation or hope. Such was the case for the Packers in late-November 2016. I had persevered through first third of the season where the team seemed to teeter on the edge of mediocrity and disaster, but against that narrative there were ever-present elements of strength and potential for the heroic. The Packers were as talented as they had ever been with Aaron Rodgers as starting quarterback, but the team was weighed down by injuries on both offense and defense. The injuries were exacerbated by less than crisp execution, and the cumulative effect of those issues sent the season into a downward spiral through the middle third of the regular season — four consecutive losses and two at Lambeau Field for a record of 4–6. For many Green Bay fans, hope had evaporated. For them, it was becoming easier to embrace the unfamiliar hurt of low expectations than to risk hurting more in hoping.
Then, Rodgers makes his now famous “run the table” comment after the Packers fell to the Washington Redskins for their sixth loss. I admit that, although I never gave up on the team, the audacity of the quarterback’s statement stunned me for a moment. Much has been made through commentators’ mea culpa confessions for doubting Rodgers’ prediction, but somewhat lost in this return-of-the-faithful is the fact that it was a straightforward declaration of faith. It was not a prognostication. The team’s quarterback, a leader in the ranks, declared his abiding faith in the team, in the reciprocal confidence of his teammates, in the power of determination, and in himself, publicly and at risk of ridicule.
It does not need to be recounted here in detail, but the rest of the season was a breathtaking redemption of that declaration. Despite some near run contests through the end, the Packers played with a tenacious confidence to ultimately win their division without losing another regular season game. In a year with many highlight moments, there was one moment in the Packers’ run for the Super Bowl that seemed particularly emblematic of their season — a climactic precision pass in the final seconds.
Rodgers to Cook
It’s one of those plays where it’s just like, “Really, Rodgers?” I mean, he threw a dime on the move.
— Cowboys safety Byron Jones
There were twelve seconds left in the game between the Packers and Cowboys. The winner would go on to Atlanta and the conference championship. It was third down and twenty yards on Green Bay’s own 32-yard line in a raucous AT&T Stadium. The Cowboys had rallied from a deep deficit to tie the game at 31–31.
Rodgers takes the snap from the shotgun, rolling left, and throws across his body to his tight end Jared Cook who is thirty-six yards downfield, putting the Packers in field goal range with three seconds remaining on the clock. Kicker Mason Crosby then delivers the game’s final act, slipping the winning score past the left upright from more than fifty yards out. It was a sublime ending.
The Packers would end up falling to the Atlanta Falcons in the following game. The loss was a bitter conclusion to a season that seemed destined to ascend for the simple reason that the team believed it could be done, but their resilient hope through adversity was a gift nonetheless. Super Bowl championships are rewarding for their undisputed status, but the quality and honor of a season’s contest are the grist for loyal fandom. For me, the 2016 Packers delivered a season worthy of devoted fans.
I am not a dyed-in-the-wool Packers fan, and I am not a gridiron chauvinist. So, I don’t think that Green Bay offers the only place where fans can find an experience deeper than the game highlights, and I don’t believe that football is the only sport providing a tableau for exploring the human condition. It is true, though, that I revel in the narrative of a city of 100,000-plus in Wisconsin chasing down franchises in Dallas, New York, and…yes, San Francisco. It is the classic David and Goliath story, and given the option, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this essay are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the US Army, US Department of Defense, or US government.