Our college football ritual

It’s not very writer-nerdy to love college football. Don’t care. My nerd card has far too many punches in life for any pencil-neck to criticize. I do care about graduation rates, education, safety, and conduct within the community, in addition to football. I care that football essentially pays the way for most other sports at most schools, which has made Title IX’s equality requirements financially doable.

The NFL, I don’t much care about. Wake me up if the Broncos make the AFC Championship, especially if it’s against a real team (read: not a newfangled Southern team named after some monstrous feline).

The great thing about college football is that one can have many likes and many hates. However, one’s undergraduate allegiance is nearly always one’s home program, one’s favorite, because you are one of them. They walk the same halls and pathways, fellow participants in history and tradition. So, I like Kansas because I’m from there and my father went there, and Colorado State because both my folks went there, and varying other schools for various reasons. But even though I’m not a Washingtonian, I went to Washington, and thus for me college football begins with purple and gold.

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

My wife’s varying undergrad schools did not offer football, though for many Alaskans, UW is a sort of default allegiance (and a dream academic destination), like people from Montana who root for the Denver Broncos. In any case, my enthusiasm has somewhat rubbed off on Deb. Husky football has become one of our fall rituals, something to do together. I doubt she’ll ever be a big student of the game, but sometimes this is the way for women: their psyches flex and adjust and adapt better than ours, probably one reason they live longer than we do. It has become one of our marital rituals, Husky football on TV, and she loves her I BARK FOR SARK t-shirt.

The way it works is through nachos. A lot of nachos. Pure nachismo. A whole pizza plate full of them. We make a massive plate of nachos, sit down and watch the game. I believe she likes it partly because I participate in the production (I normally am not much of a cook, though on request I will always take responsibility for providing food). I consider myself an advanced placer of tortilla chips, and am always willing to grate cheese, oil the pan, chop stuff up, whatever strong-back-weak-mind task I can do. This year (or this week, anyway), I am taking a greater role, because I’m making my version of her chorizo chile to put on the nachos. That covers the beans part, the hamburger part and the sauce part.

I do not believe in lame nachos. Nachos are the place to go all in. The only reason to stop putting stuff on top is if it will a) insulate the cheese from melting correctly, or b) cause problems in the oven by bumping against the burners or pouring off the pan. We all know that most cheese tastes better when heated/cooked. There must be no chip not coated in good things. I wouldn’t feed most sportsbar nachos to Deb’s dogs, which I don’t even like.

The general custom is to consume gallons of beer while watching football, but I don’t. It’s emotional for me, sometimes very disappointingly emotional (even depressingly, as in the Tyrone Willingham era), and for me, drinking and being unhappy don’t mix. After it’s over, of course, if I’m pleased with how things went, I’ll definitely have a few celebratory belts, but I don’t like to get really drunk even then.

We’d have people over more often (no way can we eat all that), but we have not really lived in places where there were a lot of Husky fans. Tri-Cities was hardcore Coug country, and the only reason for them to watch UW is to root against us (and even against Oregon, I don’t openly root against my host’s team…some things are best kept to oneself). Boise is hardcore Boise State country, and we haven’t yet met many other Dawgs here. So it’s not really a social tradition, more of a marital one. But it’s a good one, especially when attending games in person is now more cost- and time-prohibitive than ever. (Eight hours of driving, each way. At least one motel night, probably two. Meals. $150 for tickets. Total, maybe $700–which I read as 2/3 of a house payment. Not happening.

So Husky football returns. Go Dawgs.

Let me close with a bit of outspoken opinion on the changes in football, especially with regard to concussion prevention and increasingly stiff penalties for targeting and helmet-to-helmet hits. Yeah, I know this isn’t how we played football in high school, or when my father played in high school. However, please consider these salient realities:

  • Players are stronger, faster and bigger than before. Don’t believe me, look at the rosters then and now.
  • The impacts are harder, and have outstripped the ability of equipment to protect any part of the body completely. In any case, no protection will keep a brain from sloshing around in the braincase.
  • College is for education first and foremost. The goal is to educate young brains, not scramble them.
  • Look at the numbers in education. At some schools, enrollment approaches 60% female. It’s hard to avoid the strong suspicion that, when opportunity is equal and all is based purely on demonstrated academic merit, the women are smarter than we are. If we are on balance dumber than the women, does society need us to get even dumber through repeated head trauma?
  • Look at the later impact on families. We want our young men to grow into good men: good fathers, good husbands. Brain trauma can cause disastrous, erratic behavior, especially later in life. I’ve known of once-decent men who had head injuries and became brutal animals toward their families. With as much domestic violence as we already have, must we not do all we can to prevent more of it? Was my father’s violently abusive behavior partly a product of the three times he was kayoed playing high school football?
  • Football produces people we often admire, some of whom deserve it and some don’t. What about after football? Let me spell this out. Do you want your school’s greatest hero inducted into his school’s pantheon of standouts in a wheelchair, drooling, unable to stand up and thank alma mater and the community for the opportunity and affection? At forty?
  • We live in an era of fanatically overprotective parents. Many will not let their children play football at all. We’ll never know how great those kids might have been. Do you want to make that even worse? My father didn’t want me to play football. It went like this: “Dad, thinking of going out for football. What do you think?” “Lousy idea, son. You’ll wreck your knee, and limp around in pain for the rest of your life, like me.” This from a high school standout in a town where football was king, a lifelong fan of college football. I told him I was going to do it anyway, and he said he wouldn’t stop me, but I can only imagine what my parents were thinking when we’d kick off. I’d pick a target and ram that helmet in there. Broke the bolt holding my face mask in place one time. Hit people with it so hard that I could hear the collective feminine gasps of pained shock from the stands. May well have injured a reasonably gifted mind–for life. And that wasn’t even people hitting me. It was self-inflicted. I already have some memory issues. How much worse will they be as I age? Did I do this to myself? Will I one day find myself tending toward domestic violence I cannot control, and have no honorable alternative but to exit life on my own terms?
  • And last: it takes thirty years for us to know how bad it really is. We are only now learning how much brain damage was done to the sons of the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the meantime, the hits got harder. We won’t find out until thirty years from now what it did to our current generation of young males, but we can expect it to get worse. It cannot begin to get better until we fix it, and wait our thirty years for the payoff. Those thirty years must begin now.

Against all this, the only argument is ‘the pussification of football’ and grumpy old deprecatory stuff like ‘might as well just play flag football, why even bother?’ You tell me which argument makes more sense, that or mine. For my money, if those are your responses, maybe you yourself had a few too many concussions and they’re starting to show, because the weight of all measured reason argues for taking whatever steps necessary to quit turning kids’ brains to granola.

Let me close by mentioning that this is not the first time we’ve confronted this. Do you know why the NCAA was formed? It was because, by the turn of the century (when football still looked a lot like rugby or ‘soccer football,’ as it was called), there were over a dozen deaths on the field nationally in high school and college football. Many more were paralyzed for life. Theodore Roosevelt stepped in and said, paraphrased: “Your choice. You can fix this blood sport, or I will ban it.” Roosevelt was not known as a man who ran from fights, nor discouraged physical trials of strength and guts. In fact, he was a pretty macho president. Yet in this case, he took a stand for rules changes and protective gear. Pussification? You wouldn’t say that to T.R.’s face. He heard the same complaints, and came to the same conclusion I have: if it kills the kids, or ruins them for life, it’s got to be fixed or gotten rid of.

If that means ejecting and suspending anyone who spears, targets the head or whatever, I’m for it. The alternative is the potential decline of the sport.

I want to keep our ritual. I love Husky football enough to save it.

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