Football Is Joy

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I was not always obsessed with football. There was a time in my life when Saturdays and Sundays were just days.

I grew up in Cincinnati during the 90s, when the Bengals were about as terrible as terrible can be (seriously, look up the Bengals Wikipedia page. It’s a litany of sad.) My dad spent most games doing something else – during particularly bad seasons, he’d do home improvement projects. My parents have two decks and two ponds. That’s a lot of Sunday despair put to good use.

In addition, my dad went to Northwestern (which just won the only bowl game they’ve ever won during my dad’s lifetime) and my mom went to Carleton, so I grew up in a college football-free home.

As an incredibly awkward (fat, braces, unkempt hair, an inability to not use giant words in everyday conversation, definitely not heterosexual) kid, sports were a no-go for me. I was part of that generation of kids where either you were spectacular at sports – select soccer, AAU basketball – or you avoided them like the plague. I read a lot. I thought a lot. Maybe too much. I was very lonely, and I thought about being lonely all the time. In high school, all of this thinking would go to a very bad place and end with me spending some not-so-fun times at Children’s Hospital.

When I got to college, I wasn’t concerned about college football. I was 18, and finally out of Ohio, and I was ready to start my life over again. No one at Michigan knew me. They didn’t have to know about the time I wore a cape around school or how uncomfortable I could be around other people or how long I spent staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, hoping to not wake up the next day.

Michigan football was shitty my freshman year.  After barely losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl the year before, and despite having future NFL standouts like Leon Hall, Jason Avant, and Lamarr Woodley on the team, Michigan decided to find out what it would be like to be unable to hold onto a lead or maintain a drive for longer than four plays (those four plays: run left, run left, incomplete pass, punt.) We lost to Minnesota. We lost to Notre Dame. The season would eventually end with a nearly successful multiple lateral play in the Alamo Bowl against Nebraska.

That doesn’t matter. Just know that it was a season, and not a great one.

I went to one game. It was my first time at Michigan Stadium. It ended with this:

Complete chaos.

Chaos cannot be controlled. You can’t defend chaos. There’s no nickel package that can combat chaos. That chaos is why some coaches sleep in their offices.

The entire empire of college football media, from recruiting rankings to Mark May and Lou Fucking Holtz, is built on trying to make chaos into order, trying to tell you and themselves that if this 4* QB goes to this school and learns under this system, he will throw to this receiver and there will be this touchdown. This team will win, this team will lose, and this can all be borne out in statistical analysis explained to you by Jesse Palmer. But that’s bullshit, and once or twice a year, we learn that lesson.

The moment that the ball is snapped, there are so many possibilities and permutations of what might or could happen that it’s almost inconceivable that any play works as designed.  If you’re a good enough team, you can create enough plays that work that you can almost overrule chaos – a fumbled handoff, the QB dropping the ball (heh, Tommy Rees, heh), a sack and strip of the running back. But that chaos is always there, watching and waiting.

In my life, I hate chaos. I like certainty. Order. Rhythm. But I crave football chaos. Football chaos leads to upsets and plays that you don’t even believe are real while they’re happening. I lie on the floor and I tweet and I have panic attacks and I scream and I jump around and I totally lose my mind from that chaos. Football chaos creates joy.

Joy is elation. Joy is ephemeral. Joy is like getting thrown into the air and exploding into tiny  shiny pieces. Joy is the moment that Chad Henne threw that ball to Mario Manningham on a 4th and 1 with 1 second left on the clock against an undefeated Nittany Lion squad in front of 108,000 people. Joy is like getting kicked in the face by magic.

There’s just a second right before the ball is snapped when time stops. The center looks up, looks back, looks up, snaps. In that moment, nothing matters and everything matters. Anything is possible. You hang in this moment, and then that moment is gone. The play is run, the whistle is blown, and it’s over.

I’d give everything I have to always live in that moment.

I love football because it makes me useless. History is useless. ESPN and CBS and ABC are useless. Everything is useless but that moment, that breath before the play. There’s nothing I can do. Nothing I can be can make Michigan win. I can leave my head and exist in that moment, that play, that catch, that tackle.

I love football because nothing on earth makes me happier. College football has given me moments that have held me, safe and content, through some of the most difficult moments of my life. When my mom was in a coma my sophomore year of college, I watched the 2006 Michigan-Notre Dame game so often that I can quote large sections of the color commentary. Sometimes, my anxiety makes me feel so alone and so scared and the weight of it on my chest makes it difficult to breathe. But then I watch Courtney Avery intercept Braxton Miller’s 4th down pass at the end of the 2011 game against OSU and for a moment, just for a moment, I’m free.

I don’t know if other women feel this way. I bet they do, but again, I don’t know. I don’t know why it matters to some GQ writer who doesn’t even like football. I don’t know why women aren’t allowed to like things without becoming ‘a woman who likes a thing’.

I don’t know very much of anything. Uncertainty – about myself, my life, my future – is fairly standard for me. Perhaps the only things I am certain about are about football. I know that I love Michigan football. I know that I will always love Michigan football. And for now, that’s enough.