Football in America

First, a few words on the Browns this week. They were dreadful. But of course they were. It's a funny thing -- I like Buffalo Bills fans a lot. We are brothers, Clevelanders and Buffalonians (Buffaloans? Buffalites?). The first time I went to Buffalo, I was 8 or 9, and I lost a Mickey Mouse watch in a snow bank. I remember being impressed rather than angry; even as a Clevelander I thought, "OK, that's an unreasonable amount of snow."

Many Buffalo fans expected their Bills to be the first to lose to the Browns this week. Can't blame them for that. Buffalo fans, like Cleveland fans, expect those sorts of horrible things to happen. It's why I relate. There are fans of teams who just expect good things to happen to their teams; they are SHOCKED when things go wrong. Pittsburgh fans are like that. Pittsburgh and Cleveland have many similarities, but Steelers fans expect things to work out in the end. Browns fans know they will not work out.

In Cleveland, in Buffalo, in various other sports towns you are never shocked by things going bad. The only shock is when they DO NOT go bad.

So, yes, I fully understand why Buffalo fans expected to lose to the Browns -- a feeling that was undoubtedly doubled when Marcell Dareus guaranteed Bills victory. A Buffalo friend, Brian Moritz, bet me a beef-on-weck that the Browns would win (he bet on the Browns; I was to bet on the Bills). I accepted even though I don't gamble on sports things. Well, I didn't see that as gambling. I saw it as a gift. A free beef-on-weck is a free beef-on-weck.

People just don't appreciate how terrible this Browns team really is. It's the worst team I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of bad teams.

There's not much else to say about the Browns-Bills' game except to remember a fun moment when Browns coach Hue Jackson went searching for the red challenge flag. You know that scene in "It's a Wonderful Life" where Uncle Billy searches madly for the $8,000 he stupidly had given over to Mr. Potter? Yeah, it looked like that. Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III had rolled out of the pocket to avoid the rush, and instead of throwing the ball away he somewhat awkwardly and bizarrely ran right next to the sideline before heaving the ball downfield. The officials ruled that he had stepped out-of-bounds first.

Replay showed that he had not quite stepped out-of-bounds before throwing the ball away. This is exactly the sort of thing you would expect these Cleveland Browns to challenge -- whether or not their quarterback stepped out-of-bounds before throwing the ball away.

Anyway, Jackson spent like a full minute trying to find the challenge flag. It was like Kabuki Theater.

There's a wonderful moment in there where Jackson just throws his hands up in the air, like some sort of silent movie type maneuver. There should be like a title screen after that with the word "Rats!" on it. Jackson finally, as you will see, did find the challenge flag. He dropped it on the ground. The Browns may be the worst team in NFL history but, hey, at least Hue Jackson found the challenge flag.

Postscript: The play was not challengable.

* * *

There's a story making the rounds on social networks about the Abdullah brothers, both former NFL players, talking about the brutality of professional football. You've probably read a few stories like it over the years, but thee was one section in there, a quote from Hamza Abdullah, that reminded me of something:

"Football is family? It’s a lie, it’s a facade. As human beings, we’re bloodthirsty, but scared to admit it. We want power. It’s only when we see Luke Kuechly on the ground crying in pain that we say, ‘oh, we wanted blood but not death.’ When we see them hurt, it shows us that was our honest little fun, it’s not so honest.”

Like I say, it reminds me of something. Some years ago, I wrote a story about what Priest Holmes had to do to recover after a football game. Holmes, you will recall, was a star running back, the best in the NFL for a time, even though he had gone undrafted. He was not big, not especially strong, not particularly fast. But he was absurdly disciplined; he prepared himself like nobody. He was all heart, and I think that's what drew me to him as a subject.

Anyway, after one game, I wrote about how he dealt with the pain. He needed a long massage and whirlpool just to garner the strength to get dressed. He could not sleep much the night after a game because of the pain; Mondays were the worst. He used to spend Monday in agony trying to pump himself up for getting through another week. Tuesdays were also the worst because he was still recovering from the last game and now beginning the preparation for the next one. And Wednesday were also the worst, also Thursdays, because those were the hardest days of practice. His body only slowly came back; he grew used to this life of dying and regenerating. It was only by Saturday afternoon that he would begin to feel like himself.

Sunday, of course, it began again.

Holmes was not complaining. This is the life he had chosen. But he wanted me to understand -- and I wanted readers to understand -- just what the sacrifice was to play professional football at that high level. Yes, the money was good. Yes, fame came with the job. But there was agony too, and Holmes understood that he was likely doing permanent damage. And he was.

From a story I wrote about Priest Holmes last year:

Priest Holmes talks to himself while he waits. Talks to himself. “Come on arms,” he whispers to his arms. “I’m bigger than this injury,” he says to his mind. “I’m stronger than what’s happening to me,” he says to his body. When the feeling comes back, it comes slowly, a few centimeters of life prickling at a time, and once all feeling returns he gingerly gets out of bed. There is no more sleeping this night.

I don't bring this up now to retell Priest Holmes story ... no, there's something else. After I wrote that original piece about the agony of Priest Holmes, I got quite a lot of email and voicemails and letters. I had expected to get a pretty big response. But I was very surprised by what the response said; most of the response could be summed up like so:


I was pretty shocked. I had come to know Kansas City well enough that I could usually anticipate the reaction of the city to whatever I wrote. This one came out of nowhere. I had thought people would admire Holmes for the way he endured pain. I thought they would think hard about what he was sacrificing.

No. Mostly there were people writing to say that Priest Holmes (and I) should shut up about his pain. -- they did not want to heart about it They were writing to say that they DOUBTED his pain ("The guy's a whiner; he doesn't hurt that much"). They were writing to say that they would HAPPILY suffer like Priest Holmes for the money he was making. They were writing to say that Priest Holmes' pain simply was not interesting, it was not a story, and it was a waste of their time to read about it.

They were OFFENDED. Really. Like I say, I never saw that wave coming. I blamed myself then -- and still blame myself now -- for not writing that column well enough. It seemed to me so compelling (and important) to describe the behind-the-scenes world of a star running back, what it took for him to be so great. Every time I opened an email telling me that Priest Holmes' pain was not their problem, I was amazed. And they just kept coming.

That struck me again when reading that Hamza Abullah quote. The feelings around football are contentious. We all know about the fight. Some want football banned. Some believe it has gone too soft. Some find it barbaric. Some think it is the last bastion of toughness in America outside of war. Some think it is a modern gladiator scene. Some think it is a sport that forms toughness and manhood and America has lost too much ground already on such things.

I myself have felt a little bit of all of it. I continue to watch even though the Kuechly thing just about broke me. I continue to care enough though I know what these young men are doing to each other. I continue to believe even though I was there watching Priest Holmes suffer for our enjoyment.

Football is a powerful narcotic. It will make us hide the truths even from ourselves.