When people learn that I host a podcast about the NFL, their first question is always this: why? Why do I choose to follow a sport where a vast majority of the practitioners and fans are half a world away? Why do I choose to follow a sport that culturally, I have very little in common with? Why do I choose a sport when, much of the time, the most important games are played in the middle of the night?
At this point, because of awkwardness, and social time constraints (frankly, I could talk your ear off), I tend to boil it all down into just five words: “because it’s mad as hell”. Ultimately, that is usually the end of the conversation, but I’ve always wanted to say so much more, and never had the forum to discuss, because - let’s face it – most people are not interested.
American Football is mad as hell. Take for example the onside kick, a concept so vastly outdated that it hasn’t changed in 100 years of the sport, and still - no matter how well or poorly it is executed - amounts to little more than a coin flip being played out by 22 players kitted out in vibrantly coloured suits of armour running into each other, whilst the ball bobbles like a child lost in the freezer aisle of a supermarket amid the chaos. It is the pure frenzy of American Football that sets it aside from other sports – the slow motion giddiness at the cry of a fumble, the atavistic rumble of a crowd down two points late in the fourth, the baffling officiating, even more baffling scoring, the rules for which seem entirely arbitrary (seriously, 2 points for a safety?!).
But American Football is a beautiful game too. A sort of grass-stained-at-the-knees kind of beauty - the perfect rainbow of a pass to the very corner of the end zone, or the camera catching the pellets chewed up and eddying up into the air by the trailing toes of the receiver. The broadcasters and analysts can get in on it too (“DIGGS! SIDELINE! TOUCHDOWN!”). American football is localised nonsense, as only technicolour can deliver. Think of the melodrama of it all, the agony and ecstasy of a 3rd and goal with 5 seconds left on the clock and no timeouts.
We can get into why sports appeal to humanity, the opiates of the masses and the ignominy of the everyman played out in front of us within structural guidelines: the Dolphins might be losing, but at least if I concentrate about that, I don’t have to think about how my wife is leaving me for the younger, more attractive dental hygienist who she met whilst having a routine check who does yoga and is never late home. Sports are a way of normalising the un-normalisable in our lives, a way of cancelling the chaos and randomness in our day-to-day.
Take, say: badminton, with its winners and losers it makes for quite a beautiful spectacle. Bowling with its indeterminable randomness of a ball rolling down the lane, the wonderful crockle of the pins at the moment of impact. Baseball, with its most beautiful noise of any sport, the sweet tonk of bat and ball connecting and the jet engine whoosh of the ball spinning into the night. You can even take English Football (sorry Brazil), the original beautiful game: it has the same dusty-kneed, fat-lipped majesty and the same crystalline beauty of a perfect pass. Any sport, be it martial arts or shuffleboard, provokes a sense of amazement and wonder when played by people have honed it to perfection.
But American Football is is a game of paradoxes, of finesse and aggression, punch and counter-punch, that unfurls like a chess match. Think of a sack, Khalil Mack bending around the hapless tackle, open hand keeping the guard at bay whilst he hits the quarterback with such force that he is lifted off his feet, all whilst the ‘Jaws’ theme plays. Finesse and aggression in perfect harmony. These are the indeterminable building blocks of sports. Specifically, we pick elements of these from the sports that we love and choose to idolise or to villainise them, and in so doing they take on a greater meaning. Because, to ask why I love American Football truly becomes a different question: If American Football represents the pinnacle of what sport has to offer, why do I love sport?
Because sport is mad as hell. At any point in any game, each player has the ability to achieve greatness. Each player has the opportunity to become transcendent; a greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts legend. Sport is the hope that lightning will be captured in a bottle directly before your eyes.
By Edward Wilkins / Edited by Emma Hebron