The Army ROTC cadets down by the goalposts didn’t look particularly happy their team was winning. After each conversion they had to jog out in BDU pants, t-shirts, and combat boots, make a formation, drop down, and knock out the number of push-ups in the total score. It didn’t help that the home team was running away with it, so there were many push-ups to do, or that the sun and heat were fierce on game day. One lanky cadet fell behind, and his comrades waited in the Front Leaning Rest until he’d finished pumping out his due. I wondered if they’d begun to regret not signing up for Naval ROTC instead, since the Navy cadets, in immaculate whites, merely took turns tugging the lanyard on a trailer-mounted bell to count each of the Army’s push-ups. Navy looked on with a sense of humor as Army rose slowly to its feet.
The heat index here was somewhere over 120 degrees on Saturday, and fans were being carried out of the stadium on stretchers. A university police officer was quoted as saying that emergency-services supervisors were so busy with “heat-related medicals” that he wasn’t even able to provide an accurate number of casualties. “We’re trying to keep up the best we can,” he said. “We have two [air-conditioned] busses at the east and west end and the first aid rooms are all filled. We’re in process of getting people from first aid to MTD busses.”
I’m not really an organized-sports guy, but even allowing for that I couldn’t really imagine a worse excuse for entertainment: A long slow journey across our narrow, suddenly congested town; intense sun, heat, and humidity; soaked clothes and the start of prickly heat; 50,000 people packed into a small space; a warlike tribal rite with requisite cheers and singing; unnecessary expense that might have gone to books or good whiskey; and two children to keep safe as they complained of discomfort and boredom and demanded cakes and Cokes and ices. Starbuck also asked why security was so tight, and I was reminded that the tenth anniversary of 9-11 was a few days away, and these sorts of gatherings are widely considered good targets. The only place I decided I’d rather not have been was across the street in the hot concrete acres of tailgating, among those standing around dirty grills drinking ricey, canned beer and watching the big game on portable TVs. I recognized I was in a mood.
“If football leached out the aggression and warmongering in American capitalism, maybe there’d be a reason for it,” my acquaintance Larry said when I reached him by phone for color commentary, if not sympathy. “But it doesn’t, and all those needily entitled people gathering like that to watch those hulking monsters, it’s just horrific. I can’t even stand the sound of a football game on the TV, that whispery sound the crowd makes at a distance—aaahhhhh!!!—so indicative of group minds. Are you seriously scribbling down everything I say? Really? I shouldn’t even go on. You’re like a soul vampire. I can hear you thinking, this is gold. But it would be, like, Sundays, and my father was lying on his bed in his dim room and that football sound was coming from his little television set and—O!—it just filled me with horror.”
Larry’s horror cheered me up and, besides, the tickets we’d bought—discounted and sight unseen—happened to be for the bleachers on the west side of the stadium. By the end of the first quarter the sun had sunk below the newly-built skyboxes, and we found ourselves in the shade, which was like mercy. On the east side several thousand orange-shirted fans squinted into the sun and baked along with a few dozen away-fans stuck down in one corner, attended by their own small cheerleading contingent and some poor unfortunate dressed in a furry wolf suit as red as the flames of hell. I told my boys that if they were miserable they should think about the players themselves, battling it out in pads and helmets. Starbuck, who’d stayed home from a Little League game earlier in the week because of the heat and a stomach bug, said, “I never want to play football.” His mother applauded.
I remember attending sporting events the way other people might remember having to have read Beowulf in a college class: Something was going on that somebody else seemed to value, and I think maybe they were speaking English. I get distracted and wind up remembering some insignificant sidebar to the main event, a Bulls game where Michael Jordan dragged up and down the court with a bad cold; a Blackhawks game in the old Chicago Stadium, where someone threw large quantities of nacho cheese onto the crowd from the mezzanine; a Sugar Bowl game in Memphis and the drive past the gates of Graceland and to see the Peabody Hotel ducks; tailgating outside the Brewers’ stadium as guests of a rich vendor who did business with the corporation I worked for, and trying to talk him into bringing Cheesecake Factory cheesecakes, not Cheryl’s Cookies, to the winter office party; a track meet where Rory suddenly spoke in tongues. I’ve tried, really I have.
During the football game I called one of my oldest friends, who went to school here, and then his father, who also went to school here and is a superfan. Gene’s a little disappointed, I think, that I don’t visit old coaches’ graves in the graveyard across from the stadium. I teach here, after all, and could easily pop down there at lunch. I picked up a little more energy from talking to each of them.
Then it was halftime, and the boys liked watching the marching band, the pom-pommers, the female cheerleaders dancing, and the male cheerleaders running across the field with enormous flags in the school’s colors. Some ran strongly upright with their flags balanced perfectly between forward momentum and wind resistance, but a couple of them ran bent over in Groucho crouches with one hand high on the pole and the other near the ground. The cheerleader nearest to us was dripping and red-faced as he did his routine, and when he finally got to throw the flag aside he seemed to shout, “Get off me,” followed by a whole bunch of labiodental fricatives visible 30 yards away. This improved my mood further.
The kids ate bowls of ice-cream mix that had been flash-frozen into little balls in liquid nitrogen, and Mrs. Churm and I split a bag of sticky kettle corn. I began to get caught up in the game and wiped my fingers on the inside of my soaked shirt, where it wouldn’t show. I explained several aspects of football to Starbuck, some of them probably correct, while Wolfie, who was tired and bored, kept insisting he lie on me or sit on my lap. His sweaty bare skin swiping across my hairy flesh felt like someone skinning me, but we made it deep into the third quarter. Starbuck was mad when my wife and I vacillated but finally agreed we couldn’t take it anymore and said we were leaving; he wanted to stay. To my surprise, I nearly did too.