I never missed a deadline in my life, but I missed one this past Tuesday. That was the deadline to enter the NFL's "Together We Make Football" essay contest. According to the league's website, it was "an invitation to anyone who has been touched by the game of football ... to share a story of why they love the game."
The NFL, of course, is promoting itself through what surely will be upbeat, inspiring and maybe even inoffensively humorous stories. The league is, after all, one of the most wildly successful public relations machines of all time for a reason. And, like most fans, I have my share of feel-good memories related to football. And those memories are, indeed, cherished.
But, since the deadline has already passed, what the heck, might as well tackle the darker side and share alternative, somewhat subversive stories.
I love football because, at the very first game I ever saw in person, I learned about the ferocious danger of its raw violence. On Nov. 20, 1960, I was 12 and my dad took me to Yankee Stadium to see the Giants-Eagles game. In the fourth quarter, the Giants' Frank Gifford was knocked unconscious from Chuck Bednarik's tackle, called "clean but cruel" by Dave Anderson of the New York Times. Gifford sustained head and neck trauma, was hospitalized for several days and missed the rest of the 1960 season and all of 1961 before resuming his career.
I love football because it taught me a fundamental lesson in capitalism. When the American Football League came on the scene in 1960, with its wide-open offenses and 2-point conversions and players' names on the backs of their jerseys, the NFL alternately ignored and demeaned the competition. But when the AFL showed legitimate signs of financial viability and launched an all-out offensive against the NFL by signing away talent and driving up salaries, the senior league made the upstarts an offer they couldn't refuse, co-opting them with membership into the old boys' club.
I love football because it gave me my first exposure to the wonderful world of gambling. Paul Hornung, Green Bay's Golden Boy, and Detroit defensive star Alex Karras were suspended for the 1963 season for betting on NFL games. Years later, when I read the book "Interference" by investigative journalist Dan Moldea, it wasn't far-fetched to surmise that gambling is now a virtual adjunct industry to pro football.
I love football because it taught me about how the greed and ego of a single team owner can trump the loyalty of passionate fans. From 1967 through 1981, there were no more dedicated fans in pro football than those of the Oakland Raiders. The team was exciting and successful (three Super Bowl appearances, two titles), and fans responded with commensurate numbers and emotion. The Raiders' identity with Oakland wasn't unlike that of the old Dodgers with Brooklyn. And, like Walter O'Malley did with the Dodgers, Al Davis moved the Raiders to Los Angeles, leaving a bereft and bitter fan base. Yes, Davis moved the Raiders back to Oakland 13 years later, but it's never been the same, in no small measure because rumors of the team abandoning Oakland again never quite vanish.
I love football because it gave us a modern Greek tragedy. It gave us O.J. Simpson. You didn't have to be a fan of the Buffalo Bills to marvel at Simpson's stunning ability to run with a football. He was a joy to watch and deserved comparisons with the game's all-time greats. Heck, he was even fun to watch in rental car TV commercials and Hollywood slapstick comedies. But, for nearly 20 years now, all those memories are thoroughly and forever corrupted because of the sober conclusion that he got away with two murders.