Football, At Your Age?

Another absurdly bright, uncannily warm autumn day found me crossing a football field this morning. Again. One of my main routes on the ankle express takes me through the grounds of the community centre on Donald Street. Behind it is a small gem of a gridiron, lighted and perfectly crowned, with that familiar blend of short tufts of green mixed with worn turf where the cleat marks dimple the dirt. Beyond the end zone on either end remain the baseball backstops that were the original anchors of this mid-city sports park. However, the football goalposts in shallow centre field, the bleachers along the chalked sideline, and the blocking sled which, outside practice grunting time, just blocks the right-field line make it clear: it is autumn, and Football is King. It has been all summer.

Some people never grow up, it seems. I found myself walking across the quiet field, local seniors doing their laps around the perimeter. I may have appeared to be just strolling, too, but actually I was running instant replays of gridiron exploits recorded nowhere but in my jumbled memory. The highlight reel starts a bit bumpily: getting thrown around by a crazy corner linebacker in my first high school practices; being flung by an opposing lineman, like a rag doll in the jaws of a Doberman, as an undersized rookie slotback on his first run with the ball (and trying to wipe the phlegm off my face before I got back to the huddle); getting wide open on our terrible team’s first-play fly pattern, and watching our beleaguered QB’s beautiful touchdown spiral bounce off the shoulder pads I’d never worn playing sandlot ball on the town square. There were 54-0 and 63-0 thrashings by the bigger schools down the road. But it got better. We won more than we lost by the time I was a senior, and there were solid tackles and touchdowns and one particular leaning sideline catch that meant little in the context of a losing match but made me feel like a pro. For a minute or two at the time, but forever in my mind. The older I get, the more spectacular it was.

Yup, the hands used to work. They still do, but mostly for laundry and dishwashing and driveway basketball with children. (Yes, and typing, certainement.) And, likely thanks to a decision to put aside football after high school, I have pretty good knees for an old guy. But basketball left me with high maintenance ankles that whine and creak every morning, and so I’ve noticed something different about this fall, and perhaps the last few.

Time was when the cooling nights and the falling leaves meant only one thing, and this long after I’d hung up my helmet: time to run. Not just to run, but to juke, cutback, straight-arm a hapless linebacker, lower my shoulder and stretch for the first down. 20. 25. 30! He’s headed for the 35, the 40… Yup, even after I’d passed the 40-year marker, I’d be minding my own business, going for a slow old jog down any old street, red and yellow leaves along the curbside, and suddenly I’d be possessed. I’d feel a pointed leather spheroid under my arm, my eyes would widen, and the urge to hit the hole and get outside and turn it upfield overwhelmed me. Well, almost. I wasn’t highstepping past any helpless pedestrians or spinning out of the grasp of the postman. I’m a fairly sane neighbour. But every once in awhile, on a dark and quiet street, I would make a sweet little cut to avoid a looming mud-puddle. And there was that dog two blocks over, left yapping at only air…

But this morning I noticed something different. Even crossing a football field, even when I tried to get the old motor fantasies running, I couldn’t. The thought of making a sharp change of direction makes my ankles ache. I can still hear the plastic cacophony of pads and helmets popping as an 18-year-old ballcarrier – me – is gang-tackled to the ground. I can still re-visit the perverse joy of that socially approved violence, but I wouldn’t want to live there again. I can imagine coaching that game. Maybe. (Barely. And rarely.)

As in this park near me, baseball is sidelined. Televisions will turn to the MLB now that October is here, maybe even mine. I hear there was an exciting play-in game last night, the Rockies knocking off the Padres. (Can you name their cities?) There must be some baseball played somewhere in my city, but I never see kids playing it in my part of town. Now there’s a game I miss. I miss it even better than football, maybe ’cause I played it into my 30s. And even in mid-life, I can still imagine a nice pick, a quick throw (though my shoulder might groan for a week afterward) and, especially, swinging that bat. Even with that more easy-going game, though, I’d be best off playing it in the theatre of the mind. No pulled hamstrings there. No ice-bucket evenings. I’ve had my fill of those.

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