I played a lot of sports as a kid. Soccer was the only organized sport that I played, but I played lots of games with the other kids in the neighborhood in our cul-de-sac. We imagined we were the Atlanta Braves with a wiffleball and bat. We played lots and lots of kickball. The sport that was the most fun, however, was football. We would gather together in someone’s backyard (“home” and “away”) and all we needed was a football and we would just run around and tackle the fool out of each other. Darkness would fall and we would return home covered in bruises and cuts to our horrified parents. We had made up rules (5 “Mississippis” before you could sack the quarterback. Everyone was terrible at place kicks so we just threw the ball instead of a kickoff.) and made up teams. Football captured my imagination so much that I had entire imaginary teams and players in an imaginary league as a child.
My dad went to Georgia Tech and was a casual fan of football. My grandfather was a huge football fan, his team was Georgia, but since his money was going to Georgia Tech he paid a lot of attention to them, too. I grew up with football on the TV and on the radio. I sat in the old South Stands at Grant Field around 1984 and I vividly remember listening to the amazing 1985 Georgia-Georgia Tech game on the radio. I was hooked. By 1990, I was in high school and pretty sure I would be going to Georgia Tech for college and the National Championship season was a crazy, unbelievable ride. My dad and I bonded together over a lot of those games, even riding the train out to Athens for the 1990 game against Georgia. As a student at Tech, though, the heady days of the National Championship had already subsided and football was kind of a drag. I went to many games just because that’s what you did as a student at Tech but my interest was waning. Then in 1998, I met a girl and Joe Hamilton started throwing the ball all over the place and that girl and I went on a lot of great dates to the stadium and also to Raleigh and even to Jacksonville for the Gator Bowl and that 1998 season will always have a lot of romance and legend associated with it.
After graduating, I kept on buying tickets and before I knew it I had gone to some 10 years worth of games all full of ups and downs. Chan Gailey became coach and Tech became good, but not great. There was Calvin Johnson, but Tech lost to UGA every year and stagnated. Paul Johnson arrived and suddenly football started to be fun again. Adriene and I got to celebrate New Year’s Eve with old college friends in downtown Atlanta and we had a great time even if Tech got paved by LSU. We spent a week in Miami for the Orange Bowl and though we froze in south Florida, once again we have fond memories intertwined with football.
In the last couple of years, though, football stopped being fun again. I’ve never been a huge fan of the NFL, but I began to be repulsed with the off-field behavior of the players. The domestic abuse cases and the violence associated with the sport began to gnaw at my conscience. Research about concussions only made my enjoyment of the sport even more conflicted especially every time I watched a defensive end gyrate and celebrate over a prone sacked quarterback or hear an announcer say “ho ho! He got his bell rung!” The comical enforcement by the NFL made players, coaches, and owners all look bad even as they grabbed for more money by building new stadiums to replace the ones that weren’t really that old and sell pink merchandise to women while looking the other way as women were victims of attacks by players over and over. All of this happened while Tech continued to limp along to 6 or 7 wins a season and fall farther and farther behind UGA and I started to wonder why I even bothered anymore. Soccer was happening more and more often on TV and the Premier League captured my attention. Maybe I didn’t really need football in the fall anymore.
Maybe sensing this, I told Adriene I wanted to move our seats at the stadium. For a long time we sat in the corner of the stadium with a large group of friends, but as time passed and they moved away from Atlanta or succumbed to the grind of Saturday children’s sports our group shrank until it finally dwindled away to just Adriene and me. We were sitting around people we didn’t know, many of who were quite frankly rude, sometimes inebriated, and angry a lot and it wasn’t a very healthy place for enjoying the game and it didn’t put me in a very good attitude. I hoped if we paid a little more for our tickets, maybe we’d end up sitting around a little more refined crowd. Adriene was for anything that would allow her to be a little more pampered at the game. (You may be surprised to hear she is not a huge fan of sitting on a metal bench in searing heat, freezing cold, rain, and blowing wind.) I bought the tickets with the attitude of “if I don’t enjoy this season even after getting nice seats, maybe it’s time to give it up and just watch from the TV. This is too much effort to not enjoy this.”
The 2014 season started out mostly like every season with a couple wins over some overmatched teams and then Adriene and I went to London during the Georgia Southern game. I sat in a pub on a Saturday night and listened to the game and tried to enjoy my vacation while Tech nearly gave the game away to Southern and then somehow pulled it out at the end and no one at the Zetland Arms cared, but I was a pretty excited Tech fan a couple thousand miles away. We came back home and the games turned fun again with big wins over Miami and Clemson and in a comedy of errors beat Georgia in the kind of game Tech almost always loses to Georgia. Tech made their way to the Orange Bowl again and for a variety of reasons we decided to pass on it. That’s too bad because Tech ended up cold-cocking Mississippi State in one of the best games of the season, leading to my all-time favorite moment in Tech football in the last 10 years with running backs Synjyn Days and Zach Laskey dancing to Apache while enjoying such a big lead with plenty of time left in the game. How can you not love this?
The 2014 season was so much fun, especially at the end, that it’s pulled me back in. On top of Tech’s season, my daughters started cheerleading for football this year. The summer was a hectic mess with so many practice sessions, but once the season started I can’t overstate how entertaining football was with first graders. They aren’t strong and fast enough to really hurt each other yet and they wander around aimlessly to the frustration of coaches and I could not stop laughing at each game. The games brought back memories of those backyard brawls I had, but we never had the helmets or this much padding, and we pretty much fought over what the score was and when the clock finished. I didn’t have any child in the game, so I was able to enjoy it win or lose without any stress. As long as my girls cheered, it was a good morning.
I know it is a fool’s quest to believe that Tech could match the success in the 2015 season that they did a year ago, but maybe the games will at least be entertaining this time around again. I’m well aware that none of the problems of football have been solved (and the whole “deflated football” mess between the New England Patriots and the league makes me like the NFL even less. There is no one coming out looking good in that.) I’m still very troubled about the head injuries and the off-field behavior and while I’ve never had a problem with rich owners I have a hard time taking anything they say at face value when their only concern seems to be gobbling up even more money. I don’t know how much I will follow the NFL this year, every time I think about it I get a little queasy, but I am on board for another season of Georgia Tech football and I am hoping to make it to a couple high school games around the neighborhood.
The only hope I have for football is that it has always been a very evolutionary sport. Baseball and soccer rules for the most part haven’t changed in a 100 years. Basketball’s rules have really only changed to make the sport more entertaining. Football, however, has from the very start modified it’s rules to try and become a safer sport. Even at the beginning, in the 1890’s, the mother of a UGA player had to beg the state not to ban the sport altogether even after her son died playing it. Technology and rule changes have improved the safety of the sport, but it’s clear it will need to continue to evolve and change or parents will steer their children towards basketball and soccer in even more numbers. I still think there is too much money and too much affection for football by too many people to let football fade into the marginalized realms of boxing and UFC. I hope so, because I have to many good memories of football games to let it all go.