(Cue “Thus Spake Zarasthusa“)
The dawn brings us the new season of the NFL, a perfectly conceived battle of opposing sides and opposing aspects of our collective personality. Like the arrival of the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, perfectly formed and inscrutable, it excites and confuses us.
There is the visceral conflict that constantly boils in our blood. We revel in the brutish physical battle, broadcasting ourselves into the untouchably fast Chris Johnson, or the unleashed ferocity of Troy Polamalu. We witness a goliath like Ben Roethlisberger become flattened to the ground, then rise again with new life — and either we rejoice with his rise, or we gain a bottomless fear of his invincibility. If he is our enemy, we yearn to strike him down again and again. If he is our hero, we pray to his ability to withstand any punishment and to deliver us to a paradise.
Football contains the roots of both our rage and our religion, perhaps more purely because it is acted out without words — or rather, with a babel of strange and confusing language, colors, numbers and symbols mixed in with gestures, dances and animal grunts, barked out on the field. We search for meaning on top of this pure action, looking to men with microphones who sit above the fray to cut apart and interpret what we all see, to help us to understand it. We make predictions whose rightness or wrongness can be argued intensely up until a point of conclusion, when one of us is certainly right, and the other certainly not.
As the opposite of rage, there is the cold calculation of the rational mind, the constant challenge of planning and anticipation, each team with a master attempting to outthink the other. There is a purely isolated terror and thrill for each, trying to get inside the head of his inscrutable opposite. Each works vainly to mask his own weakness while probing for his opponent’s, studying patterns and tendencies in attempt to decode the very essence of the unknowable other, so as to unmask and destroy him.
But each of these masters adds new complexity to his own pattern, as year over year innovation and deviousness conspire to create progress. The game evolves to the point that its men of an era ago seem devolved by comparison. Surely they are of us, but could not live with us in this new age. The game’s players must become simultaneously faster, stronger, more sophisticated and more specialized. And yet, there is no level of sophistication that cannot be undone by the impact, or perhaps even just the threat, of pure physical mayhem.
And as we watch and participate in this theater of intellect and chaos, the unexpected happens. The football is not round and does not roll. It wobbles, it bounces, it flutters. We guard it jealously when we have it, and use all cunning and force to steal it when we don’t.
In short, Football is life, and life begins anew this week with 16 sets of 16 contests, 256 in all, to determine a list of worthy champions. The season corresponds with the closing of our year, and as the natural world grows dormant and cold with each month, the desperation grows to be one of those that survive to play on in the new year. We mourn those that don’t, and try to attach our affections for those that have, then watch in horror as they get picked off one by one leading up to a final, essential battle for the heart of the entire nation.
And then there’s the Pro Bowl, a kind of awkward curtain call that is best just ignored from this overly extended metaphor, and from any discussion of the sport all together.
Life begins anew for the Rams this Sunday, after a long and closely-watched process of rebirth. Can I get a hallelujah!
For three seasons, St Louis fans have worked a field filled with stones and rarely blessed with rain, and have cultivated little pride as a reward. If we were returning to the same field, filled with the same stony obstacles, with the same inferior seeds and tools, there would be more dread than anticipation. Why must we suffer when others thrive?
But we have watched the team reinvent itself, from the very top on down, systematically removing inferior and incompetent parts. It is a process that began with Chip Rosenbloom’s decision to do what his just-deceased mother could not: fire Scott Linehan. Slowly, methodically, the fumigation of a rotted franchise continued. The decrepit John Shaw was retired. The aggressively incompetent Jay Zygmunt and his invasive breed of followers were hacked down. The earth was scorched in order to return it to fertility.
Billy Devaney emerged unstained, and was given full rein to rebuild, and that he has done with a young coaching staff anchored by the steadfast and relentlessly positive Steve Spagnuolo. That has has continued to do by purging the roster of the aged and unhungry, continuing right up until the season’s dawn, with the surprising release of Chris Draft.
The very core of the team, withered and failed, must be restored. Devaney has recharged and strengthened the foundation of the team by bolstering its offensive line, and Spagnuolo hopes to invigorate its counterpart with a new scheme and discipline.
We do not know yet what will come of this, but we do know that the approach, finally, is right. We know that it is not completely futile to plant seeds of hope now, in this freshly turned land.