Sometimes in life we surprise ourselves with turns of phrase, gestures, laughter that we soon realize we have inherited from a family member. In my case, heavy doses of denial generally work to hide the fact that I often find myself channeling my mother. Like any good daughter, I’m always horrified when I catch myself suddenly striking up conversations with strangers, especially plumbers, mechanics, and the corner street preacher disguised as a homeless person. As a teenager, I would almost heave when my mother instantly made friends with random people, and at one point, I refused to be seen in public with her.
My grandfather had a similar talent for connecting with people. On cross-country trips from Tennessee to Idaho every summer, somewhere in the middle of Kansas or Utah, my grandfather would remarkably locate and befriend the only other car load of folks from Tennessee on the road, and they would also happen to be University of Tennessee football fans. Wearing a solid orange polo with the white “UT” logo on the chest pocket, he would stroll through the aisles of every Stuckey’s on route to Boise, prepared to talk UT sports. It was in his blood. His father William and his uncle Charles had played football for Williamsburg Academy (Kentucky) in the 1890s, and when he matriculated at UT Knoxville, he learned the playbook before he purchased his textbooks. Until he died at 84, nothing made him happier than UT football.
Growing up, I bonded with grandfather in many ways, including football. He took me to my first UT football game when I was six months old. Luckily, my grandmother loved football almost as much as my grandfather, so there were two adults to change the diapers during timeouts. We went to away games, bowl games, scrimmages, and any football related events together. A year before he died, we were still making the pilgrimage to Neyland Stadium Saturdays in the fall. He taught me the plays, the history, and the strategies; the customs, the myths, and the traditions. He bought me footballs, game gear, and game programs. We called in to football radio shows, watched football on television, and films of games.
When people ask me how I can love a game that is violent, I tell them that I never had a chance: I truly think it’s in my blood. But sharing a passion with someone you love with all of your heart is also quite powerful. My grandfather and I could sit through four hours of football and never have to say a word to one another, yet every second together with him was wonderful. Too, the game itself is satisfying; there is a mixture of order, discipline, and the unexpected that excite me. To see Peyton Manning throw a perfect spiral 40 yards and timed perfectly to Marvin Harrison is stunning.
Is the game violent? In many ways, obviously, football requires a good deal of physical pain. But I suppose my argument is that the pain is consensual; no one is forcing players to take cracks to their bodies. My female friends hate football, and during the season, while they are knitting or reading or shopping, I’m wearing my Jets or Colts jersey, watching the pigskin exchange hands on the field, thinking about my grandfather.