Sunday football has become such a mainstay in my life over the years that I often miss the familiar hush of screaming fans blaring from the TV set when the sport’s not in season. I’ll strap on my tattered Dawkins jersey, grab myself a fat hoagie and a cold beer, and sit down for about ten hours of bone-crushing enjoyment. My attention is fixed so intently on the steady cadence of the in-game announcers you’d think they were themselves preachers rising up in the pulpit. And once the Eagles take the field, things get even more religious.
But it wasn’t always so for me when it came to football. There was a time when I couldn’t tell you the object of the game. I thought it was nothing but a bunch of guys piling up on each other before an arsenal of whistles blew.
My obsession can be traced to a single day, when I learned that football had more to offer me than I ever imagined. It all started with a game of horse.
“Hey, unc,” my uncle said to me. “I’ll shoot this one behind my back.” Then he stood at the foul line with his back facing the basket and launched the ball over his head. SWISH!
“Looks like “h” for me,” I said as the ball sunk through the hoop. My parents had gone out of town for the day and taken my brother with them, which was fine because my uncle was keeping an eye on me. We’d already played about a half-dozen games of Nintendo Ice Hockey and I’d decimated him as always. The game of horse, however, was going in a different direction.
Despite standing on my driveway in a pair of dress shoes and no socks, my uncle rained in an assortment of scoop shots, hook shots, and through-the-leg miracle shots and had me teetering on the edge of horse within ten minutes. I was waiting for him to climb up on the roof and drop a rim-rattling dunk on me next. It was as if he hadn’t aged a second since high school; a statement more accurate than you can possibly imagine.
Just when he had me on the ropes he said, “Birds are coming on in a minute.”
“Birds?” I asked half thinking he was talking about a National Geographic special.
“Yeah, the Birds. You know, the Eagles. Randall Cunningham, Jerome Brown, Reggie White.”
“Oh, those Eagles,” I said. “Of course. I knew that.” We went inside to get a drink and flip on the game. And that’s when my football education took first root.
It was Eagles-Redskins, a rivalry I’d grow attached to in the coming years. Merrill Reese was busy calling the opening kickoff in that excited voice he never reserves even, as I came to find out, on meaningless one yard runs in the first quarter by Heath Sherman.
“That’s Keith Jackson,” my uncle said pointing to number 88 on the TV screen. “He’s the tight end. He stays along the line to block for Cunningham, but he can also go out for a pass.” I nodded and watched the punt team roll on the field and then the defense shuffled in. “That’s Reggie White, number 92 right there.”
“I know about him,” I said.
“Yeah, so does Mark Rypien. He’s the Skins’ quarterback. I’m sure he’ll be dealing with Reggie all day.” And the conversation continued like that throughout the game, with us jumping out of our chairs and shouting to the high heavens every time the Birds made a first down or sacked the quarterback or scored a touchdown. We only pulled ourselves away to refresh our glasses and to steal a few miracle shots on the basketball hoop during halftime.
But late in the game, the Skins were able to pull away by four points and things were starting to look bleak.
“See, there’s only two minutes left,” my uncle said. “All Washington needs to do is run out the clock.”
“How will they do that?”
“Well, they’ll just hand off a few times and force the Birds to use all their timeouts. And then we’ll watch the last few ticks wind down and wait for next week.”
“That stinks,” I said as Earnest Byner took another carry up the gut and the seconds continued to dwindle.
“Yeah. I guess it does.”
There were a few moments of silence after my uncle’s response before Merrill filled the void. “The defense really needs a turnover right now.” His voice rose from the tinny speakers of the TV set and bounced off all the walls of the living room. My uncle and I looked at each other. He winked. It was the kind of wink that convinced me at an early age of my uncle’s uncanny power to foretell any scripted play in the NFL; because on the very next play the unthinkable happened.
Byner took another carry, this time around the edge. Only, on this attempt, he was met and leveled by Andre Waters. In what seemed like a dream, the ball popped out and bounced along the turf. “The ball’s looooose!” Merrill shouted. “And the Eagles have it! It’s being picked up along the far side by Eric Allen! He’s at the fifty! He’s at the forty! Thirty-five, thirty! Twenty-five, twenty! Fifteen, ten, five! TOUCHDOWN! Can you believe it!?”
And, in my parents’ living room, the answer was most definitely no. We could not believe it. But my uncle and I celebrated as if we’d just won the game ourselves. We shouted. We slapped high fives. We even took a triumphant victory lap around the house. It was as if twenty years only separated my Uncle and me by a few months.
I came to understand the glory that is NFL football that day and, like I said, it’s been with me ever since. But more importantly, I learned you only get old if you let yourself believe it. My uncle taught me that. And he’s just a dude who happens to be timeless.