The brief lament of a fan who has known the sport’s beauty and drama
By Bruce Morgan
Among the blind spots in American letters, one that has nagged me for a long time now is the crush and glory of high school football. Part of the problem is regional, I believe. Literate culture in this country is concentrated, and always has been, in a band scarcely wider than a soccer field that runs between Boston and Washington, D.C., and that region is too sissified to mount a decent football game. It follows logically, I think, that the titanic gridiron contests I knew growing up in a suburban corner of the industrial Midwest rarely turn up in the nation’s pages.
Why does it bother me so? The games I saw were thrilling events — to this day, among the most thrilling events of my life — and so their near-complete absence in print leaves a hole on my mental bookshelf, or in my sanity. All this neglect has left me ready to prize whatever bits of football literature I come across as so much gold.
John Updike ranks high on my slim scavenger’s list. Updike, who was lucky enough to grow up in eastern Pennsylvania, a great football state (especially among the rugged western precincts), caught the excitement of high school football deftly in an early story, “In Football Season,” which features one of the loveliest opening lines in American fiction: “Do you remember a fragrance girls acquire in autumn?”
He proceeds to tell how the students, accompanied by their parents, would swarm into the stadium on a Friday night, before recalling “the smell of the grass crushed by footsteps behind the end zones.” As the game progressed, he writes, “if we went to the back row and stood on the bench there, we could look over the stone lip of the stadium down into the houses of the city, and feel the cold November air like the black presence of the ocean beyond the rail of a ship.…”
It’s interesting that Updike spends so much ink on the setting for the game and nothing at all on the game itself. But this gets at a central problem that writers always have with physically demanding sports: they generally don’t play them, and suffer the deficit.
Writers prefer baseball, with its languid pace, simplicity, and easy abstractions. You know: We run away before circling back home; life is all about three strikes and you’re out, etcetera. A child can draw the diagram for the game and tell you what it means. Contrast that with football, which is grace and power bunched in knots and flowing across a deep field, and you understand the dilemma. How does a writer get out of this arena alive?
Back in the 1920s, during the heyday of American sportswriting, you could find a hint of the greatness then emergent on the gridiron. One newspaper scribe evoked the broken-field running of a celebrated Ohio State halfback as “a cross between music and gunfire.” I have seen running like that more than once during the high school games I attended.
For its part, poetry rarely flings a football. The notable exception would have to be James Wright’s gritty, terse poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” In twelve quick lines, the poet summons the hardship and loneliness of that town’s men and women before concluding, simply, “Therefore, / Their sons grow suicidally beautiful / At the beginning of October, / And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” This is sport as a kind of agony.
My suburban high school always fielded a better-than-average football team, and my senior year was no exception. Unbeaten, we were scheduled to play powerhouse Massillon High, a two-hour bus ride away, as a necessary stop on our path to the state title. Massillon was a hard-knuckled steel town, and its brilliantly lit stadium came flanked with a row of towering smokestacks.
It proved a hard, slow-grinding, and mean-spirited game, but our side eked out the win, 7–6. My classmates and I streamed onto the field, laughing, screaming, hugging each other with joy. We had won! We were champions! Minutes later, after we had clambered onto our bus, the mood darkened. A mob of furious Massillon fans had surrounded the bus and, arms outstretched, begun rocking it vengefully side to side. Two questions: Could these fans possibly tip this bus over? And if they did, what were the chances they would kill us?
Football in Ohio, my friends, and not a writer in sight. ☾
BRUCE MORGAN is that weak, skinny kid on the bench who’s still dreaming the coach will tap him for the big game. (Read his full bio here.)