Taylor Hagood: “Football” Season
September has arrived and I cannot help myself. I must write about the sports that both begin their seasons at this time of the year and that go by the same name: football.
Both are part of my life, or, in a sense, lives, for mine seems to spread into so many different kinds of places and situations.
To begin at the beginning . . .
Archie and Ole Miss
My earliest memory of anything football-related is a game played on a television in my grandparents’ house in Mississippi. It was either a bowl game or “The Egg Bowl,” which is the name for the annual clash between Ole Miss and Mississippi State (traditionally played on Thanksgiving) for a golden trophy shaped like an egg. It must have been one of those games because extended family was there—my Arkansas cousins. Those cousins were University of Arkansas Razorback fans, but they were pulling for Ole Miss that day. I can remember my father and Uncle Bert watching, and I suspect my grandfather was watching from his great golden velvet chair (which now sits in my home). There exists 8 mm footage of my grandfather throwing a football with my great uncle (my cousins’ father), like something out of a 1940s Life magazine, my grandfather in a fedora, a white button-down over capacious belly, and pipe in mouth.
My other early memory is of the name Archie Manning. It resounds and repeats in my memory like some kind of incantation. He would have been playing for the New Orleans Saints then, but he was no mere mortal in my world. My folks would refer to him in a way so intimate he might well have been a family member, to be sure, but he also seemed a kind of lesser deity. I remember running around in the yard playing football by myself (I was an only child for a long time), and I can hear my grandfather saying loudly, “Why, there goes Archie!”
About the time my sister was born, when I was nine or ten, we made a move to Tennessee. This put us close to my father’s parents, and his father especially had something timeless and cool about him that made him as heroic in my mind as Davy Crockett. Tennessee had so much romance around it—the land of Crockett, a wilderness where could be found log cabins and maybe even snow.
My Tennessee grandfather loved football, boxing, and anything else violent. He pulled for the University of Tennessee Volunteers, so I decided I would too. I still loved Ole Miss, but I became fascinated with the Tennessee shade of orange, which came in my mind to stand in for the orange of the leaves over the hills of middle Tennessee. The part of the state we moved to farmed tobacco heavily, and there are few places on the earth more magical than that country in the fall when the dark-fired tobacco has been hung up in barns with open slatted walls from which smoke billows out curing the leaves with pungent flavor. At that time of year, the aroma of tobacco (just like that in my Mississippi grandfather’s pipe) spreads through the chilly air while those orange leaves flutter and whisper in crisp, dry brilliance.
On various Saturdays in the fall we would make trips down to Mississippi and have the radio on as we passed through Paris and Milan, European names for very ordinary American towns. I remember the pleasantly hard voice of John Ward as he would exclaim that the opposing team’s running back was taken down “by a host of Volunteers!” and would count-down long touchdown plays with “three-two-one . . . give him six!” Oh my, oh my how I was fascinated by my Tennessee family members: they were so different from my Mississippi family. They had a certain alacrity and sharpness about them that gave you the feeling of being on top of things. My Uncle Parmenas Cox in Pulaski had a close connection to the team—his father had played on one of the first teams UT ever fielded. His son, Jimmy, has blood that surely runs orange, and he would sometimes get us tickets to games in Knoxville in the huge Neyland Stadium. We would stay in Gatlinburg, which was filled with displays of hay, cornshucks, and massive pumpkins to herald the season.
Pulling for Tennessee does not make a lot of sense for Ole Miss folk. There is bad blood there. Back when Archie was playing, the Tennesseans taunted him by asking, “Archie Who?” Archie was retired by the time we moved to Tennessee, but he had become a legend of football across the Southeastern Conference. No one now thought to ask, “Archie Who?” and even when Daddy and I watched Tennessee games on television sometimes Archie would show up in the commentators’ booth. Daddy would say in reverent tones, “Archie was the greatest player of all time. You never knew what he was going to do when he touched the ball. He would run around all over the backfield escaping tacklers and then throw a sixty-yard touchdown. One time he broke his arm and played with a cast on.”
High school found me in the Pittsburgh area, where we had moved. Cotton and tobacco fields were far away here in this landscape of mill smoke stacks that belched steam rather than tobacco-flavored smoke. Instead of an economy driven by the rhythms of the land and growing seasons, here men and women worked shifts through the day and night. A smell of rotten eggs hung in the air, not from sulfur water wells as one might find in the rural areas in the South but from a coke plant that also laid a film of black grit over everything.
Here the Pittsburgh Steelers reigned. Ironically, a few years before we moved north my parents had bought me a play football uniform, and it was a Pittsburgh Steelers one. In fact, the Steelers had been strangely ubiquitous in my consciousness throughout my life. Lynn Swann had shown up on Mr. Rogers not only as a wide receiver but as a man who did ballet. I knew the names Mean Joe Green and Terry Bradshaw from an early age. And now up north in the Steel Valley they were everywhere—even the massive buildings that housed Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corporation’s Basic Oxygen Furnace and famed 80-inch Hot Line in Mingo Junction, Ohio, featured the same three-diamond emblem to be found affixed on the right side only of the Steelers’ helmets.
I did not like the Steelers at first, but after awhile something began to change. I attended Ohio University and on Sunday afternoons in autumn as the season made its way deeper into the land and air I would listen to the Steelers games on the radio. And that I loved, for the commentators were Bill Hillgrove, a sensible man with an affable voice, and a dynamo little fellow with a squeaky excited voice that often got out of his control named Myron Cope. Myron Cope . . . I imagine anybody connected with Pittsburgh over the past several decades will know that name. “Yoy!” he would shout when the Steelers did well. He had great nicknames for players and teams: the hated Bengals he called the “Bunguls” and the worst rivals of all, the Cleveland Browns, he called “The Brownies.” Cope created the Terrible Towel, a yellow wash-cloth fans could wave to get the Steelers revved up and the opposing team psyched out.
The Steelers coach at the time was a man named Bill Cowher. He was a Pittsburgh guy all the way—a blue-collar native of the city with a jaw like granite. He filled his team with guys just like him, not particularly flashy but hard-working, dedicated, and a number of them with ties to the city. Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, a quarterback named Tommy Maddux. They were far from the flashy gazelle-like kind of players that go big in the South.
These Pittsburgh players were fellows with work ethic, going about the grisly combat of the game with dogged power. To them, the game was simple: pummel the other fellows. And they hit hard and took just as much pride in their blocking and tackling as in their running. I remember once that Hines Ward blocked a guy and broke his jaw.
The violence, of course, now concerns many people about the sport. I am not sure how many of the people worrying over the violence were actually football fans in the first place. It seems to me that enjoying football means relishing all the violence. I am not so sure there even is football without that violence, although of course many within the sport, the medical community, and media have been and are currently contesting that idea. I must say that it is very easy to forget there are human beings inside those helmets, shoulder pads, bright jerseys, and pants. But recent politicization of the sport has made the fact that actual humans are playing extremely visible, and one may be more likely to stop and think about the person coming away from a bone-crushing hit with a concussion that could affect him for life. Many want to clean the sport up, but with such efforts comes the problem of whether or not doing so changes its essence. Maybe the big question is whether or not the kind of world that spawned football is passing away.
The Other Football
Are we rather in a world that better accommodates the other football? This football is what Americans call “soccer” where the rest of the world calls our football “American football.” I have known about soccer all my life, naturally, but I really did not get soccer until I moved to Munich. That city has major passion for the sport: Bayern München is consistently one of the greatest teams in the world, although I must say that I also became enamored of the city’s lesser-known team, 1860 München. Both teams play in Allianz Arena, which sits like a giant white tire that lights up either red for Bayern or blue for 1860, depending on who is playing there at the moment. I was working at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, and one of my colleages there, Michael, is a big-time 1860 fan. We went to see a match, and my, my what a thing it was to see. They have a motto, “Einmal Löwe Immer Löwe,” which means “Once a Lion, Always a Lion.” I guess I must be a Lion.
I not only learned how to watch the game, I played it. I never played organized American football in school because my father was very suspicious of it (he worried I would get myself into all kinds of trouble). Also, I am not the tallest and strongest fellow on the planet. But I always loved to play, and I have fond memories of playing touch football with friends and the star high school quarterback commending me on the routes I would run. But in Munich I fell in with folks who played in the summers in the Englischer Garten, which is kind of the Central Park of that city. Both men and women played this game together, something unusual in American football. I am afraid I never was very good at kicking, although I often did well as goal keeper. Many times there playing in the lengthening shade on the grass in the far away German city, I would think of playing football in the backyard in the United States.
In fact, the similarities between the two sports and the experiencing of them often surprise me. Soccer matches are generally played on Saturday afternoons just as college football games are. Many times I have gathered with friends to have a cook-out and then watch a match on television. The commentators’ voices resound in my head as I write this just as clearly as those of John Ward and Myron Cope. Thomas Müller, one of the real stars of Bayern, has a look about him that somehow has always reminded me of my Uncle Bert back in Mississippi.
But these two sports are so different. American football has little to do with the foot, and many of my European friends are mystified by the sport altogether, their typical comment being that it looks like to them that in American football everyone just falls down. Soccer, on the other hand, is often eyed with great suspicion by American football fans, especially when the players flop on the ground in pain from the least touch. I know plenty of Americans who find the game boring. At the same time, I other know Americans who hold American football in great disdain and embrace MLS soccer teams with great passion while also admiring English or European football from afar. Often, the football one prefers is seen as saying something about the person—about what you think the United States should be, where you stand in politics, what your ideas are about masculinity (it is interesting that it is the women’s soccer team of the United States that is both most successful and most controversial).
It would seem in our moment difficult to like both soccer and American football. It has always been hard for my Mississippi family to understand how I could like both the Tennessee Volunteers and the Ole Miss Rebels at the same time (I pull for Ole Miss over Tennessee if they play each other).
Likewise, it is generally a strange idea for a Müncher to try and imagine rooting for Bayern and 1860 both. Meanwhile American football has become divisive—I have friends who are upset about college players not being paid, about lingering violence, about any criticism of Colin Kaepernick. I have many other friends and family who are outraged at rules that lessen the violence of the game and at players taking knees during the national anthem; they are sick at the politicization of a game that has always been an escape for them. Many people on both sides of the politics are boycotting the sport, including my father—it saddens me deeply that we can no longer share the game.
Where am I in this nexus? Maybe I am the Walt Whitman of football—Whitman tried to embrace all aspects of the country, including northern and southern concerns in his 1855 book Leaves of Grass, thinking maybe his little self-published book of poetry might be able to stave off civil war. It failed.
In fact, I am not looking to make any political statement at all. I have known the joy of seeing a well-placed kick snap into the net on a soccer pitch just as I have howled at a running-back’s great juke move on the gridiron. I have jumped for joy at a great kick return and have been astounded at a head-over-heels hat-trick. Nothing to me has been more beautiful than to see the legendary Italian footballer Andrea Pirlo execute his perfect passes across the pitch except to see the surgical precision of a pass downfield by the great Peyton Manning.
Ol’ Peyton . . . now this is where things come back home for me. Peyton, Archie’s middle son (who is only a year younger than I am), was set to play with his brother, Cooper, at Ole Miss. But Cooper became ill and had to end his career. Then Peyton did the unthinkable—he played for Tennessee! Ole Miss fans were devastated. But it made sense to me. I knew what it was like to be from Mississippi and move away.
In fact, when I moved back to the state to go to Ole Miss as a graduate student, the youngest Manning, Eli, was beginning his career there. The Mannings were back, just as I was back in the South. But that move was difficult for me in certain ways because I had changed. I was not a pure southerner anymore. It is not utterly unheard-of for north Mississippians to follow the Steelers (in fact, Kendall Simmons, of Ripley, played for the Black and Gold), but this was different. Sometimes my family would say at dinner that I was “the visitor from the North” although to everyone in the North I was quintessentially southern.
But Ole Miss football was something my family and friends there could share completely. My grandfather had passed away by then, but my grandmother watched every game on tv while listening to Ole Miss commentators on the radio because she thought the tv ones to be biased against the Rebels. Uncle Bert and I went to almost all the home games. Football has been a point of reconnection for many of my cousins, and I have great memories of watching Ole Miss beat Alabama a few years ago with one of these cousins at Mannings in New Orleans.
Yet even as I eagerly anticipate the coming of the American football season, with autumn’s approach my mind goes not just to my youth in both the South and the North but also to Europe and Munich, with its cooling air, the decorations of Oktoberfest, the manic passion for the world game. Often I wonder just where I belong.
Then a memory comes to me. One day before one of the games at Ole Miss, I was standing outside the stadium waiting for the gates to open. I looked over, and suddenly who did I see walking by but the man himself. Archie himself!
I did not know what to say. Our eyes locked. I nodded. And he nodded back.
When I am no longer able to make sense of the world and football, I think of that moment. And then the eyes of my father, my grandfathers, and men and women around the world I have known come to me, and I realize there is another country to live in where being home is always easy. For when Archie touches the ball, you never know what will happen.