As a child , there was no football. I was the third girl, fourth child. Mom was raising us alone and given to espousing about the overemphasis of sport in our culture. I don't recall sports ever being on the TV - unless it was figure skating during the Olympics.
It is possible that I had a passing awareness of football- but it was never on the TV, and no one I knew personally - prior to about age 10 - played it.
At then at ten, I decided to become a cheerleader. It was the key to something, I thought. Belonging, maybe. Popularity, certainly. No question the key to wearing a very fun uniform and dancing around with friends wearing the same.
Mom made the uniform. It was red, lined with white. A vest, a short circle skirt, bloomers. The vest had LIONS ironed down the left side. The bloomers said, "CATHY," all-caps, san-serif, across-the-butt. The socks were white knee socks. The shoes, saddle. The shoepolish, white, in a bottle with sponge on top so you could paint away scuffs and get fussed at for dripping on the carpet.
After a year, Mom urged me to quit. Something about her perception of cheerleaders as tarty, or shallow. And pregnant, which was a weird fear to me at the time. Only years later did I realize how much of her protest was the wincing pain of watching me humiliate myself each week.
As a leader-of-cheers, I was horrible. I couldn't chant and clap and stomp at the same time, or, apparently, at alternating times. And I had no idea what was going on on the field. I would forget to watch the instructor and would continue staring ope-mouthed trying to interpret the actions on the field while everyone else bounced to their feet for the next cheer. I could only do spirit fingers with my right hand.
"We're BIG b-i-g and we're BAD b-a-d and we're BOSS b-o-s-s-b-o-s-s BOSS"
I tangled up the spelling, and my siblings mocked me for it.
I loved the uniform. L-o-v-e-d it. The bloomers, the way the circle twirled, the red. The matching ribbons in my hair. Flipping up my skirt to show my (yes, somewhat tarty) name-festooned bottom. That shoe polish. All of it.
But it was not sustainable. We moved, quit. And even I knew I couldn't try out in Florida, where I was suddenly a middle-schooler, and where, as soon as I said, "oh, I used to cheer in Georgia.." friends made it clear that they thought this might mean I had Experience, and knew what I was doing.
Three years later, I joined band - as much as anything because I wanted to be a part of Friday nights. I wanted a cold stadium seat, a role on the field, noise and lights and people yelling in unison. I wanted the quasi-military uniform. More white shoes, more liquid shoepolish. I wanted the thrill of a win and I wanted a flute, with its complicated keys and its pretty silver shine.
I was terrible at band.
I could get a decent tone out of the instrument, but counting confused me. I memorized nothing, because I had no discipline for practicing. If I had, It wouldn't have mattered, because I never could've played and marched simultaneously. It was enough to get those white shoes up to mid-calf, to get the flute up at a right angle, to turn on the correct count. To, as the rare band officer with no talent, keep my lines straight. Besides, nobody can hear the flutes unless it's Stars and Stripes Forever and no WAY was I learning that.
Senior year, we went to state for football. We lost, but after a 4-hour drive across state, at night, on a packed bus (another perk.) At half-time we played loudly and well.
High school ended.
After the year of junior college, and the year at a women's college, I went to University of Florida. Where I, and everyone else, was at least a little bit all about the football. I had my season tickets, I wore my orange and blue...
I loved day games and the smell of beer and the roar of the crowd and swaying to the very old-fashioned fight song and the crush of orange and blue and the rooting on of a very formidable mascot. But I still had no real idea what was going on. I had a knack for watching the wrong guy, for cheering when everyone else cheered. For talking with TIca, over the roars. For, on one occasion, inadvertently carrying in the bourbon of a charming fraternity boy on some sort of probation.
I slept off games, more than once, beer-soaked and a little sunburned, on Dan's couch. (It's a good friend that lives walking distance from the stadium, and offers his couch. Great friend. He is my daughter's godfather. Football had something to do with that, too.)
Then, flash forward another 8 years, and I met and married a rugby player, a former basketball and football player, a future football coach.
A current coach. A coach, now, and for 8 of the past 12 years (a hiatus only during three years in graduate school in NYC, during which he played / coached rugby - and one year here, when he was full-time adjusting to the new school, and the football program had not been fully unveiled.)
I have been to many football games. Perhaps more than I can count. I have been in the same room while many more have played on TV in the background.
And I still spend much of any given game not knowing what is going on.
I like it. Reluctantly, there are bits of it I love. I still love the lights on Friday nights. Dinner of hot dogs. Kids running loose behind the bleachers. The chants, the cheers, and the way my husband loves reaching other people's kids.
I wince when a player goes down, and I try to learn who to watch. What number goes with which player. Who the football moms are.
My own are big enough, now, that I won't have to struggle to keep them in the bleachers. That I can look away for a minute. That two of them can run off with other kids. This year, finally, I can pay attention with no stroller to watch, no Bjorn to struggle with. And only one set of sticky hands in my face.
My oldest is 9, and doesn't play. He wants to, desperately. And he runs balls out to the field during most games. But Dad feels strongly that bones and skulls need to grow more before high-impact sports are involved. I am relieved, to say the least.
Even with Dad's constraints, Bass'll be old enough sooner than I care to imagine. And his brother - his roaring, impervious-to-pain all-action-all-the-time little brother... is certain to play as well, and also sooner than I might be able to stand. His coordinated, spirited sister may even cheer. It could happen.
Tonight is the first home game of the season. And one of the last few seasons where I get to watch someone else's kids. And this is it. THIS is the year I learn the game. I just know it.