What football means to me

Yes, I know, football is violent. Many of its personalities are very badly behaved. The culture is pretty sexist. The coaching tree is pretty racist. There’s a lot to hate.

But.

I LOVE FOOTBALL.

This was not always the case. Growing up in Kenya, there was no football. There was rugby, but honestly I preferred watching basketball. I only observed my school’s games. I had no exposure or access to any bigger stage than that.

I attended college at a small Baptist university that felt it needed a football team. It was, and is, wrong about that. I maintain it would be far better served devoting that cash and energy to improving its academics. I was a snide, snotty brainiac that looked down my nose at football’s presence there. I also despised my entire experience at that school, so there’s that. It wasn’t entirely its fault, I was deep in the grief of losing my identity, as is the experience of most missionary kids when they return to the US.

I maintained my Bah Humbug stance toward the game when I arrived at the University of Oklahoma for grad school. Completely unbeknownst to me at the time, OU is a football Mecca, one of the more storied, decorated programs in college football. It was really wasted on me, although when I arrived in the mid-90’s, I wasn’t missing much. OU was in a pretty bad slump. Then, in 1999, the school spent an ungodly amount of money firing their coach and hiring a new one, Bob Stoops. Everyone was elated, and I just thought it was disgusting how much they were paying him.

Original footage of me at Bob Stoops’ introductory press conference.

The next year, Oklahoma did much better. But I still didn’t care. Then the next fall, I was visiting my good friend Lorien the weekend OU played #2-ranked Kansas State. Lorien was born to an OU professor, raised in Norman, and went to grad school with me. She was a HUGE football fan, so she insisted we watch at least the second half. I tried to seem interested, as she jumped up and down, screamed and yelled, and generally looked ridiculous in front of the TV.

And then–inexplicably, improbably, indescribably–OU beat Kansas State.

Lorien whooped like a Publishers’ Clearinghouse Winner, then became very serious. She got in my face, looked me in the eye, and said, “DON’T YOU SEE WHAT THIS MEANS? HOLLY, WE CAN WIN IT ALL. NATIONAL CHAMPIONS.”

All of a sudden, in that moment, I understood. I cared. It was like a lightbulb went on in my heart. Something big was afoot. And if I wanted to, I COULD BE PART OF IT. It was like some kind of born-again experience. But over football. (And to be honest, I’ve never had the religious kind anyway).

Part of it was Lorien’s enormous power of persuasion. That woman could literally spark your interest in how they get Kleenex folded properly inside the boxes or what makes a truly superior shoelace. She once visited my house during Wimbledon, and I spent an entire weekend enraptured by the drama of a game I have never cared about before or sense.

But it wasn’t just Lorien’s contagion. After years of wandering in the American wilderness, I was finally ready to settle down, to accept the American part of me, to form meaningful connections, to be part of a community. I had found that already, in fact, in my grad school friends, including Lorien. Now I could see a way to expand upon that. Football.

I watched as “we” won game after game, every single game that season. After the last win, when it was clear we were headed to the Orange Bowl, I drove past the sower statue on campus, and my heart skipped when I saw his satchel filled with oranges. A few weeks later, I watched the game alone and far from home, on a research trip to Massachusetts, and I thought I might vomit with the tension. I couldn’t imagine we could actually win this thing, but I didn’t think I could go on if we didn’t.

But we did. WE WON. I hadn’t had many, if any, moments of pure happiness since leaving Kenya eight years earlier, but that was one. I felt like a winner, but more than that, I felt like I belonged. The next weekend, I was back on campus for the victory rally, where I joined 20,000 of my closet friends in a brilliant, collective, exhilarating nose dive into pure joy.

I’ve been hooked ever since. I follow my Sooners, I follow my husband’s beloved Razorbacks, I follow my favorite individual players into the NFL. It’s fun on its own, but it also serves as a bridge to so many other Americans, no matter how different our backgrounds. I may be a freakish white girl with an emotional attachment to an African country to which I have no real claim, but I know my football. I’ve appreciated it anew as politics and religion have become more and more divisive, and as I’ve become increasingly alienated from my former political and religious tribes.

Now my teenage daughter is a football fan, too, and it’s a bridge between us. She’s a great kid and causes no trouble. But it’s still nice to have a go-to experience to enjoy together. We even have a podcast, with 5 or 6 whole listeners. We don’t care. It gives us a reason to sit down and have an hour-long, undistracted, uninterrupted conversation every week (or more realistically, every few weeks).

So, I hear you on the CTE and the violence. No one is more outraged than me over the Cleveland Browns’ signing of the multiple-times-accused assailant Deshaun Watson (especially as he displaced by pretend son, Baker Mayfield. That hurts a fake adoptive mama’s heart). I despise cheerleaders. And I still admit it’s weird that institutions of higher learning spend millions and millions of dollars on sports teams.

Nothing’s perfect in life. You take the bad with the good, you hope the good can outweigh the bad. You keep pushing for changes that might tip the balance in a better direction. But then you have to decide what’s worth it. And maybe I’m supporting something really, systemically diseased. You could probably convince me of that. But it means a lot to me. It’s done something positive for me.

This is something we need to remember as we critique other systems, institutions, and cultures. The critiques may be valid and much needed, and perhaps they can bring change. And some systems are so harmful, they are wholly irredeemable and should be junked in their entirety. But in other, more mixed bags, there are undoubtedly people who have found meaning there. There are people doing good things there. There is probably authentic community and belonging to be found.

So try to keep an open mind, have compassion, and tread carefully.

(I’m mainly talking to myself. Take what you will).

And Boomer Sooner, y’all!!!!

(Yes, I’m aware of that our mascot derives from a morally problematic land transfer…).

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