3:48 pm, yesterday: I look around the place I have found myself, and I think, How did I get here? C’mon, I’ll take you on a little field trip.
Clif and I are at the home of the Tennessee Titans, Clif’s favorite NFL football team. As with everything else in the NFL (“AmSouth First Down!”), the Titans sold naming rights to their headquarters to Baptist Hospital, so this place is called Baptist Sports Park. Never hurts to have a little upstairs connection, you know?
Sweet Jeebus, it is hot. We’re standing on a sidewalk, leaning on a chain-link fence, watching 80 buff guys practice. A couple dozen other people watch, too–a dad with a two-year-old baby dressed like a Titans quarterback, three short Italian-loafer guys who are clearly sports agents. They speak in whispers. I overhear one of them say, “He’s smaller than I thought.” I’m dying to know which players they’re here to see, but I can’t get up the nerve to ask.
A dozen guys with huge cameras are inside the fence, taking pictures. Directly in front of me, a photographer with a long, gray mullet pulls out a folded piece of paper. It reads “10, 83, 33.” Number 10 is Vince Young, the star quarterback who was NFL Rookie of the Year last year. Number 83 is Eric Moulds, a 12-year veteran just signed by the Titans in hopes of giving VInce Young somebody who can catch his passes. And 33 is Michael Griffin, the Titans first-round draft pick, who will replace the notorious Pacman Jones, who’s out on a historic 10-game suspension for bad behavior.
How do I know all this pointless stuff? It’s because Clif is relentless in his superfandom, so I’ve taken to reading the Tennessean so I can keep up with him. I don’t know how we ended up with a kid who loves football. He’s some sort of changeling, swapped at the nursery with the bookish little baby who was ours. He hangs on the fence, mesmerized, reciting NFL facts and asking me who my third-favorite AFC team is. I answer Seahawks, as I do to any question like this he asks me, and he says, “MOM. The Seahawks suck. Besides, they’re NFC,” and I say, as I always do, “But they have an awesome logo.”
I don’t really like football–too brutal–but I have been fascinated by it ever since Brian’s Song. Remember that movie? “Don’t die on me, Brian Piccolo.” A football tearjerker! There are a bunch of great football movies: Friday Night Lights, Any Given Sunday, Jerry McGuire, The Longest Yard, Remember the Titans. It’s all gladiator stuff. Who’s going to end up on crutches?
The receivers are lanky, lean. Beautiful thoroughbreds. It’s so hot that everybody’s conserving their energy, but the receivers look twitchy, ready to boing up into the air. The linemen are lumpy potato sacks, human obstacles, a fleshy berm in front of the quarterback. As they warm up, the big guys are more flexible than I thought they would be. Vince Young looks like a Pilates instructor. He’s 6’5″, but he folds neatly in half as he holds the bottoms of his feet.
It’s a giant, sweaty job interview out there: the current roster of 80 will cut to 75 in five days. And in 12 days, 22 players will go. This is the end of training camp, so every dropped ball is a heartbreaker for somebody. It’s remarkably quiet, except for the coaches who encourage and berate the guys. “Jeeeeeesus Christ can’t you guys $^#%^$% LEARN THIS? What kind of *@*&^#&$ IS this?” The only player who talks much is Vince Young, whose job security is such that he can say whatever he wants. “ROBY!” he yells at the receiver who catches his not-great pass. “RobyRobyROBEEEEEE!”
The offense is practicing passing. Vince Young starts firing spirals toward the sideline, where the receivers are hauling down the field. The balls are coming directly our way, and it feels like he’s throwing lightning bolts at us. Eric Moulds, the best receiver out there, leaps for one, maybe ten feet from us. Clif is frozen–we all are–because Moulds is careering right toward us. He tumbles and rolls, holding the ball as if it were an egg, or a baby. When he stops, he’s on the ground at our feet. He stands, shakes his head, and says “shit” in a matter-of-fact way. The baby next to us shrieks, Clif looks up at me with a huge grin, and number 83 lopes back to the field.
The scene at Baptist Sports Park has stayed in my head all night. What an odd, odd industry. The players’ wives stroll in with their tiny babies. Players’ girlfriends minutely adjust their white-blonde hair. Dozens of staffers run around like squirrels, bringing water, fetching balls, collecting towels. They divide into those who clearly used to play ball in younger days and those who clearly never did but wished they could have. And the coaches–head coach Jeff Fisher, offensive coordinator Norm Chow, and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz–watch the players, silent. Calculating.
So much wishing and hoping and worrying. It looks a lot like work, not a game. It looks like the least-fun place to be in the world. But when you hear the players talk about it, they all say the same thing: this is my dream. This is my chance. I just want to play ball.
Clif has had a fine time. I bend to pick up my purse–my knitting hasn’t even come out of my bag–and my head spins. I am so hot that I think I need to sit down. Clif tells me that I would probably not be a very good NFL player.