Monday, November 26, 2018

The Paradox of Football: Thoughts on the Game Ball

It's no stretch to list reasons not to play football. One need not look at the decreasing numbers of teams fielded by high schools across the US to know its future is in peril. However, when we discuss why football's popularity is in decline, I am adamant in pointing to the fact that the concussion question is not the only culprit. The reality of these head injuries might be a leading cause but like most matters, it is one among many—and several of them speak to the personalities of today's players. 
One complaint among many is that young men don't want to play a sport that competes but once a week. They feel that they train for long and hard, only to play 10, 12 or 14 games. Furthermore, football doesn't let an individual athlete shine in the same way that a sport like basketball does. Athletics and egos are bedfellows. A stellar athlete wants the spotlight and though it's not absent from football, given that most rosters have upwards of 40 guys—offense, defense, special teams, etc. the room for "one star," (other than the quarterback or a dominant receiver) is far less common. All of this being said, I think one of the very best reasons TO play football is the paradox of this game. Allow me to explain.

Social media has afforded us with access to football teams and their culture like never before. Before the game, fans inside of Notre Dame stadium can pray the "Our Father" with the Irish. How's that? It's simulcast on the video screen installed three seasons ago. After the USC win, I learned the team was flying back to South Bend. How did I know? Ian Book's Twitter video shared a video of what must have been a raucous flight. I hope students greeted them at the Main Circle early the next morning. I'm sure there's video footage if they did. And this year, my favorite feed to find is the post-game tradition: giving the game ball.

I don't know if the game ball is only given after a win—weare uNDefeated, though I imagine that is criteria for gifting. But, following Coach Brian Kelly's recap and remarks, a singular athlete is called forward and recognized for his effort. I love—repeat love—finding out who keeps the pigskin. It is signed and dated, replete with the winning score. The player is called forward and his accomplishments are duly noted and celebrated. The ball does not discriminate—guys on both offense and defense have earned the 2018 season's game balls. I am absolutely confident if I were a Notre Dame football player, I would want that game ball. I would tell its story for all to hear. I would place it in my home or my office so I could recall the memories of why it's there/how it came to be. I think its beneficial for today's glory hounds to know about the game ball. It's an attractive carrot.

The significance of the game ball—both its beauty and its glory— is revealed in the ceremony that surrounds its gifting. When it's "right" and it usually is, the team is more excited than the individual who receives it. Guys dog pile on this player. They hoot and holler and cheer for their teammate. This athlete is humble and I've seen some who are choked up and tearful. The spirituality of this moment is palpable. The recipient recognizes he has been given unique talents and abilities. They know that none of this is possible without their teammates and coaches. None of us can do it alone. The game ball may go to one person, but paradoxically, it speaks to many more. You might not believe me when I say that—please watch the video and decide for yourself.

Upon beating USC on Saturday, November 24, 2018, Team 130 for the Fightin' Irish completed their regular season with 12 wins and 0 losses. To be undefeated is rare; it's nearly remarkable. The game was closer for comfort than many of the Irish faithful wanted. Rivalry game often are. As the social media and text messages exploded, I wondered who would get the game ball: Chris Finke? Dru Tranquil? Dexter Williams. What I witnessed astounded me. 
The USC game ball went to Strength and Conditioning coordinator Matt Balis. Balis did not take a single snap. He never wears a helmet or pads. He isn't even a student athlete. But without the defense would not have stood as strong. The offense would have been worn down. Coach Kelly said: "He makes sure our TRAITS OF EXCELLENCE are followed throughout the year - we couldn’t have done this without his leadership!" Upon hearing these words, team went ballistic. Was lifted high and tossed with arms and legs strengthened by muscles he has helped build.

I would like to argue that in no other sport does the game ball mean this much. Because of the very nature of football—a contest that takes place but once a week that demands so much both physically and mentally, emotionally and spiritually, that award has depth and breadth that it does not in other sports. It holds meaning with and without words and, the award itself reveals something beautiful about the human spirit that we often forget. 
There is something to be said for "getting lost in the dance." We might actually learn more about ourselves when we forget about our wants and our needs. Furthermore, there is joy in letting others shine. We can come to care for others so deeply that we might say "I would rather have you be happy, than me." Being a great teammate requires nothing less. There is a certain freedom in that pursuit. There is meaning in doing your part and recognizing after it's over, one person did it incredibly well. He or she is worth celebrating with a symbol of the joint effort. Time, date and score duly noted.

This is the spirituality of football. I would hate to lose what makes it great. I'm open to change what we can to make it safer and encouraging young people to take on what's hard and challenging about it. The game ball awaits. 

Photo Credits
Victory Arm

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