Hundred Yard Altar

Last Sunday, I performed an annual ritual. At the end of a liturgical year, my family and friends gathered for a seasonal celebration that was bursting pageantry, inspirational messages, and sacrificial offerings. The spirit of the event was overwhelming at times, as both the celebrants and we worshipers were overcome with emotion, moved to ecstatic utterances. As with any such celebration, the conclusion and aftermath were a letdown. We left disappointed, disillusioned, but certain just the same that we will gather again next year for another Super Bowl party.

I'm sure you got the joke long before you finished reading that paragraph. Given the football-related title of this post and the picture pasted above, there really can be no doubt what I'm talking about. I've also written many times in this space about the religious aspects of football (most notably here and here), as well as the ambivalence of my mutual fascination for and repulsion from the sport. Like many of the congregants who fill churches on Christmas and Easter, I'm only an occasional partaker of football, getting most of my viewing in from whatever's on the TV screens in the bars where Amy and I shoot pool. Most years, the Super Bowl is the only game I watch from start to finish.

So why write again? Three reasons: Bill Maher, Radio Lab, and my ankle.

The first two reasons actually go together, though I experienced them on different days. Last Friday on his weekly show Real Time, Bill Maher raised the topic of health issues in American football by saying that enjoying a football game is increasingly like watching Cosby Show reruns: he just can't separate the fun from the discomfort of knowing too much. A similar issue was raised on last week's Radio Lab in an episode entirely about football that both made me want to embrace the sport and shrink from it in horror. The story of how Pop Warner's Carlisle Indians created modern football is fascinating and informative, and helped me not only understand why the football rulebook is so incomprehensible, but how much beauty there is in this brutish sport. What followed, though, was an excellent corrective, reminding listeners of how many players' lives are compromised and shortened by participation in football. Watching the Super Bowl, I saw this play out on a national stage, as one player, clearly suffering from a concussion, was permitted back on the field with only a cursory examination.

The bitter truth of football is that millions of young men risk injury and early death to participate in a sport that rewards only a handful of players with professional careers that are far too short to compensate for the lasting damage they do. The collision of heavy bodies, the limbs twisted at wrong angles, the tumbles to the ground again and again, and most of all, the impact, even through the most protective helmets the industry can create, of brains against skull cases, all feed into the flow of sacrificial blood on the huge green altar of America's true national church.

And now my ankle.

At the end of the Super Bowl, a poor coaching decision led Seattle's quarterback to throw an interception in the end zone rather than running the ball across the few inches to a winning touchdown. The play cost the Seahawks the game. Overcome with the passion of the moment, bursting with testosterone, the Seattle players began a spontaneous brawl with their New England adversaries. The fight lasted less than a minute, and the commentators made no mention of it, but it made a deep impression on me, leading me to think more about that Radio Lab story, how football in America began as a post-Civil War release for the unspent blood lust of young men born too late to kill and die for their country. It was a sport of hitting, scratching, eye-gouging, biting, of Ivy League students transformed into berserkers.

That was never me, I told myself. I've never let my hormones talk me into doing something stupid and violent.

And then Tuesday, two days after watching those players of a violent sport make it that much more violent in the end zone, I went to the gym.

Tuesdays and Thursdays, I like to take Peter's spin class at the Beaverton 24 Hour Fitness. Peter's old for a spin instructor--I think he just turned 70--but he's an inspirational coach, and he always gets more out of me than any other instructor. Lately I've been going directly to the gym from school, and prefacing the 5:30 class with a run. This Tuesday, I changed into my running gear, headed out the door, and just a block from the gym, turned my left ankle on a flaw in the sidewalk.

I'm no stranger to twisted ankles. I've had them all my life. But it's been several years since I had one, and I was becoming convinced that finally, in my 50s, the muscles of my weak ankle were strong enough and nimble enough to keep me from tearing any more ligaments. I was wrong.

This roll of the ankle was a bad one, and I knew it. I cried out in pain, staggered to a signpost, and was asked by a passing delivery man if I was okay. "It hurts like hell, but I'll be all right," I said through my teeth. I walked a few yards and decided I could run on it if I was careful.

I ran for 75 minutes, and it felt fine.

I finished my run at 24, and could barely walk to the locker room.

No problem, I told myself. Spin will be different. I put on my cycling shoes, limped to the spin room, got on a bike just as Amy arrived to work out beside me (when we're apart all day, it's nice to at least be together at the gym). Peter started us on our warm up, and I stood up on the pedals--then unclipped and got off the bike. My ankle was screaming at me.

Instead of completing my double workout, I went grocery shopping (leaning on the cart the entire time), then picked up an ankle brace at Walgreens. I've been wearing it for two days now, and the ankle is feeling better.

What's not feeling bitter is my frustration with myself. Why did I keep running? Why, knowing how badly I'd hurt myself, and with decades of experience with injuries like this one, didn't I cancel my run? It's not as if it happened three miles from home: I was a block from the gym.

That "why" is completely rhetorical, because I know the answer: as liberated and enlightened as I like to think I am, I'm still an American male at heart. At 53 (almost 54), I've still got testosterone running through me. Despite my wimpish start (I didn't exercise in earnest until I was in my mid-20s), I love to push myself physically. I hike farther into the wilderness than I should, forcing myself to find my way out in the dark. I bicycle higher and farther into Portland's west hills than I should, forcing myself to ride home, again, in the dark. I long to return to marathoning, knowing how much that will push my body to its limits, wring every last bit of resolve out of me, leave me sobbing, but victorious, at the finish line. At the gym, I put more weight on my squat bar than anyone else taking Body Pump, and I do all my pushups with my feet elevated on my bench. Whenever I can, I do double workouts, both running (though it'll be awhile before I can safely return to that) and cycling. And in spin, I know I've got more tension on that bike than is really required. But I simply don't know how to work out without pushing myself. I'm disappointed with a workout that doesn't cause me pain or exhaustion or both. I'm as competitive as any man, but unlike most, it's almost always with myself.

And when I score any of these little victories--finishing a Tabata, running up the hill to Skyline, dropping my barbell to the floor after the squat set--I feel like flexing my entire body, throwing my head back, and roaring. Sometimes I do, though it's a muted roar, more of a "Whoof!" It feels good to conquer my rival, to beat down the soft lazy teenaged me that still lives under my graying exterior. "Ha! Take that, you little bastard!"

This is the same urge that leads those young men to wring every last bit of celebration out of a touchdown that the NFL will permit, and caused both those teams to empty the benches and start slugging out their pent-up fury Sunday afternoon.

Most days, I channel this energy into the flow of teaching, keeping myself both authoritative and empathetic as I put out pint-sized fires in my classroom, primary school dramas about who's friends with whom and what feelings were hurt when so-and-so did such-and-such. But for an hour (sometimes two or three) a day, I can let that same energy burst forth, challenging my body to stretch itself and do things I never imagined myself capable of when I was the age of those brawling football players.

And that's why, however oogy I feel about all the injuries these athletes are subjecting themselves to, I'm going to continue participating in the annual celebration, as well as the glimpses I keep catching while shooting pool: because I get it. I did something like that to myself just two days ago. And I probably will again, several more times, before I die. I'm a man, after all.


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