I should hate football.
While I admit I’m not a crazy fan of football, I do enjoy watching it. I probably shouldn’t.
Contrary to what my mother-in-law got stuck in her head a few years ago, I do not root for any NFL team. I did get caught up in the Greatest Show on Turf stuff with the St. Louis Rams (which is what my mother-in-law was referencing), but that’s about as close as I’ve ever gotten to “rooting” for an NFL team.
When I was pretty young, my Dad got me kid-sized pads and a helmet. He choose the Chargers because he thought I’d dig the lightning bolts on the side. He wasn’t wrong, but it was one of those times where I remember distinctly not having an NFL team to follow. My family was not a Bears/Bulls/Blackhawks/Cubs/White Sox family, so the Bears never entered the equation. The Colts were not a team I could get behind. The only two NFL games I’ve ever attended were a St. Louis Cardinals game at old Busch Stadium back in 1985 when I was still in high school and a Rams game in 2003, mostly accompanying my Dad and one of his friends.
This leads me back to why I should hate football.
When I was eight years old, I was in an accident. It was nobody’s fault but mine. If you haven’t guessed, I was playing football in a couple of backyards, mine included. We had a wide variety of kids of all ages playing this particular game of pick-up football. I had just caught a pass and was tripped up by one of my friends, lost my balance, and fell into a bush because backyard pick-up football tends to have a few obstacles in the way like patios, trees, and bushes. I fell hard and completely knocked the breath out of myself. I remember trying to breathe and how much that hurt more than the pain on the right side of my face.
A small branch about an inch and a half went under my eye and severed the optic nerve. Freaky accidents happen all the time, but I have never heard of a stick cutting the optic nerve and not injuring the eye itself at all. That’s what happened to me.
My accident changed the direction of my life. My Dad played football and baseball, and I was likely destined to play both of those sports as well or maybe even better than my father. My mother would never let me play any form of football ever again, let alone high school football. I tried baseball, and I was pretty good until I was old enough for pitchers to start throwing curveballs and sliders. It’s tough to hit a baseball when it’s moving, and you have two eyes that can place it into three-dimensional space. For me, baseballs come in looking flat, and placing them in three dimensions is difficult. Have you ever reached for a light pull from a hanging lightbulb in a basement or attic and completely missed it? I have plenty of times because where my brain thought the pull was in three-dimensional space was not where it actually was if that makes sense.
So, I became a track and cross-country athlete. I wasn’t great, but it was sports, and it was being part of a team, and I liked it well enough to basically build the cross-country team from scratch at Illinois College, where I was MVP and Team Captain at this tiny little Division III school. I once asked members of the University of Illinois cross-country team what their worse race time was, and I quickly realized my best time in four years could not even compete at the Division I level.
I barely watched much football my entire high school, collegiate, and post-collegiate years. Sure, I tuned into a Super Bowl and went to a few Super Bowl watch parties, but I never had a team that I rooted for or cared about ever. To this day, I don’t have any kind of handle on players, coaches, or how good any one team is until division championship games and Super Bowls.
You might think I hated the game or would tell others not to play because of how dangerous it is. I did none of that. Football barely registered in my life. I had an accident. It may have zigged the direction of my zag, but it never really defined me. It never comes up, and I hardly think about it.
Then I moved to a college town, was gifted some tickets, and started loving going to University of Illinois football and basketball games. They were always events, and sometimes the teams were pretty good. Most time, it didn’t matter. Illinois athletics became the team I supported, followed, and cared about almost as soon as I moved to Champaign. There was a whole Saturday tailgate atmosphere during football Saturdays where I could take my young daughter and get her face painted, a few minutes jumping on inflatables, and maybe some ice cream at the end.
Today, I went to the first college football game of 2021 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Illinois, to watch the University of Illinois Fighting Illini take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers. I invited my hometown neighbor… the guy who tripped me up playing backyard football in 1976, to come with me. We’ve been friends for years. He still lives in our hometown and is a successful dentist. Illinois is his alma mater, and I was thrilled to catch up with him and enjoy the afternoon.
Illinois got the win with a score of 30–22. It was hot. It was loud. It was thousands of people all jammed in together to cheer on their team. I will admit when the orange and blue-clad squad took the field, I didn’t hate football at all.
I never really did.