No Offense To Baseball, Basketball, But Football Is Indeed The Great American Game

By Jason Keidel
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We’re finally here.

This is what we love about sports, and what we adore about football. We have the zero-sum certainty of the final score, and the game we’ve watched since birth has ballooned into the singular American event.

Nearly half the nation’s televisions will be tuned in to the Super Bowl. More than 110 million people watched last year’s Super Bowl, and the one before that, and the one before that. That’s a far cry from the original iteration — not yet named the Super Bowl — a game between Green Bay and Kansas City, played to a half-empty Los Angeles Coliseum.

The Super Bowl is a distillation of our frothing fanaticism over something that doesn’t affect world policy, the environment, an election, nuclear proliferation, or the war on terror. Yet we treat it as though it means more than any and all world issues.

The Super Bowl has garnered such gravitas that we actually consider branding it a national holiday, perhaps parlayed into President’s Day. It’s the Alpha, Omega, and Dorito. It is, for better or worse, the emblem of Americana.

Why does the Super Bowl hold our soul? It’s not about a game in late January or early February, about the wagers or winners.

It’s a portal to our childhood.

You had your Armageddon game somewhere in America, just as Joe Montana surely did in steel and coal country of Monongahela, Pa., or Tom Brady in the shadow of San Francisco Bay, or Big Ben in the farmland of Findlay, Ohio.

It doesn’t take an anthropologist to know that New York City is a baseball town at the box office, and basketball town in the playground. Yet on my slice of Manhattan, football ruled. We carried a basketball around everywhere because that’s just what New Yorkers do.

But a football was our favorite slab of leather.

We needed wide swaths of land to play our game, so we’d hike past bars and bodegas, churches and Church’s Fried Chicken, the projects and police stations, until we could plant our football flag for just a few hours. Toss a dart at a map of Manhattan, between Columbus Circle and Columbia University, and we probably played a game there. West Side, of course.

We played in Central Park, Riverside Park, Sheep Meadow, the Great Lawn, the lawn flanking the Museum of Natural History, the playground at IS 44, at PS 84, the playground at PS 163, the sidewalk in front of PS 163, and, of course, the concrete slabs inside my community, a series of seven, faded, red brick buildings called Park West Village, stretching from West 97th to 100th street.

We played in the rain, the snow, the heat, the cold, on ice, on concrete, on grass, on dirt, in the morning, and at night. We started with Nerf balls, then college balls with the white stripes curling around each end, to the hard, large leather of NFL balls.

No doubt many of you concocted the same contours. Two trees comprised the end zone; two lamp posts made up the other. A row of bushes were the back of the end zone. A fence was the sideline. The ball would tumble into the street and we’d stop traffic, snatch it, and scamper back.

As kids we played touch football. Two hands slap the side of the ball carrier and he was tackled. We played flag football. Yank the strip of cloth from the Velcro and he’s tackled. Then we play tackle football, which speaks for itself. And thus came the injuries. I broke my left arm. My boy dislocated his shoulder. Another guy mangled a finger.

And alas there were the NFL allegiances. We all had to be someone from the NFL. Back in the ’70s and early ’80s, neither New York team was worth following, so we looked deep into the dynasties.

At first I was Franco Harris, from my beloved black & gold. Then I wanted to be Terry Bradshaw. Someone else was Joe Montana or Jerry Rice or Walter Payton or Earl Campbell or Tony Dorsett. As early as fifth and sixth grade I scampered around classrooms waving my Terrible Towel.

When we were old and lucid enough we built a squad. Within the block I’d play with  Butch, Tony, Karim, against Byron, Dean, Keith, and Chris. If some kids weren’t around there were plenty of replacements.

We’d play with Mike, Malik, John Peter, Nigel, Muntu, and Matthew.

Just like my neighborhood, the kids were of all colors, representing every mutation of the melting pot.

We talked a lot to get in each other’s head, to celebrate a touchdown, to brag about a victory. Kids would watch us play just to hear the jokes. Manhattan was so provincial that two blocks south was considered another continent, and we protected Park West Village like Bastogne.

If we played in a park with no lights and no clocks, then sunlight was the whistle and sunset was the gun. If we were winning and had the ball we would take our time with our plays, and the opponent would accuse us of stalling.

Sometimes a game would end unexpectedly. Sometimes an angry parent would march down and snag their son. Sometimes a cop or security guard would break up the game because we made too much noise or hit a window with a wayward pass.

The quarterback would hold the ball and yell “Hike!” and the lone defensive lineman would count to five Mississippi and then rush. We drew the plays on our palms. Button Hook. Slant. Fly. Out.

There was the Stacatto squeak of sneakers, cries of holding and pass interference, barks of “butterfingers!” when someone dropped the ball, offers to buy the QB glasses when he threw an interception.

Our ancestry, intelligence, manhood, and mothers were called into question. Except with Butch, who would inflict great pain upon anyone who dare speak poorly of his mother. And Butch had that kind of juice in the neighborhood. It was all in the name of football, and the rancor usually ended the moment the game did.

So if football, a tertiary sport in the Big Apple, had us that spellbound, imagine what it means in Texas or Florida or Pennsylvania, or any fertile, football soil. None of us wound up playing pro ball — though I still maintain Butch was good enough — but we felt like gods of the block, which was enough.

Looking back, there was no better time in my life than those cool fall nights in 1985, the boom box thumping with Slick Rick’s “Lodi Dodi” or Run DMC’s “Peter Piper,” when I threw a perfect spiral toward the stars over Central Park, landing in Butch’s broad chest.

Or I’d heave a jump ball to Tony, who was already 6-foot-6 in 10th grade, and watch him leap over the defender and snag the pigskin, while the defender jumped, whiffed, and landed with a look of comical bewilderment.

Tony would spike the ball, we’d all rush to jump all over him, and then take our ball and our jokes a few blocks back to Park West, with stories to tell forever.

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel

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