There’s a way that we’ve come to look at our football stars. We reach for easy metaphors of them as demi-gods, or heroes, or knights on some field of battle, casting about for glory. The game lends itself easily to mythology, and that’s how we like it – NFL Films shoots the action taking place in massive stadiums in a luxurious 24 frames-per-second reel, while epic compositions play and thick-voiced narrators make the whole thing seem like the modern equivalent of something out of Tolkien. To glance at football is to look at a mini, condensed, contemporary version of Game Of Thrones, where the Patriots are forver the Lannisters and whatever scrappy band of underdogs passes as the Stark family. Winter is coming, we’ll half expect the bearded Rob Ryan to shout to DeMarcus Ware from the sidelines during the Cowboys’ week six trip up to Foxborough, it’s time to sack Tom Brady for honor!
Does that make Danny Woodhead the dwarf?
But that’s just how we look at the game, because that’s how it’s been presented to us.
I received a copy of Taschen books’ Guts & Glory: The Golden Age of American Football 1958-1978 last week, a gorgeous coffee table-sized art book featuring the football work of sports photographer Neil Leifer, and saw it a little bit differently. Looking at the game, and its players, through Leifer’s lens offers a fairly fundamental shift in that perception. There are pages, of course, of the game’s legends – spreads featuring Dick Butkus launching himself like a polar bear into the bodies of halfbacks who are doomed to internal injuries, or of Field Commander Unitas cooly surveying territory he plans to take after launching the ball downfield – but those all start to look the same after a while. The shots that linger, and force a reboot in the way we look at things, are in the book’s early pages, where players from 1961 compete on the Eagles’ Franklin Field.
In these pictures, with the lines on the field nearly invisible, and fans standing along the field’s perimeter and no bleachers on the west end zone – there’s a circa-1895 brick fieldhouse in its place – football looks very different. Instead of massive heroes straight out of mythology clad in armor and masked helms, you’ve got what looks an awful lot like people. Playing a game. There’s a shot of an Eagles/Bears game from November 5, 1961 that stands out – Eagles wide receiver Tommy McDonald stretches his arms for a pass in the end zone as a Bears linebacker puts his arms up to knock it away. It looks like fun. Like you could go join in, and they might let you play.
When your brain does the inevitable calculation – that, you know, that’s what’s really happening even when it’s DeSean Jackson stretching for a pass that Brian Urlacher is trying to knock down – it puts things in perspective. This is just a game.
“More Than A Game”
That’s not something sports fans like to admit very often. Oh, they’ll hide behind it – why should LeBron be a role model, they’ll argue, he’s just a guy who gets paid to play a game! – but they don’t mean it.
There’s a reason why the documentary about LeBron’s life is called More Than A Game, why the exhibit at the Bob Bullock Center about Texas high school football is called More Than A Game, why longtime Baltimore Ravens head coach and current NFL announcer and analyst Brian Billick titled his book on football’s future More Than A Game, why a search for books with that title on Amazon brings on literally hundreds of results. Games are meant to be frivolous things, and the story of a teenager from Ohio plucked out of poverty because of his undeniable talent, dedication, and physical prowess is anything but frivolous; Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics is more than a game; so are the trials of the fiercely determined characters we fell in love with after five seasons of Friday Night Lights, and their real-life counterparts…
But fuck that. If every game has its exemptions – if the actions of Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, or the lessons in courage you can draw from Jim Abbott, or the sheer never-give-up determination of a guy like Vinny Testeverde or even friggin’ Brett Favre, means that all of these are more than a game, then it brings to mind an important question: What’s wrong with it being just a game?
More Than A Game: The Story Of My Madden Matchup With AzzKickr1986 On Xbox Live
People love games. We love to play them – video games make way more money each year than Hollywood does, y’all – and we obviously love to watch them. It’s not a meathead thing, or a nerd thing. The folks sharpening their pencils and preparing their D&D characters might not feel like they have a ton in common with the dudes kicking it in the weight room in the hope that, maybe someday, they’ll get drafted. But they’re both doing an activity that’s fundamentally human.
If we have so many games whose importance we feel the need to justify by declaring their more than a game status, maybe we should just all agree instead that games are actually pretty important to us?
When you look at the games this way – when you leaf through Leifer’s book and realize that if, say, Joe Namath really were a character out of Tolkien, he’d look a hell of a lot more like a hobbit than he did like Strider –you realize that you could call every exhibit, book, movie, etc about games or sports More Than A Game and it would be entirely appropriate. Try it – it’s fun! Rudy or Raging Bull or A League Of Their Own or Invictus or “Despite Outcome, U.S. Women Earned Respect” or something about poker or Dungeons & Dragons or Halo. Every story about games is about how they transcend the actual mechanics of gameplay, or about how those gameplay mechanics are executed with such grace and elegance that they can make us feel better about being human and alive.
We care, a lot, about games. If you wonder why we devote so much space to talking about them, writing about them, and thinking about them when there are other things going on – yeah, there are still two wars on, and the economy sucks something awful – there’s a reason. There’s no need to be so self-conscious about it.