Why I Can't Leave Football Behind

Football was presented to me, and the other black boys I grew up with, as our sole chance at achieving greatness. But I don't believe that anymore.

In high school, there couldn’t be any waffling over whether you were built for this or not. In high school, they ran you until you vomited, twice. In high school, by day two, you were in pads — no need to forestall the inevitable. In high school, they hit like grown men. That’s what football players called it my entire life, “hittin’,” there being a kind of glee in the word. And if you were one of the first boys in line for drills, you were the kind of boy who said things like “Just wait ‘til we start hittin’” or “We gon’ see when the hittin’ starts,” — the kind of boy who had his mind made up already, had sufficiently numbed his instinct for self-preservation, or had had it numbed for him. You were the coaches’ darling boy, possessed of a true instinct for the game, and of the virility we all were told to emulate.

Waiting your turn made it terrible. Not the doing. Get hit once and you knew the secret, that you didn’t feel it much. But getting there, the noise resounding off cracked helmets, the malice and abandon in those sounds ricocheting through your entire body, that’s what terrified you. The shock of that sound could linger, every part of you wanting to register a complaint, decry the body’s fragility. The body deserved to be spared, not sacrificed to this particular project of man-making at the expense of the whole.

Get hit once and you knew the secret, that you didn’t feel it much. 

Every team I ever played for, that’s what we were, a collection of dangling parts, limbs of one singular black-boy body. First in little league at 8, then junior high, then in high school where it ended, we were a body submitted for seasoning, in advance of what the world held in wait. I remember the dread I felt daily at school in anticipation of football practice, the blows to be taken that evening, the feel of my body gone grimy, the nausea rising in my belly. This rite of passage, it seemed to me, had been made brutal intentionally, meant to wring the boy out of our collective young man-ness, drain us, leave us spent, the way orgasms had begun to only a few years before.

But in truth, how could one resist the role of hardened man-child that the sport offered up? One dared not, or else you risked losing what appeared then as the lone route to manhood. I dared not, as this progression had begun to seem more precarious as my sexuality matured. Certainly I made concessions in hopes of doing boyhood right, but I never took much joy in slamming into others. I could take some hits, assuming that doing so affirmed my manhood in the eyes of the tribe. But I spent much of my time searching for the elation I perceived my teammates found in making contact, or narrowly escaping it. I preferred feeling the wind beat across my neck, sitting up in the back of a pickup truck at twilight with friends, laughing at a joke that stole my breath. Leaving the sport — and the affirmations of maleness I imagined my family and community demanded of me — required quitting, on three separate occasions.

I still cringe from an early team photo, the rigid stiff arm pose I’m striking, more like “Baby Love” choreography from the Supremes. Decades older now, I surveil my boyhood body in this way. Masculinity seemed like such a fragile thing back then, assailed by effeminacy on one end and gang life on the other. With football, we were encouraged to be ruthless, but also to be teammates, and thereby fashioned into an approved approximation of black men.

With football, we were encouraged to be ruthless, but also to be teammates, and thereby fashioned into an approved approximation of black men.

My own father sprang from a tradition of Southern black men who stubbornly resisted abandoning black communities yet seemed alien for their presence there. They had achieved some semblance of middle class–ness and yet had stayed — too flayed by their Southern upbringings and nostalgia for their bygone segregated communities to find succor in the prospect of suburban coalition with white people. They were men who probably kept copies of Jawanza Kunjufu’s Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys on their bookshelves. I feared I carried ambitions of joining that very conspiracy, for what it might give me in access to wealth, security, and stairs. I loved houses with stairs, perhaps for the chance they offered to put space between oneself and other bodies — the privacy of a bedroom, upstairs, suburban, the sanctity this granted to white bodies alone, it seemed then.

The fear of expulsion from that collective black-boy body, of being deemed not black enough or male enough or straight enough, counterfeit somehow, terrified me. My first coach preached a gospel of refusing to quit on our worst days. As we huddled against the dark, swatting the bites at our neck, sweat having rose the stink of mildew from our socks and sneakers, his message — once a quitter, always one — echoed in me. He endeavored to teach us things about competitiveness and strength, and endurance and toughness and community, things I wrestle with now. But I rejected the message football relayed — that the only sanctioned communication among boys, black boys especially, was martial — and I still do.

To me, my father seemed less concerned with the masculinity I fretted over constantly than the social good my presence on the team — composed of black boys exclusively — would do. I began clamoring for an escape route by the age of 9, 10. Eventually, I lost the will to argue with my dad, but those arguments became an internal tension. I worried that in wanting to abandon the game, I’d also abandon this gender and communal identity, that black-boy body. I also worried now about how badly I wanted to.

I rejected the message football relayed — that the only sanctioned communication among black boys was martial.

And so at 12, I tried my first escape in the jostle of transition from elementary to junior high school. By then, I heard only fear animating the voices at our games on Saturday mornings, in the peals of single moms on the sidelines, fearful of indictment for raising their sons alone; in the voices of my coaches, forever calibrating our intensity, to go harder, to scrap against the opponent in front of you as well as the dark encroaching our field; from the streets just outside the chalked lines — fear of how disposable our existences were, how vulnerable that black male body seemed, perpetually on view, judged against fantasies of what violence we could enact against one another. These fantasies had been bequeathed, it seemed, from ruddy-faced white men with whiskey and cigars who couldn’t have cared less about our well-being, into the mouths of our own loved ones, cheering their relief in knowing we were becoming hardened, tough enough to survive.

I returned to the game at 14, wanting to get my dad off my back, to get free of his rule that we children engage in a physical activity every year, and also wanting to affirm something about my manhood to myself. I took it up again because it was the easiest thing at hand, but also because knowing more about myself had made questions of my own masculine identity more fraught. That season, I probably played in two games, each time called in from the bench. I felt grateful when the season ended, thinking I’d finally sworn it off.

Every attempt I made at quitting was like a slip, occasioned by the confusion of aging, reaching some new stage where my boy body had grown older, like each time I was asking a question: “Am I done now?” Each quitting became a kind of stealing away, an attempt at casting something off. Each was inevitably followed by my taking up the game again, and so it seemed, the dutiful training I was evading, the only way toward noble self-development, what might make me into the only man I was sanctioned to be.

The last time, my older brother had left home for Morehouse, and perhaps wanting to shore up the masculinity I’d so easily won by standing in his proxy, a prize that would now seem suspect, tarnished, I answered yes when the high-school coaches called my home the summer before 10th grade to see if I was interested in joining the high-school team. I made it to the second day.

I carry the warp of the game in my body.

All of these attempts at quitting, in retrospect, call into question whether that act is actually ever possible, to quit those things that linger: black male–ness, heterosexuality, football, the community. I carry the warp of the game in my body, the way a former gymnast does, the way you can recognize a dancer by how their feet repel one another. I love the game in that way, and maybe even the memories I have of playing with those guys, despite my conflicted relationship with it. Watching the game now, I still feel it down in me. It's an involuntary response akin to what one feels watching an Ailey performance, or replaying online clips to experience the port de bras of Vince Carter's 360 windmill at the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest. Those football guys, who I can only watch now on Saturdays and Sundays, still feel like my guys. Cuts to the sideline capture the Trade Exchanges of wisdom those huddles become, where players barter subjective experiences and truths in impassioned voices. I get swept up in that sincerity, having wanted access to those huddles, those minds and lives, that level of kinship and love, both then and now. The conviction in those voices convinces me that those men imagine their performance on that field as their rare chance at expressing themselves, the beauty of their exertion and intention, in a way that will be properly admired. It makes me wonder if my memory of hating playing the game is a revised fabrication somehow. This seems like it was the intention all along, to have made me into something irredeemably male.

And yet, one injury nags from my playing days, the thought that football was presented as our sole chance at achieving greatness or dignity or beauty, the thought that so much of my childhood there, among black men, was spent thrashing to get away from them.

Some guys loved the game fervently. I did not. Not playing it anyway. But I can't quit it either, inasmuch as I could ever quit my family. I do decry, however, the frame the game established for my community, how little we were given beyond physical contest to render ourselves comprehensible, or valuable, to one another. Maybe I struggle with having felt the burden of allegiance to an ‘us’, a single black-boy body governed by its duty to football and the community. I had to take possession of my own black-boy body and begin to imagine its other uses.

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