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Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game
     

Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game

by Mark Edmundson
 

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Acclaimed essayist Mark Edmundson reflects on his own rite of passage as a high school football player to get to larger truths about the ways America's Game shapes its men

Football teaches young men self-discipline and teamwork. But football celebrates violence. Football is a showcase for athletic beauty and physical excellence. But football damages young

Overview

Acclaimed essayist Mark Edmundson reflects on his own rite of passage as a high school football player to get to larger truths about the ways America's Game shapes its men

Football teaches young men self-discipline and teamwork. But football celebrates violence. Football is a showcase for athletic beauty and physical excellence. But football damages young bodies and minds, sometimes permanently. Football inspires confidence and direction. But football instills cockiness, a false sense of superiority. The athlete is a noble figure with a proud lineage. The jock is America at its worst.

When Mark Edmundson’s son began to play organized football, and proved to be very good at it, Edmundson had to come to terms with just what he thought about the game. Doing so took him back to his own childhood, when as a shy, soft boy growing up in a blue-collar Boston suburb in the sixties, he went out for the high school football team. Why Football Matters is the story of what happened to Edmundson when he tried to make himself into a football player.

What does it mean to be a football player? At first Edmundson was hapless on the field. He was an inept player and a bad teammate. But over time, he got over his fears and he got tougher. He learned to be a better player and came to feel a part of the team, during games but also on all sorts of escapades, not all of them savory. By playing football, Edmundson became what he and his father hoped he’d be, a tougher, stronger young man, better prepared for life.

But is football-instilled toughness always a good thing?  Do the character, courage, and loyalty football instills have a dark side?  Football, Edmundson found, can be full of bounties.  But it can also lead you into brutality and thoughtlessness.  So how do you get what’s best from the game and leave the worst behind?

Why Football Matters is moving, funny, vivid, and filled with the authentic anxiety and exhilaration of youth. Edmundson doesn’t regret playing football for a minute, and cherishes the experience. His triumph is to be able to see it in full, as something to celebrate, but also something to handle with care. For anyone who has ever played on a football team, is the parent of a player, or simply is reflective about its outsized influence on America, Why Football Matters is both a mirror and a lamp.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Dwight Garner
…a questing, questioning book…Mr. Edmundson…argues that football shifts our attention from difficult issues to simple ones, for both good and ill.
Publishers Weekly
06/09/2014
Edmundson’s memoir attempts to explain why football means so much to him, and why its influence on his life has been so lasting. In the course of all this, he argues unconvincingly that there are lessons that only football can teach—but this is a minor drawback in an otherwise intelligent and charming book. In each chapter, he focuses on a human trait, quality, or belief, and discusses how it relates to football: character, patriotism, and manliness are among those analyzed. An English professor at University or Virginia, Edmundson turns frequently to literature for his examples. The highlight of the book may well be his discussion of the ancient Greek heroes, Achilles and Hector, and their individual relationships with courage. Edmundson tentatively concludes that what we call courage or bravery may be little different from anger and the inability to repress it. Also enlightening, and moving, are the stories of Edmundson’s relationship with his father and his youngest son, and the importance of football in these relationships. Unafraid to challenge common assumptions about what football does and does not teach us, Edmundson’s book is uncommonly probing and insightful and should have wide-ranging appeal. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
Los Angeles Times:
“Terrific. . . .Edmundson's Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game is an elegiac account of his youthful rescue and redemption on the high school gridirons of suburban Boston in the 1960s.”

Washington Post:
“[Edmundson] presents a richly textured look at football as a vital part of American culture. [Why Football Matters] shows the deep connection between football and the core values of Western culture, something that isn’t often stressed in as-told-to football books. Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to while away the time between games this season than reading it.”

The Boston Globe
“One of Edmundson’s greatest strengths as a writer and thinker has always been his ability to present knotty arguments and erudite material in an accessible, appealing, and relevant way. In “Why Football Matters,’’ he is similarly deft in linking literature to life, books to boys. From Jung to Emerson, from Shelley to Wordsworth, canonical authors are sprinkled seamlessly throughout and always to good effect. An extended discussion of two Homeric heroes, Achilles and Hector, works brilliantly as a way of opening up questions about courage, character, and what it means to win and lose.” 

Chicago Tribune:
“The writing is uniformly strong throughout the book, as Edmundson vividly renders his memories of high school teammates or specific plays. He conveys warm feelings for the lessons he learned from football, particularly how to lose and get back up. And he gives moving examples of how the lessons he learned affected more important parts of life, such as helping him cope with his younger sister's death.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“Eloquent…[Edmundson] brings the worlds of literature and pop culture to his playing field, citing everyone from George Carlin to Sigmund Freud, Herman Melville to Ralph Ellison.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
“A from-the-heart memoir….a movingly told account of how the game taught him lessons that he used to direct his life.”

Daily Beast:
“In his erudite but approachable new book….[Edmundson] writes with wisdom and understatement…. [He] captures the deep vein of ambivalence that so many fans have started to feel when they think hard about the game."

Library Journal (starred):
“A wide-ranging and insightful meditation on what football means in American culture. Beautifully written and impressively thought out, this smart memoir should appeal to a wide audience.”

Booklist (starred):
“Why football matters should be self-evident to a nation that’s lost its mind over the game these past few decades, but Edmundson…gives an uncommonly thoughtful take on the issue….A remarkable memoir that can only elevate its readers’ response to the game.”

Publishers Weekly:
“Unafraid to challenge common assumptions about what football does and does not teach us, Edmundson’s book is uncommonly probing and insightful and should have wide-ranging appeal.”

Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life:
“Mark Edmundson’s first spell-binding memoir Teacher told how one inspiring high school philosophy class in the blue-collar suburb of Medford, Massachusetts, lured him into a life of the mind. Why Football Matters takes us back to Medford High and to harder, darker lessons learned on the turf of Hormel Field. I grew up in Pasadena, California, spent high school Friday nights cheering at home games in the Rose Bowl; few American lives are untouched by this supremely emblematic game that Edmundson examines with equal measures of sympathy and skepticism in a book sure to become its own American classic.”

Michael Sokolove, author of Drama High:
“Mark Edmundson’s book is a great gift for those of us who love football but can’t easily explain or justify our passion, as well as a superbly entertaining read.”

Mark Slouka:
“An essential (I’m tempted to say ‘indispensable’) guide to the guts and the glory—and, yes, the grief—of maleness in America. Edmundson has written one of those rare memoirs that dares to make the personal political, that paints the picture even as it questions it. Perceptive, passionate, intolerant of platitudes (whatever their political stripe), Why Football Matters asks what makes boys, and the men they sometimes grow into, tick. What drives us, frustrates and frightens us. What’s admirable about us, what ain’t—and why. You don’t have to know football, much less have played it—hell, even like it—to appreciate Why Football Matters; you only need to be a man, or to know one. Which covers pretty much everybody.”

David Shields:
“I’ve long admired Mark Edmundson’s work and I especially admire his new book: its understated balance, lucid prose, elegant logic, and above all for his complicity—his insistence upon acknowledging that he himself is part of the problem. (As are you, dear reader, as are you.)”

Gary Smith:
“Finally. Somebody with the required head, heart and soul skill set delivers us the game, our game, from within and without. Somebody takes us inside the helmet of a teenage boy who has offered himself to our rite of passage and makes us see-smell-hear-taste-touch it . . . while simultaneously floating above it, a psycho-spiritual scorekeeper tallying up everything that’s gained and lost in the magnificent transaction. Finally. Somebody uses Nietzsche to render Nitschke. Somebody: Mark Edmundson. Thank you!”

Kirkus Reviews
2014-07-16
The author of Why Read? (2004) and other works of cultural criticism returns with a memoir/treatise about those personal virtues he traces back to his years playing high school football. Edmundson (English/Univ. of Virginia; Why Teach?: In Defense of a Real Education, 2013, etc.) arranges each chapter in similar fashion. Each has a theme (courage, manliness, faith, etc.) that he introduces with football memories and expands with later-life examples. Throughout, the author acknowledges the dangers of the game—though for a more incisive discussion of that aspect of the game, see Steve Almond's Against Football—and he is far too complex a thinker to simply repeat the mantras of coaches and unthinking fans ("Football builds character!"). Moreover, he adorns his text with allusions to writers and literary works. Melville, Joyce, Homer (there is a lot about The Iliad here), Emerson, Ellison, Hemingway, Dickey—these and others form his offensive line. Edmundson also employs references to popular culture (Johnny Carson is on special teams), and there are lots of engaging stories about high school. He begins with boyhood memories of watching football on TV with his father, who made a great ritual of Sundays spent watching his beloved New York Giants—though he had a great fondness, as well, for Jim Brown and Y.A. Tittle. Edmundson writes about how he was sort of disconnected when he decided to give the game a whirl and surprised himself with his assiduousness and determination. He is appealingly self-deprecating throughout and quite certain that it was on the gridiron that he learned and developed his adult virtues. Although he does have a few gratuitous (and unconvincing) comments about women (how do they become virtuous?), he does not have much to say about how non-football-playing young men develop their courage, character, manliness, loyalty and so on. A provocative thesis bolstered by amusing and instructive anecdotes—but there is a flaw in the defensive line.
Library Journal
★ 08/01/2014
Cultural critic Edmundson largely attributes his teenage transformation from a doughy dreamer to a disciplined man of serious thought to his stint as a high school football team benchwarmer. Here, the author reflects on the qualities that are often said to be taught by football—including character, courage, pride, toughness, loyalty and resilience—in a balanced analysis of their impact. Drawing on both his own experiences and the writings of such poets and thinkers as Homer and William Shakespeare, Edmundson comes to view each quality as a double-edged sword, especially when taken to extremes. In short, the game to him is both a poison and an elixir. While at times Edmundson seems to be overreaching, this work is a wide-ranging and insightful meditation on what football means in American culture. VERDICT Beautifully written and impressively thought out, this smart memoir should appeal to a wide audience.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594205750
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/04/2014
Pages:
240
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Mark Edmundson

INTRODUCTION

SONS AND FATHERS

I grew up watching football with my father. Starting when I was six years old, maybe seven, I watched Sunday games with him in our cramped apartment on Main Street in Malden, Massachusetts. It was 1958, 1959. We rooted for the New York Giants.

My father loved getting ready for the game. He pushed his king-dad’s chair into the middle of the living room, sat down, and tested it. Fine! Then he was up to work his hassock into place and to get his side table where he wanted it. He placed his smokes—Camels, non-filters—on the tabletop along with his matches and his ashtray. “My cigareets,” “my asheltray,” he called them. Who could say why?

My father was always on the move. He worked two jobs— both at restaurants, both eight-hour shifts—and when he got home from the second one, at the Chuck Wagon, he needed to pace for an hour or two before he could get to sleep. But on Sunday, game day, he calmed down, a little. For my father dearly loved the New York Giants. He loved Gifford and Patton and Katcavage and Robustelli and Modzelewski and Grier and sometimes he loved Sam Huff. All week he looked forward to Sunday afternoon when the Giants came on live.

King-dad chair centered, hassock in place, side table set up: My father was ready to watch the game. But hold it, there was one more thing! His chocolate bar! Every Friday, payday, when my mother shopped, she bought my father a king-size Hershey’s chocolate bar with almonds. My father relished that candy bar. He ate it slowly, deliberately, savoring it through the course of the game. He took a nibble, chewed delicately, stared off into space, then looked with sweet gratitude at his Hershey’s bar for being as wonderful as it was. The chocolate bar! He gave orders. I ran to get him his Hershey’s bar and sat down by his feet and waited for the game to begin.

Then came the music, the NFL theme, piping through the massive body of our black-and-white TV set. My father, who had a wonderful ear, began to sing in wordless harmony. Football was about to begin! To my mother, who was working in the kitchen, cleaning up the Sunday dinner, which my father had cooked, he issued one of his favorite lines: “Hon,” he said in a tone of mock tenderness, “they’re playing our song!”

And then we watched football. Or at least we tried to. The picture was black-and-white and the reception sometimes miserable. During certain games I had to stand up, go over to the TV, and monkey with the antenna. My father gave commands. No, no. Work the rabbit ears. Flatten them out. No, no, no: straight up, straight up. No, no, no, no: three o’clock. Not nine o’clock, three. As I moved the ears, my father crouched closer to see the next play. Sometimes his nose nearly kissed the screen.

“I think that you’re just going to have to hold it there!” A human hand wrapped tight around the aerial could sometimes improve the picture, bringing it from sandstorm in the desert to cloudy day near home. So there I would stand, hand clasped around the aerial, staring into the screen, tilting my head almost upside down, looking into the action, with my glasses sliding down the bridge of my nose. “That’s a little better,” my father would say. “That’s almost good.”

But mostly I was spared the acrobatics and contortions; mostly my father and I sat and watched football together. Through football my father explained the world to me. And in time he made me want to play. I wanted to be like the guys on the screen, the heroes, the mythical men. Even then I knew it was a ridiculous wish. I was big enough, but I was soft and fat and good at school. I wore glasses. I was last kid picked, or next to last.

My father believed in almost no one. He disliked politicians: He called John F. Kennedy, who was then our senator, Black Jack. He had no time for newspaper writers or big-name authors. He never went to church, never opened a Bible, and never said a word about God. He thought his bosses were fools. In time he came to love Johnny Carson—and Richard Nixon too. But when I was a small boy, football players were the only men my father admired. He loved Jim Brown and he loved Yelberton Abraham Tittle, Y. A. Tittle.

As much as my father adored his New York Giants, he still loved it when Jim Brown got on a roll against them. To my father, Jim Brown was the greatest football player ever—there never was one like him; there never would be. When Brown stepped on the field my father’s love for the Giants dissolved. (Sam Huff, their fierce linebacker, became “Huff the Bluff.”) Then the game was all about Jim Brown. Play after play Brown took the ball and plunged into the middle of the line. For a moment everything was still; there was an unmoving knot of snarling, pushing men. But then the pile moved—not much; a foot, maybe. Almost miraculously—it didn’t seem like he’d been touched—a Giants player flew off the front of the mass. “There goes Huff!” And then another Giant came off, faster this time, like an electron shot into space. The pile broke and New York Giants, and a few Cleveland Browns, scattered like crumbs. Staggering slightly, alone in what had been the middle, was Jim Brown. He was free and he was pumping down the field for ten, twelve, fifteen more yards, until a couple of defensive backs hopped on him from behind and a couple of the linemen who had been shaken off the pile managed to get up and get downfield and there were finally four or five Giants on him. It took that many men to tackle Jim Brown.

Jim Brown: nine years in the game, set and kept the career rushing record for more than three decades, until he was surpassed by a player who had been in 50 percent more games than he had. Jim Brown: gained more than five yards per carry, an astonishing feat. In theory, if you simply gave Jim the ball every play, you would get a first down in only two attempts. There would be no third down drama. Jim Brown had the feet of a ballerina when he dodged tacklers or skipped along the sidelines, but he had the muscle of a bull. He never ducked a hit: He ran over his enemies. When he finally was tackled, he rose with slow dignity. (Brown called it “getting up with leisure.”) “He’s like a king out there,” my father said. “He’s a king!”

When Brown was on one of his rolls, carrying the ball play after play, it was like watching a powerful fighter land blows on a heavy bag—except as he landed the blows, the bag crumpled; the bag caved in. That was the other team, that caving bag. Brown seemed to play with no furor, no hatred for the opposition— though who could know what he felt inside? He simply did what he did. Sometimes my father was in such awe of Jim Brown’s performance that he called my mother from the kitchen and said, “Hon, you gotta see this. Lookit, lookit, lookit this!”

My father was teaching me something then, and it was about grace and toughness and manly dignity. This was what it meant to be a man, a formidable man who played with fierce confidence and, when his helmet came off, spoke with sureness and modesty. You could tell that Brown was intelligent and thoughtful, but more than that he brought an aura with him: an enhanced sense of being, a glow.

A lot of the neighborhood dads admired Jim Brown. I’d been at my friends’ houses during games and I knew, though some of them were so loyal to the Giants that they couldn’t give number 32 all he deserved. But in other houses, I heard something else too. There I was reminded that Jim Brown was a black man, and sometimes I was reminded in ways that were less than decent. My neighborhood was reasonably tough, working class (though far from a slum), and full of hard-edged Irish and Italian guys. “Look at that jungle bunny go!” “Man, that nigger can fly!” Years later, when I was watching a Patriots game, a Boston defensive back intercepted a pass and ran it back over half the field for a touchdown. My friend’s father whooped with delight: “Put a tail on him. Put a tail on him and put him back in the jungle. Look at that little monkey go!”

I heard stuff like that all the time, but never from my father. My father probably didn’t know more than a few black people—he was friends with a beat cop who’d been a star athlete at Malden High, Harold Jay, and he worked with a few black guys at his restaurant jobs. No racist word ever passed his lips, at least in my hearing or my brother’s. He was the only white man I knew well that I could say this about. My father looked at Jim Brown as a fellow human being who had been born with gifts and then gone on to develop them and achieved a level of excellence that had to inspire awe. Lookit! Lookit! Lookit!

Watching football brought my father out of his frustrations and resentments and let him feel true admiration. Watching the game liberated him. In most of life he was irritable, prone to harsh judgment. But not when he was watching football; then he was another sort of man. He saw something greater than himself on the screen and he loved it—and he tried to teach me to do the same.

---

The football-watching ritual meant a lot to me, and one day my father showed me that it meant something to him too. My father was usually generous with his chocolate bar. At any time during the game I was free to ask, “Dad, can I have a piece?” He knew that I didn’t care for the bullet-like almonds inside the bar, so he crafted me a piece of pure chocolate. I could ask again, especially if the Giants were doing well, or if Jim Brown was running his thoroughbred race up and down the field. But I had probably better not ask three times.

One Saturday morning I crept sock footed into the pantry and found the bar on a top shelf. I slid it down, opened the wrapper, smelled the intoxicating scent of chocolate—my father had told me that the whole town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, smelled that way, and I wanted to go there and get a dose. Then I broke a piece of pure chocolate out from between the rocky almonds and dispatched it. Why was this so bad? My father always gave me a piece of chocolate during the game. Today I was taking payment in advance. Come to think of it, my father almost always allotted two pieces of almond-free when a contest was on.

By Sunday morning of game day the chocolate bar was no longer a chocolate bar. It was a collection of chocolate-covered almonds inside a crumpled, clumsily secured dark wrapper. The chocolate-covered almonds were not attractive, no. They were misshapen and sharp edged: They looked like black rocks.

Game time came, the game began, and my father, for whatever reason, did not call for his chocolate bar. (My father loved to call for his amenities. When I hear the Christmas carol about Old King Cole and how he “called for his pipe and he called for his bowl, and he called for his fiddlers three,” I think of him.) Was he doing this to torture me? Did he know? When he was angry my father did not hold back. He roared. If I didn’t scram fast enough, he delivered a whack.

I had been tempted to recite my chocolate sin in confession that Saturday and receive absolution for it. But by two o’clock, when I was kneeling in front of the priest in the confessional at the Sacred Heart, the chocolate bar was still semi-intact and might have been passable. And even I recognized that there was a certain absurd ring to “Bless me father for I have sinned. My last confession was one week ago. Since then I have lied three times, sworn twice, fingered the almonds out of my father’s chocolate bar, and eaten a lot of the rest.”

At halftime my father called for his bar. I went to its hiding place and drew it down, opened the wrapper, and laid the wreckage out. Then I walked to the living room. I put the remains before my father with both my hands. He looked at the mess, and without a word, took it and placed it on the tray table beside his ashtray and his smokes (“asheltray”; “cigareets”).

At the second-half kickoff he picked an almond and popped it in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully. The second half went on, my father, consuming his chocolate-covered almonds, intent on the game but unusually quiet. Most of the time his word count overwhelmed the announcer’s. It was usually a landslide victory, Wright Edmundson over Chris Schenkel. I sat in silence, waiting for the storm.

Early in the fourth quarter—the Giants well in the lead and Jim Brown off terrorizing the Redskins or the Eagles—my father made his move. A hand dropped down in front of my face—a fist, really—and I jumped. Now it was coming: the holler, the clout, the tearful run to my bedroom. But the hand opened. In front of me was a bit of chocolate, a mite but completely almond free. “You missed a piece,” my father said.

My father loved Y. A. Tittle, maybe even more than he loved Jim Brown. When he watched Jim Brown he felt that he was watching a deity. Brown had thrown himself into the crucible of the game and emerged as something like a man-god. But he had begun with amazing gifts. There was only one way to regard Jim Brown, and that was by looking up.

With Tittle it was different. With Tittle it wasn’t a matter of awe—Lookit! Lookit!—but of something else. Tittle was an artist of the gentle, perfect pass, dropped into the receiver’s hands like a soft Wonder Bread loaf from the sky. The ball floated toward the spot and at exactly the right moment it descended to Gifford or Jimmy Patton, who scattered away like he’d swiped it off the shelf. Tittle had a big arm and could boom the ball down the field when he wanted to, but to my father Tittle—or YAT, as he sometimes called him—was an artist of the perfect short, soft pass.

My father’s response: I could catch that! Even I could catch that! My father’s pass catching credentials were modest. He had been a track star in junior high school. For a while the neighborhood kids had called him Flash. In high school, he had done some high-speed maneuvering on foot to evade various pursuers, some of them, I gathered, in blue. But an athlete he was not. When we began watching football he was only about thirty years old, but a steady training table diet of fried food, cigarettes, and a few beers (three to ten) whenever the opportunity naturally arose and sometimes when it didn’t had taken most of the run-and-jump out of him. Occasionally he’d chase me around the park in a game of one-on-one football, but in three or four minutes he’d collapse on a concrete bench mumbling about cutting back a little on his smokes. (This was the era when doctors touted cigarettes in ads on the pages of major magazines. They said that tobacco was highly relaxing.) My father did sometimes quit. Quitting is easy, he said, I’ve done it a half-dozen times.

My father was no athlete. But still he said, “I could catch Tittle’s passes.” “Do you think so?” I asked him. I was truly interested. When I was very young my father told me stories about his past adventures. These often took place in the old west and featured encounters with Indians and various desperadoes. He had, I learned, a long-running feud with Geronimo, the fiercest of the Southwest chiefs. A few times, my father had been ambushed by Geronimo and his braves. At least once, my father had been captured. After being adopted into the tribe, he had escaped, making his way to Malden, Massachusetts, in time to marry my mother and to sire me. I asked multiple questions about how he had managed this feat. But I almost fully believed his stories—I was four or five at the time. I believed them enough to share them with my friends in the neighborhood, whose fathers, it turned out, had not fought heroically in the Indian wars of the Southwest. The neighborhood reaction, when it came, got my father to tell me that we should probably keep the Geronimo-fighting phase of his life to ourselves. It was a while, though, before he stopped telling these stories, and of course I continued to believe them, more or less.

When my father said that he—even he—could catch one of Y. A. Tittle’s passes, I took him seriously. And when he said at least once that I probably could too—well, that was information I filed away. Over time, my father came to believe that he could maybe throw some of Tittle’s passes. Not the longer ones when he really showed his stuff, but the puff balls, the floating dandelion heads, that Tittle dropped over the line of scrimmage and that went for big gains.

My father talked all the time about Tittle. He wasn’t long on talent; he wasn’t a born star. (My father would have appreciated the title of Tittle’s autobiography: Nothing Comes Easy.) Tittle had made himself a great Giants quarterback by hard work and by applying his intelligence. The intelligence was key. The man knew the game. He had worked to develop a feel for who would be open, and when. Tittle looked a little like a wizard too, with his hawk eyes and his bald head. (We kids remarked on how many pro football players seemed to be bald. Our explanation? They took too many showers. The blasts of hot water blew the follicles out of their heads.) My father could play ball? Maybe (maybe, maybe) I could do it too. Football wasn’t only a game for nature’s aristocrats, like Jim Brown. (Jim Brown had about the same assessment of Tittle as my father did. “He reminded me of an old truck—didn’t sound good, didn’t look good, kept on crossing that desert while all those pretty new cars were stuck on the side over-heated.”) So why not me?

Football was a game you could succeed in by being smart and tough and dedicated. And maybe my father implied something more there on Main Street in Malden, a town founded by Puritans, people who believed in work of the hand and work of the spirit. Was it possible that you could make yourself into a man like Y. A. Tittle? Could somebody who really threw himself into football—or any other important endeavor—give a new shape to himself ? Could you become another sort of being, a better one, through the exercise of intelligence and will?

I was good at school. But I was soft and weak and credulous (those Geronimo stories!), and I was dreamy. I was one of those kids who sit by the window for hours watching the dust float down through the shafts of light—dreaming, dreaming. My mother and father loved me; that was plain enough. But they surely feared that the world might be too much for me if I didn’t get a little tougher, a little stronger.

My mother talked to me about Teddy Roosevelt, who, like me, wore glasses and liked to read and had asthma. He was sickly as a boy, my mother told me. But he was determined to make something out of himself. He worked out with weights in the gym; he swam and ran and he camped outside and rode horses. (I asked for a horse. No dice.) He became a soldier and the president and he wrote books.

I’m not sure my father ever saw the famous photograph of Y. A. Tittle, perhaps the best-known black-and-white shot of an NFL player ever taken. Tittle is kneeling on the ground, dazed; he’s clearly been knocked there and knocked hard. His helmet is off and there’s blood running down his face. He looks alone and confused and he even looks afraid. He has the presence of an old general who’s completely lost the day. His troops have been scattered by the forces of an upstart and he’s about to be thrown in chains and wheeled off in the cart.

He’s overreached himself, the photograph says. He’s pushed his luck and his modest skills too far. He’s not only defeated; he’s self-defeated. This is a guy who has risen as high as he can go, but that rising has given him a long way to fall. What he’s seeing and feeling has got to be the dark side of this game. He’s tasting the brutality, the hard animal cruelty of football. It’s possible that what happened to Tittle that afternoon stayed with him. Headaches, dizzy spells, and memory loss—they all may have arisen from that blow and others like it that he took in his career.

I didn’t know it at the time, watching games with my father there in Malden. How could I have? Football has a dark side too. It gives and it also takes away, and often it does both at once.

But in Malden, Massachusetts, around 1960, I had no room for such thoughts. I saw Jim Brown, a man who began with amazing gifts and then put them to work. And my father taught me to see in Tittle a man who had made himself into more of a man. (I didn’t know it and I doubt my father did, but like me and Teddy Roosevelt, Tittle suffered from asthma.) And this I remembered. This I took to heart.

My football education began with my father. Of how many other boys in America, past and present, is that true? I might even say that my education proper, my education in the ways of the world, began with watching football with my dad. And how many others might say the same—both for better and for worse?

We’re told repeatedly that football is America’s game. It’s a main source of entertainment—maybe the main source in our culture. And it’s big business too: billions of dollars a year. But football is more than business and entertainment. For millions who play, or have played, football is a form of education. We Americans invented this complex, violent, beautiful game—we shaped it. But the game shapes us too. It shapes us when we play and after we’ve turned in our pads for the last time. It shapes us while we’re in it and then later when knowingly or not we take what we’ve learned from the game out into the world.

It’s not just a guys’ issue, though guys are most immediately engaged. More and more, women are going to be getting involved. Some will play, sure. (One recalls with pleasure that the first well-known girl high school football player was named Elizabeth Balsley.) But women—mothers and aunts and grandmothers and friends—are going to be getting more engaged in the decisions about whether the boys in their lives will play or not. It used to be almost a given: If a boy wanted to play football, then he played. No more. After revelations about head injuries and other harm that can come from the game, more women are going to feel compelled to decide about football. And I suspect many will be seeing it as a form of education. Are the virtues a young guy can acquire playing football worth the risks? And what precisely are those virtues; what exactly are the risks?

The coaches will tell you that football can develop character, stir courage, enhance manliness, and cultivate patriotism, faith, and loyalty. The game can teach you how to win and, maybe more important, how to lose. I believe that what they say is so. But football’s virtues come with risks. The game has a dark side. The character that football instills can lead to dull conformity; the bravery it cultivates can in an instant turn brutal. Football engenders loyalty to the team, but the loyalty too often devolves into a herd mentality: my fellow players, right or wrong. Football endorses faith and patriotism. But is football really a Christian game if “Christian” means conformity with the teachings of the Gospels? Football can prepare young people for the military. But the game may also idealize soldiering and war in ways that can be fatally misleading. Brutality, thoughtlessness, dull conformity, love for the herd mentality and the herd—these can be products of football too.

We need a deeper understanding of the game than the one the coaches, boosters, and broadcasters offer. We need to recognize how much football can give, yes: The game can be a superb school for body, heart, and mind. But we also need to see how much harm football can do, and not just to the body. Football is a potentially ennobling, potentially toxic school for the spirit. When you play the game seriously, you put your soul on the line.

“Be a football player!” we Medford Mustangs used to chant after our toughest drill, running up and down a steep bank we called the Pit. We yelled the words loudly, with pride. We were high school kids. “Be a football player!” But I doubt that any of us—least of all me—really knew what we were saying.

What People are Saying About This

Mark Slouka
An essential (I'm tempted to say 'indispensable') guide to the guts and the glory—and, yes, the grief—of maleness in America. Edmundson has written one of those rare memoirs that dares to make the personal political, that paints the picture even as it questions it. Perceptive, passionate, intolerant of platitudes (whatever their political stripe), Why Football Matters asks what makes boys, and the men they sometimes grow into, tick. What drives us, frustrates and frightens us. What's admirable about us, what ain't—and why. You don't have to know football, much less have played it—hell, even like it—to appreciate Why Football Matters; you only need to be a man, or to know one. Which covers pretty much everybody.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life - Megan Marshall
Mark Edmundson's first spell-binding memoir Teacher told how one inspiring high school philosophy class in the blue-collar suburb of Medford, Massachusetts, lured him into a life of the mind. Why Football Matters takes us back to Medford High and to harder, darker lessons learned on the turf of Hormel Field. I grew up in Pasadena, California, spent high school Friday nights cheering at home games in the Rose Bowl; few American lives are untouched by this supremely emblematic game that Edmundson examines with equal measures of sympathy and skepticism in a book sure to become its own American classic.
author of Drama High - Michael Sokolove
Mark Edmundson's book is a great gift for those of us who love football but can't easily explain or justify our passion, as well as a superbly entertaining read.
From the Publisher
Los Angeles Times:
“Terrific. . . .Edmundson's Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game is an elegiac account of his youthful rescue and redemption on the high school gridirons of suburban Boston in the 1960s.”

Washington Post:
“[Edmundson] presents a richly textured look at football as a vital part of American culture. [Why Football Matters] shows the deep connection between football and the core values of Western culture, something that isn’t often stressed in as-told-to football books. Frankly, I can’t think of a better way to while away the time between games this season than reading it.”

The Boston Globe
“One of Edmundson’s greatest strengths as a writer and thinker has always been his ability to present knotty arguments and erudite material in an accessible, appealing, and relevant way. In “Why Football Matters,’’ he is similarly deft in linking literature to life, books to boys. From Jung to Emerson, from Shelley to Wordsworth, canonical authors are sprinkled seamlessly throughout and always to good effect. An extended discussion of two Homeric heroes, Achilles and Hector, works brilliantly as a way of opening up questions about courage, character, and what it means to win and lose.” 

Chicago Tribune:
“The writing is uniformly strong throughout the book, as Edmundson vividly renders his memories of high school teammates or specific plays. He conveys warm feelings for the lessons he learned from football, particularly how to lose and get back up. And he gives moving examples of how the lessons he learned affected more important parts of life, such as helping him cope with his younger sister's death.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“Eloquent…[Edmundson] brings the worlds of literature and pop culture to his playing field, citing everyone from George Carlin to Sigmund Freud, Herman Melville to Ralph Ellison.”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
“A from-the-heart memoir….a movingly told account of how the game taught him lessons that he used to direct his life.”

Daily Beast:
“In his erudite but approachable new book….[Edmundson] writes with wisdom and understatement…. [He] captures the deep vein of ambivalence that so many fans have started to feel when they think hard about the game."

Library Journal (starred):
“A wide-ranging and insightful meditation on what football means in American culture. Beautifully written and impressively thought out, this smart memoir should appeal to a wide audience.”

Booklist (starred):
“Why football matters should be self-evident to a nation that’s lost its mind over the game these past few decades, but Edmundson…gives an uncommonly thoughtful take on the issue….A remarkable memoir that can only elevate its readers’ response to the game.”

Publishers Weekly:
“Unafraid to challenge common assumptions about what football does and does not teach us, Edmundson’s book is uncommonly probing and insightful and should have wide-ranging appeal.”

Megan Marshall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Margaret Fuller: A New American Life:
“Mark Edmundson’s first spell-binding memoir Teacher told how one inspiring high school philosophy class in the blue-collar suburb of Medford, Massachusetts, lured him into a life of the mind. Why Football Matters takes us back to Medford High and to harder, darker lessons learned on the turf of Hormel Field. I grew up in Pasadena, California, spent high school Friday nights cheering at home games in the Rose Bowl; few American lives are untouched by this supremely emblematic game that Edmundson examines with equal measures of sympathy and skepticism in a book sure to become its own American classic.”

Michael Sokolove, author of Drama High:
“Mark Edmundson’s book is a great gift for those of us who love football but can’t easily explain or justify our passion, as well as a superbly entertaining read.”

Mark Slouka:
“An essential (I’m tempted to say ‘indispensable’) guide to the guts and the glory—and, yes, the grief—of maleness in America. Edmundson has written one of those rare memoirs that dares to make the personal political, that paints the picture even as it questions it. Perceptive, passionate, intolerant of platitudes (whatever their political stripe), Why Football Matters asks what makes boys, and the men they sometimes grow into, tick. What drives us, frustrates and frightens us. What’s admirable about us, what ain’t—and why. You don’t have to know football, much less have played it—hell, even like it—to appreciate Why Football Matters; you only need to be a man, or to know one. Which covers pretty much everybody.”

David Shields:
“I’ve long admired Mark Edmundson’s work and I especially admire his new book: its understated balance, lucid prose, elegant logic, and above all for his complicity—his insistence upon acknowledging that he himself is part of the problem. (As are you, dear reader, as are you.)”

Gary Smith:
“Finally. Somebody with the required head, heart and soul skill set delivers us the game, our game, from within and without. Somebody takes us inside the helmet of a teenage boy who has offered himself to our rite of passage and makes us see-smell-hear-taste-touch it . . . while simultaneously floating above it, a psycho-spiritual scorekeeper tallying up everything that’s gained and lost in the magnificent transaction. Finally. Somebody uses Nietzsche to render Nitschke. Somebody: Mark Edmundson. Thank you!”

Gary Smith
Finally. Somebody with the required head, heart and soul skill set delivers us the game, our game, from within and without. Somebody takes us inside the helmet of a teenage boy who has offered himself to our rite of passage and makes us see-smell-hear-taste-touch it . . . while simultaneously floating above it, a psycho-spiritual scorekeeper tallying up everything that's gained and lost in the magnificent transaction. Finally. Somebody uses Nietzsche to render Nitschke. Somebody: Mark Edmundson. Thank you!
David Shields
I've long admired Mark Edmundson's work and I especially admire his new book: its understated balance, lucid prose, elegant logic, and above all for his complicity—his insistence upon acknowledging that he himself is part of the problem. (As are you, dear reader, as are you.

Meet the Author

Mark Edmundson teaches in the English Department at the University of Virginia. He is a contributing editor at Raritan and the prizewinning author of numerous works of cultural criticism, including Why Read?; Literature Against Philosophy, Plato to Derrida; and Teacher. His essays have appeared in Harper’s, Oxford American, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The American Scholar.

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