Wednesday, February 1, 2012


February 1, 2012

This is what’s going to spark the hate mail. I’m braced and ready, so (gulp!) here goes with the statement: American football isn’t football. It’s an uncomplicated, guileless game that relies on speed but mostly size.
Basically, it’s a bunch of big guys wearing gladiator-style helmets and shoulder armor who stand around or bump into each other and fall over. In this intimidating garb, they also get together for what appears to be some kind of intimate group wrestling: I can’t make that out, nor would I want to.
Every once in a while a participant darts out from this cozy gathering and runs off carrying a large brown egg-shaped object that he’s fixing to drop over a white line. Onlookers roar at this point because he is usually being chased by one or more large and angry fellows from the enemy camp whose aim is to injure him. Maybe just to take away the egg.
There aren’t many feet involved in American football: a foot connects with the eggy thing only after another period of group loitering and then only once, sharply.
And what is that brown object anyway? Not a ball, because balls are round – ask any kid. Since that isn’t an actual ball he’s holding, the player could just as easily be transporting anything - an armadillo, maybe a Red Velvet Cake. Splosh! Touchdown! Call the Dixie Bakery for a replacement.
So, no feet, no ball. How is this football?
They say it’s a game representing war. I see grimaces but no guns or swords. Just these enormous padded warriors with names like The Refrigerator, The Bus and Hefty Lefty, occasionally rushing at each other but mostly lollygagging and flexing their armor. And sometimes holding this non-ball doodad in the crook of their arm.
There’s sporadic fast running but also constant, boring stoppages, often long enough to line up for a hot dog or, if nature calls, go splash your sneakers - your Jim Thorpe brand sneakers. I suspect that during the longer time-outs one might be able to take in a movie on one’s iPhone, perhaps the whole of an entirely different ballgame.
To my mind, this American spectacle with the beefy bruisers and the Big Brown Egg is too erratic and simplistic. So let’s see about constant movement and ball artistry.
Association Football, to give soccer its full name, is a game that accommodates a variety of talents. Where a little fellow is just as valuable as a big fellow and those who use their head can be as useful as those with twinkletoes. Where trickery and balance and ball skills are paramount, even though sheer bulk and muscle can also be a great asset in certain situations. Where intelligent running off the ball can draw out opposing players and perfectly timed passing into open spaces allows the receiving player to just run onto the arriving ball.
I’m a sucker for soccer. I played. Even scored a few goals. I was the slowest attacker in the game, though, probably due to this need to stop for a cigarette every ten yards. I was also a dirty player, I’m afraid, The Beast Of The Left Wing had to make up for lack of skill with slide tackles, shirt-pulling and worse. Last game in which I played – more correctly, bared my fangs and went berserk - was against the New York Italians. So lethargic by this time that I was a fullback and, woefully, found myself defending against their star player who wasn’t even Italian. He was a Yugoslav and a reserve for the New York Cosmos, one of America’s major sides back then. Talk about fast and nimble. Sure, I kicked him in the shins, but every time I did he was already gone – all I ever connected with was this guy’s vapor trail.
So how did an English game of such diversity turn into a rush-at-‘em war this side of the water in the first place? And why three different varieties of Gridiron - high school, college and pro - each with somewhat different rules?
It all began in Rugby, England, where, during a game of football, the one involving feet, some spoilsport, oftentimes named as Bill Ellis, picked up the ball and was hunted down by opposing players. Thus began two variations, Rugby League with 13 players and Rugby Union with 15.
Admittedly in rugby, as well as Australian Rules with 18 players, they carry the pointy brown spheroid as well. But that doesn’t make these events football either, even though the injuries are the same in all the game’s variations – always the knees.
Years ago, when I lived in New York in came an unsolicited call asking for my opinion on the New York Jets. I had none.
The caller said he was Mike Lupica of the Daily News. When I replied that I was having dinner and wasn’t terribly interested in that particular sport, nor, while the soup was getting cold, in any other, he said: “What are you, a Communist?” Well, no. I just happen to live for things like wine, women and song. Take it from me, Mr Lupica - much more fun than the Jets,
Naturally, there’s a lot more to American “football”. And before the local curmudgeon distorts my words again I’d better explain that the above is just a lighthearted jab at one of this country’s two major team sports.
Did I mention that in Britain baseball is called Rounders and it’s played by small children?


© 2012 Fred Wehner is a journalist formerly with the Daily Mail in London, who then founded and ran the New York News Agency before settling in Monroe 21 years ago.