In eighth grade, I was a starting wideout and cornerback for my middle school football team, the St. Bartholomew Bruins. Our team that year went undefeated and won the Pittsburgh Diocese, and our only close game that season came during the championship, which we won on a last-second touchdown caught by yours truly—a catch that is still my favorite sports memory and my most inexplicable one (I’d only caught eight passes all year up to that point, and 25 years later, I’m still shocked our coaches called that play for me).
There’s a certain level of sadism and brutality inherent with dominant football teams, particularly at the grade school and high school levels. While standout basketball and baseball teams can embarrass and shame outmatched opponents, superior football teams also fucking pummel them, physically. It is literally dangerous to be on the field if you’re on a shitty football team, and this point was driven home, in brutal, terrifying and tragic fashion, during a game midway through that undefeated season.
We were forced to punt for only the fifth time all season. And I remember, as we ran downfield, converging on the other team’s punt returner, thinking about how helpless and vulnerable he was down there, waiting for this ball to drop from the sky while 11 kids bigger and faster than he were all sprinting toward him. And then he caught the ball. And then three or four of my teammates “tackled” him. (And “tackled” is in quotes because the right word for what happened is “annihilated.”)
And then I heard a voice screaming from the bottom of the pile: “GET OFF ME! GET OFF ME! GET OFF ME!” And then everyone jumped up. Although gang tackles were common and violent and painful, hearing someone screaming like that as a result of one was rare. And then we saw why he was screaming. One of his legs had been broken and twisted and mangled into a fucking pretzel. It was, and still is, the most horrifying thing I’ve seen in person.
We later learned that he tore every ligament in his knee and his tibia had a compound fracture. And by the time all the surgeries that were necessary were performed, one of his legs was a half-inch shorter than the other one.
Before then, I was considering playing football in high school. Basketball was my first love, but I did enjoy football, too. But that was it for me. The last game of that season would be the last time I put on any pads. While, as Gordon Hayward and Paul George and Kevin Ware have recently proved, gruesome injuries are very obviously possible in basketball, they’re freak occurrences and not the inevitabilities that they are in a sport that requires you to collide, dozens of times a game, with people wearing hard plastic and running 15 mph.
This—the inevitably of terrible injuries—exists in some sort of paradoxical symbiosis with NFL fans. Not only do we know that they are possible, but we know that they cannot not be possible with these insanely giant men crashing into one another at insane speeds and with insane ferocity.
Concussions and broken limbs are inexorable and inescapable. But we don’t actively think about that while watching. Because if we did, very many of us wouldn’t be able to watch. But ... we do actually think about it. It lurks, subconsciously, and gives the game more meaning and context. The amazing feats of athleticism and endurance that occur on those Sundays matter because of that relentless violence and that unceasing threat of terrible injury.
And then something like what happened to Ryan Shazier happens, and that inevitability shifts from a paradoxical symbiosis to a reality. To the only thing that matters.
So, I have a confession to make: While the rest of the woke universe is boycotting the NFL—well, supposedly boycotting the NFL—I’ve been secretly watching Pittsburgh Steelers games. I’m not interested in the NFL as a whole—an apathy that’s been gradually building over the last decade—but I still have an emotional and spiritual investment with the Steelers.
That Colin Kaepernick is very obviously being blackballed just isn’t enough for me to go cold turkey. Because, to be frank, the NFL has been guilty of much, much, much, much worse—Kaepernick and the reactions to the protests happening during the anthem are basically seagulls on the tip of the NFL’s fuck-shit iceberg—and I’ve managed to turn enough of a blind eye to that shit to continue watching. Comparatively speaking, Kaepernick is, well, small potatoes.
But I think I might be done now.
The Steelers’ linebacker Shazier almost died Monday night, and I just cannot get that out of my head. Not so much that he, specifically, almost died, but that the inevitably of terrible injuries that we (NFL fans) accept as part of the viewing experience is also an inevitability of death. It’s not hyperbolic at all to say that watching someone literally die on the football field as a result of a collision is a very real possibility.
Of course, I’m aware that the randomness of death can find its way to any athletic endeavor. I remember, as a kid, crying when first hearing about the deaths of Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis—both of whom died while playing because of heart-related conditions. I also had a college teammate and great, great friend, Richard Jones, die during a postseason workout with the coaches.
But these deaths were due to defects; pre-existing conditions that could have been exacerbated with any strenuous athletic activity. Shazier has a broken spine because of the naturally occurring dynamic of the sport he was playing. He almost died specifically because he was doing his job exactly how it’s supposed to be done. And I’m just not equipped to possess the level of cognitive dissonance necessary for me to find any sort of enjoyment and thrill and vicarious victory from a thing I enjoy watching on TV when I believe that the actual death of one of its participants is an inevitable byproduct of it.
Interestingly enough, I actually wasn’t watching the Steelers game when Shazier got hurt. I was in my hotel room in New York City, headed out to hang out with a friend, and while I did have the game on in my room, I fell asleep for a half hour or so and missed the entire first quarter. And once I woke up and heard what happened, I immediately lost interest in the game. (I still haven’t seen the play where he got hurt. And hopefully will never.)
I left the hotel, met up with my friend, had a drink and some food, and went back to my room. It was the first time in a long time that I just decided not to watch an entire Steelers game. And while I missed the game, I didn’t actually miss it.