previously published here
I have no idea what is happening in this photo.
Without guys like Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and the guys along the defensive line, there would be no Legion of Boom, because it all starts up front. Those guys don’t get nearly the credit they deserve. —Richard Sherman
Half of what I know about football I learned in second grade, when I told my class that my cousin Leta was a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys. It made sense—she had long, blond hair, great Frye boots, cool denim skirts and she was from Dallas. Naturally she was a cheerleader in the NFL. Rather than outright lying, I convinced myself of my own story, and watched Cowboys’ games, scanning the flashing, glittering cheerleaders for her familiar face.
Funny, she never showed up for the games. But I watched a lot of football in the process, and absorbed the basic mechanics.
In high school, our team were state champs my senior year, and I missed that game (it was an away game), but I joined in the celebration. I had been in band and felt that games were a thing I suffered through in double-knit polyester. I was happy for the kids on the team, happy for their families, but personally? Meh. I was okay, yay us, but it didn’t change my life or leave indelible prints on my memories.
In college, I watched the Redskins beat the Buffalo Bills in a Super Bowl on television and rooted for the Redskins and kind of thought I was a Redskins fan for a while, but I hated their racist name. When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl a few years ago, my neighborhood was a riot of fireworks, cheers, and bonfires. The only thing that made me an almost-fan was Richard Sherman’s intelligent, brash trash-talking, Marshawn Lynch’s clear lack of typical NFL-boosting B.S., and the beautiful relationship between the Seahawks and the Lummi Nation—Lynch borrowed a Lummi drum during the big celebratory parade, and Richard Sherman spoke at a senior graduation ceremony for Lummi kids. Giving that kind of time to the tribes meant a lot to me.
I also appreciate Steve Almond’s book Against Football. The violence of the game, the greed, racism, homophobia, the danger, the CTE, the horrible behavior of many players, and the piles and mountains of money that pro football players get paid to run up and down a field and pass a ball—it feels like a pretty empty experience for those on the outside. I really didn’t appreciate the artistry of the game until I watched OJ: Made in America. The footage of O.J. Simpson practically dancing his way to touchdown after touchdown is downright staggering. He seemed to glide down the field, so far ahead of anyone else, dancing in his own ballet. To deny that part of his legacy (as I have done for decades now) removes important context for the huge fall he took, murdering his wife and Ron Goldman.
At this point, I still wasn’t parked on the couch on Sundays, but I was getting it.
But then, there was Bobby.
American Express kindly invited me to Dinner on the 50, a Seahawks event. I grabbed Babette (our account rep) we were off to Seattle. We walked onto the field through the players’ entrance and were projected on the jumbotron. We casually strolled across the astroturf to the 50 yard line as if we were in a neighbor’s back yard. Lots of people were lying on the ground, rolling around, tossing footballs at the goal posts. I was in total shock that I was in the middle of the stadium on a jumbotron with Seahawks around, I couldn’t do much but drink wine and stare. Being media, we were seated at a prime table, with a great view of the stage, the mascot, Taima. Taima is an osprey, by the way. Chef John Howie created the four-course dinner, free wine, beer, and cocktails.
Two bites into my salad, my kind representative from AmEx, Steve Willis, invited me to interview a player. There were three Seahawks available for interviews, all in the starting lineup, all pretty much stars in their skill sets. I awkwardly wandered into the verrry fancy hospitality room (dude, there is way more money in football than publishing), and I met the very sweet linebacker Bobby Wagner. I didn’t have much of an interview prepared, I was pretty much there for the selfie. This was pre-Colin Kapaernick, or I would’ve asked him a lot about the nature of protest and balancing values with sponsors’ expectations, and probably would’ve gone on and on about all that. Instead, we took some photos. Yes, he smells really good, he’s made of some sort of bent steel, and he has an excellent sense of humor. What I didn’t know, standing there stammering and blushing, was that he has a good sense of social justice, and had planned something for the season opener. What actually resulted didn’t look quite like what he had described to the press, and if I get to chat with him again, I’d love to ask about it.
But the thing I can tell you about him is that he has patience. Because it’s pretty clear two sentences in that football and I haven’t really been speaking over the years. He was probably expecting a breathless OMG and some piercing, fascinating questions about snapping the ball after a something or the way he does a thing after the other thing happens, or, perhaps, a long discussion about whether Marshawn Lynch left a hole when he retired, or rumors about his return, and the technical implications for his absence for the defensive line, but not with this cookie. I cribbed a bit of info Babette’s barista had given her that morning about how the Seahawks won a preseason game against the Cowboys. The whole attitude toward this game was Yeah, that game, meh. So I trotted this bit of info out for Bobby, affecting a posture like, Pfft, Cowboys, whatever, my cousin wasn’t even a cheerleader and sure enough, we shook our heads and smiled and agreed that my beloved childhood faux superstars, indeed, fall short of star material. Wasn’t much of a match. Pshht, Cowboys. Whatevs.
After we hugged (note again, he really smells good) I wished him a great season, and told him I’d be watching. So, like, if you happen to have a Seahawks party, hit me up. I don’t have broadcast television at home, so when the Hawks play, I follow online. As my neighbors explode in cheers, I smile. With me, it’s personal. I have a friend in the game.