It is the third full day of the 2011 offseason and the 2012 preseason. It’s really the second for me, having spent most of Tuesday trying with increasing reluctance to get out of New Orleans. By quick shoddy math, I’ve been on the road 27 days out of the last 41. I got to see a host of familiar faces this season and postseason, and meet so many of you for the first time. I get asked a lot: How did you get into this? If you know me from back home, it usually comes out Why did you get into this? I usually want to talk about Larry, but don’t. It explains things, but it takes a while. From now until August, though, we’ve got nothing but time. Time and recruiting and police blotters and calendar-cussing, and precious little else.
I grew up in a football-loving family in a football-loving town. I was pulled out of school on more than one occasion to get a head start down to Tuscaloosa or Birmingham for the Third Saturday in October. The effects of this did not show up right away, because I was a drama geek from a very young age, and to attend football games and smile through black-painted lips was to plumb the depths of human indignity. Then I went and studied performing arts at a big football university, where we didn’t have shows on home game Saturdays because the audience wouldn’t have had a place to park. This insurmountable logistical problem meant departmental drones could have it both ways, six shows a week and belting out our own operatic harmonies to Rocky Top in the student section on what was supposed to be our day of rest. (I still do this. Just not in the press box.)
There was, at the time, a long-standing tradition at Tennessee of putting on an all-night talent show at the end of every semester. I don’t know if it’s still a thing, but a few years ago, at least, it wouldn’t be a proper sendoff for finals without gathering the pajama-clad undergrads in the tiny Lab Theatre at midnight for a few hours of scenes, pratfalls, staged combat and pie fights.
There was, among our number, a guy named Larry who was an avid practitioner of martial arts. No skinny karate kid, Larry; he was big and menacing-looking, but genial, born as any man has ever been to play Steinbeck’s Lennie. For his All-Night act one year, Larry decides he’s going to chop through a cinderblock using just his hand, for our amusement.
I forget now how it ended up this way, but whoever was supposed to procure a proper cinderblock for the show couldn’t, and what we ended up with instead was a piece of the same material, but scalloped along one edge, used to fence in gardens. It was still a good four or five inches thick, mind, and we decided it would do. Everyone who wanted to was allowed to inspect it for cracks or holes or whatever before Larry went up. I remember turning it over and over in my hands, seeing no visible defects of any sort.
So Larry gets up on stage, places the cinderblock strip between two wooden boxes, and steps back to focus himself, taking a few deep breaths. He gets into his stance, readies his feet, sets his shoulders. He raises one arm high above his head — and before he can lower it, without being touched or so much as breathed on, the cinderblock breaks into two halves and falls at his feet.
The place exploded with howls of laughter and riotous cheers that would not subside. Thespis be praised; Larry was a god, that night.
Nobody I know who was there has ever forgotten it, and I’ve never seen a piece of theater that made me laugh harder. And in discussing it endlessly over the following days, we hit upon what was so magical about that one moment between the raised hand and the thunk: Nobody was in on the joke ahead of time. Not Larry, not the audience, not some offstage unseen technician timing the fall of the block just so. That moment was a gift for all who beheld it, made all the more precious by being hilarious, real and utterly irreproducible.
Consider now our beautiful game. It is scripted exhaustively, by coaches and coordinators and pundits, but the text is not binding and has little power beyond the talismanic. It is a comfort in times of fearful apprehension to think, this is how it must go. But must is not will, and don’t we all know it.
Robert Griffin III doesn’t know when he cocks his arm that those two Oklahoma defenders in the endzone won’t get the better of Terrance Williams, and that that ball he’s launching with fewer than 15 seconds remaining on the clock will hand Baylor its first win over the Sooners in program history. Kellen Moore, bless his heart, doesn’t know in August 2010 just how far his team’s trajectory and title aspirations will be derailed over the next two seasons by kicking. Dana Holgorsen can insist the Orange Bowl went according to plan until he’s blue as Geno Smith’s helmet. It did, by skill and chance both, but he had no way of telling before those crucial lights flashed 00:00. Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster didn’t take the field under a November moon in Tuscaloosa knowing their parts in snapping the Crimson Tide’s bid for an undefeated season, any more than they knew those botched kicks would ultimately not matter in the season’s final AP poll. Jordan Jefferson, Schrödinger’s quarterback, jogs out of the tunnel in the Superdome Monday night, unaware he’ll be a high-profile goat in just a few hours’ time. (The mystical Les Miles might, in fact, know more than anybody else, but if he does he ain’t telling.) They lived it with us, all of them.
That’s the greatest gift of this game. We all experience it in real time, between the sidelines, in the stands, at home on the couch. Brandon Weeden’s pain is T. Boone Pickens’ pain is the Oklahoma State marching band’s pain. Courtney Upshaw’s glory is Nick Saban’s glory (grim, but glory all the same), and it’s yours and it’s mine. There are stagehands by the horde tasked with putting on on these shows, but the talking heads and cameramen are getting the same information we are, from the grass and the chalked lines and the uprights and the numerals on scoreboards big enough to be seen from space. The artifice employed in untold volumes to grit and gloss up the affair winks out of existence with every snap. We don’t have the story ahead of time, only sweet and sour anticipation.
So that’s what I’m chasing, that feeling, every fall Saturday for four years now. If that’s what you’re after too, I hope you found at least a little of it this season. We’re going to spin our engines down in this space for a little while, rest and detox and have real human contact and see if our pets still recognize us. Regular posting will slow with the news cycle, but the high points of the offseason, such as they are, will be covered here. Hopefully you’ve got at least one game stored on your DVR to give you belly laughs of glee, enough to tide you over for a few weeks of repeated viewings.
It won’t quite be the same, though, will it? It’s never the same when you’ve already got the ending indelibly fixed in your mind. It’s that longing for immediacy that’ll put us back out on those unnaturally green fields come the end of August.