Some Call It Ballin'

Issue 3: Fall 2014

"...but in joy create for others the house, the poem, the game of athletic beauty" — Dudley Randall

The Ringing of Bells

by Ross Gay

Illustration by Nicholas Rosal

Over Christmas, my mother, a dear and lovely woman in her 70s, furrows her brow and says, “It’s terrible Rossy, it’s terrible,” when I talk to her about what I’m reading about football and the concussions, about Mike Webster and Dave Duerson and Junior Seau and Terry Long and Andre Waters and Jovan Belcher and Tony Dorsett and Brett Favre and Jim McMahon. “I know, I know, it’s awful,” she says, when we talk about Owen Thomas, the kid from the University of Pennsylvania who hanged himself in his off-campus apartment, and whose brain upon autopsy revealed signs of CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the brain disease that seems to lead to depression, erratic behavior and early dementia. Thomas’s mother, interviewed for an article in the New York Times, observed accurately, and heartbreakingly: “It’s kind of sad. We all love football. We all love watching. We all love these great hits.”

I tell my mother I talked to a friend recently, a sensitive and thoughtful and intelligent guy with whom I played on the defensive line in college who told me back then that he liked hitting with his head hard enough that he blacked out a little bit, because then he figured the other guy was really hurting. (I remember thinking if that’s what makes you better than me—he was better than me—go ahead and be better than me.) My mother shakes her head and looks worried, asks, “You didn’t have many concussions, did you, honey?” I tell her they don’t know if it’s the big concussions or the repetitive little hits, the zillion stupid drills, but anyway no, I only got my bell rung a few times. We both agree that we’re damn glad I wasn’t as good as I thought I wanted to be.

After a bit more talk like this, my mother, a rabid Eagles fan (when they’re winning) reports that Tony Romo, the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, herniated a disk the previous week and so would not be able to play in the upcoming playoff game against the Eagles, our home team. “Bummer,” I say, thinking a herniated disk must hurt. “Yeah, but that’s good for us,” she said. “Did you hear what you just said, Ma?!” I teased. She half-cringed and nodded her head, “Eww, yeah. That’s horrible.”

It was kind of horrible, kind of funny (like I said, my mother is a lovely 72 year-old granny who bakes cookies for her grandkids when she’s not reading to them and would never truly wish pain on anyone, even if he was a Dallas Cowboy), and, well, truish—exactly the kind of thing almost any football fan, myself included, would kind of say or kind of think. When a few years back the Saints’ defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was fined and suspended for putting bounties on opposing players, I almost laughed. Why? Because it seems to me there is always a bounty on a football player’s head. (The metaphor of “bounty on his head” has become significantly more disturbing in light of CTE.) Even if the bounties aren’t overt, as they were when I was growing up outside of Philadelphia where in the late eighties and early nineties it seemed almost every other week Buddy Ryan was putting bounties on opposing player’s heads, the bounty is implicit.1 A very good hit might simply mean a hit that stops a tailback in his tracks or pushes a man out of bounds before he gets a first down or, maybe, a linebacker chasing down a play. Very good hits are commendable and get you little pats on the kiester and modest applause. After a very good hit a coach says, “Hey Smith, that was a very good hit,” and smacks your helmet. But a very good hit is one where the victim has a hard time getting up, if he gets up at all. It’s a hit that might potentially change the course of the game. It’s a hit that will provoke roars and moans and high fives and be re-played again and again. Very good hits make coaches jump up and down or sprint down the sideline or frenziedly headbutt one of their helmeted players.

In the recent AFC title game between the Broncos and Patriots, there’s been some controversy around the Broncos’ wide receiver Wes Welker possibly intentionally injuring the Patriots’ star defensive back Aqib Talib. Welker’s assignment was probably to provide a screen (phonily running a pattern in order to obstruct the defender covering his teammate running in the opposite direction across the field) for the dragging receiver, which he did, and more, putting the corner out of the game with a solid hit that looked to be quite a bit more than a screen, though might have been an honest moment of klutziness. Bill Belichek, himself a renowned cheater, found the hit reprehensible, calling it “one of the worst things I’ve seen.” Though had someone on the Patriots made the hit, he would have surely defended it with the same ire as he condemned it. There was no “bounty” on Talib’s head, except the implicit bounty on every player’s head. Welker’s wasn’t just a very good hit, it was a very good hit, given that, if the blustery assertions of the reporters are at all true, it made picking apart the Patriots’ secondary quite a bit easier for Peyton Manning. And I’d be very surprised if Welker wasn’t getting a lot of extra big hugs for his hit on Talib in the locker room after the game. No bounty, just a very good hit (for which he’ll surely be rewarded, and far more handsomely than the $1,000 or $1,500 pittances the Saints were awarding for knock-outs, through more conventional channels, like a raise or bonus or contract extension).2

Bottom line is the truth about this game—which sounds yucky, which “the game” tries tepidly to temper—is that the violence is the game. And the violence as often determines the outcome of a football game as does the elegance or precision or athleticism or grit: none of which are mutually exclusive characteristics of the game. Violence can be incredibly elegant, and I find this especially to be the case when it’s on a television, far away from me. And we almost universally admire violence, and might even describe it as elegant, when in the service of a moral good (even if we don’t often agree upon a moral good). The obvious connection is to war, which football, of course, is not, though war is what football is largely about—but that’s another discussion. But what I am here interested in thinking about are the quiet ways that the violence of this game gets enacted and absorbed and witnessed and cultivated.

Yes, I’m very interested in the appeal of this version of violence to what might be called outsiders, people who have no real purchase on what it means to be hit in the head by someone over two hundred pounds who runs maybe a sub-4.6 forty running as hard as he can at you, given as outsiders make up the majority of the football watching public (and earn a good deal of money on account of the game—owners, sportswriters, ESPN execs, etc.). A dear friend of mine is a Michigan football fanatic. And though she would no sooner smack either of her little boys’ plaid-pantsed behinds, would shudder at the thought, when it comes to football, especially when it comes to Ohio State (Michigan and Ohio State have a rivalry, for those of you who don’t know or care), I wouldn’t be surprised if she says things like “Get out the body bags” and puts on Dracula fangs to watch the game with her family, all of them snuggled under a blue and gold fleece, eating sugar cookies and sipping cocoa, while Ann Arbor-scented incense burns in the next room.

But for this meditation I’m interested in the violence as a former insider, a player at a division I-AA college program (a step below the big schools like Ohio State and Michigan, though we’d occasionally play teams in their division too), one who has inflicted punishment and tried unabashedly to put people out of games (and maybe succeeded once or twice), and one who has absorbed punishment and been put out of games (medial collateral ligaments both times). But I’m also interested as someone who has been written, in various ways, by this game. As someone whose sense of violence and nation and masculinity and body and love and self have been informed by having played the game.

If this is any indication, and it is to me, about once a month I dream I’m on my way to a football game, but I never make it. Maybe traffic makes it impossible, or I miss the bus, or I’m out of eligibility and don’t learn that until I get to the locker room or sidelines. And in almost every one of these dreams I weep with frustration and loss, and wake up half gasping. That’s to say I have unrequited love dreams about a game that, the more I learn about it, the more I think about, the less tenable or defensible it becomes. It’s impossible to properly protect the brain in this game. It’s possible that the game, even played for short periods of time, for the wrong people, might seriously injure the brain. And the long-term exposure is, as we’re already learning, potentially (or likely?) devastating. What does it mean about me that I dream so longingly, so achingly for such a game? And what does it mean that so many of us—it’s our most popular sport, after all—adore it, believe in it.

It’s interesting that one of the terms for being concussed is having one’s bell rung. I imagine the etymology of the phrase comes from the head actually being like a bell, but it might also refer to the sound of bells in one’s head after being whacked (something like the stars one sees too). But I like that the violence to which the phrase refers also suggests an alert, a call to meet or gather, a directive to change (tasks, drills, etc), or an invitation to pray or meditate.

What follows, then, is an excerpt from a larger reflection on various aspects of football (football and nation; football and sex; football and race). A bell ringing on bell ringing.

If you hit someone square in their earhole, the little open ventilating circle in a football helmet that is in truth located on most heads in between the ear and jaw—with the forehead part of your helmet, though you could go ahead and use the crown—they will likely fly in the air, dizzy, to the ground. It might be hard for them to stand up.

In the big field next to the re-purposed elementary school—it was now a school of chiropractic where some of the neighborhood kids claimed to have snuck in and spotted corpses—we’d gather 15 or 20 kids for big, unruly football games. Mostly it would be just kids from the apartments, ranging in age from 7or 8 all the way up to 13 or 14. But occasionally kids from nearby Penndel would get into the games—they were friends of friends from little league or middle school. Two of the toughest kids of the bunch, two brothers from up the road who were new to our games, joined in one brisk fall day. On the kickoff throw (mostly we did kickoffs with a throw, except for when we dug with our heels a little tee into the ground) Mike, who was the fastest of all of us, received the ball deep and made his way quickly up the field. Both of these brothers flew full speed toward him.  After an attempted juke, one got his legs while the other drove his forearm into his face, breaking his lip and sending a spool of blood across his face. They adjusted the soccer shin pads they had slid over their forearms, beneath their sweatshirts, and berated Mike, “You fucking pussy, you fucking wimp,” when he complained, dizzy and crying. “Go home you fucking baby, you fucking pussy,” when he wiped his bloodied nose and stumbled home. 


Against the team we most loathed, I was in the back of a slowly forming double-wedge, where the tight ends and fullbacks tend to be (behind the big linemen and in front of the deep receivers), and a very quick and hard-headed tough kid sprinted full speed in my direction. When we met, our helmets—our heads—slammed into each other, the crown of his to the temple of mine. We both fell down. I think I might have gotten the worst of it somehow, because even though I immediately got to one knee, with one hand on the ground for balance, I had to really concentrate to stand up. I don’t remember being, exactly, hurt. But I remember thinking very hard about how to stand up without falling down. The crowd and the sideline and the field were all sort of cantering, swaying back and forth, which I knew would stop eventually. So I made my way up to my feet, carefully, and got to the huddle, knowing that if I could just get through a handful of plays, maybe one series, I’d be clear in the head again. And it happened more or less like that—everything slowly coming into focus and steadying after a few plays, where I must have looked a bit like Frankenstein, stumbling into my block. Thank god we didn’t run a pass play my way. Maybe we did. I probably wouldn’t remember.


The drill goes like this. Two players, a defensive back and a receiver, are about 7 yards apart. The receiver faces away from the defensive back toward a coach, who is going to fire him a pass, upon which receiving the defensive back tries to come make the tackle, and the receiver tries to elude it. If run perfectly, I suppose, it’s no more stupid than most live football drills—the receiver has a second or two to turn and make a move, or at least prepare to absorb the hit. But it’s mostly not run perfectly. The defensive backs coach is yelling “Let’s go Mark, lay some wood,” and the tight ends coach is barking, “C’mon Raheem, shake him!” (My nickname in high school was Raheem.) Because we’re two of the better kids on the team, and very good friends, all the receivers and D-Backs circle around us a bit tighter, “Fuck him up, Money!” and “Run him over Raheem!” As I’m facing the coach, with my hands ready to catch, and I imagine Mark is on his toes, watching the release, bouncing with anticipation, the coach passes me the ball, and Mark, one of the fastest kids on the team, takes off while the ball is still in the air, getting to a full sprint by the time I turn and meeting me immediately helmet to helmet. I held on to the ball, somehow, and somehow ran the few steps out of the drill, and nearly into the circle of kids screaming “Damn!” and “Oh Shit!” Kids I couldn’t see very well for being so dizzy I felt like I was on a ship in a rough ocean. I turned to see Mark on all fours, looking back my way, grabbing his facemask and fixing his helmet before gathering himself up and wobbling to the next station.


If you hit someone square in their earhole, the little open ventilating circle in a football helmet that is in truth located on most heads in between the ear and jaw—with the forehead part of your helmet, though you could go ahead and use the crown—they will likely fly in the air, dizzy, to the ground. It might be hard for them to stand up. The fact that you got their earhole means they weren’t expecting you, and so had no time to brace or shift. The feeling of getting someone in his earhole is almost unequivocally good. There’s a sound to it, like a bat hitting a barrel.   

Earholes happen, it seems to me, most often on kickoff returns, when the return team blockers retreat to their lanes, and the coverage team flies with abandon down the field, looking, often, solely at the ball carrier. The person whose specific job on a kickoff cover team is reckless abandon is called the headhunter, lest there be any confusion about his duty, which makes hunting him a kind of ironic delight, something like that story everyone reads in middle school. If your man focuses his eyes only on the ball carrier, which often the headhunter, whose recklessness is also often sign of, as my mother would call it, simplicity, it is your responsibility to disappear, to look as though you’re otherwise occupied, so that they do not, in their helmet-limited periphery, identify you as a threat. If you time it just right, letting the pursuer get not quite past you, but past you enough that their helmet obscures you from view, and you can see in his helmet the saliva starting to run from his mouth as he opens his hands and begins raising his arms at his imminent victim, and you can sprint at him, getting most of your body in front of his to avoid the clip, while planting your head as hard as you can in his earhole, he will sail through the air in some pain. He will sail through the air very likely limp as a teddy bear. And though I’d say he won’t forget you, if you earhole him just right, he will forget you and the game he played in until that point. 


The drill goes like this. The defensive linemen get in two lines, facing each other, about 5-7 yards apart. All of the linemen in the one line kneel. Each kneeling lineman has a partner across from him who runs at him fast. The kneeling lineman is supposed to explode from his kneeling position upon contact (not before—the collision should happen while the one is kneeling—standing before, self-preservational though it is, is cheating), locking out his arms and driving his partner back 5 to 7 yards. Every once in a while the charging party gets a little sprinty and the kneeling party a little clumsy and that gets ugly. But when done well, the kneeling party will thrust his head hard into his partner’s chest which is the only way to absorb the blow, lock out the arms and reverse the trajectory of this object which, oh yeah, is at the lightest about 240 pounds, and at the heaviest about 290. One of the linemen is lucky enough to have a persistent slice on his forehead that opens up when he does this drill, the blood dripping down his face. So he stands out of the drill, wincing a little at the blows, the grunts, while the coach, significantly smaller than any of the men in the drills, spits and screams to go faster and harder you bunch of fucking slits. 


In one film session we watch one of our special teams stars get his bell rung—you can barely see what happens to him, but you can see that something happened to him by the way he jangles himself to the sideline in what must have felt to him like a marathon. His limbs are arguing. His head is bobbing. You’ve seen it in boxing, after someone’s been knocked silly, and his legs are gone. Making his way to the corner is heroic. Usually a boxer will have a trainer or referee under his arm so when his legs buckle he doesn’t go down. That walk is probably about 20 feet. A football field is about 50 yards across, so imagine this person wobbling like that about, oh, 25 yards by himself, looking suddenly tiny in the pads that loom clumsily over him. You could have slowed it down a bit and put it to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” making a version of the Willem Defoe running-shot-and-dying-through-the-jungle scene in Platoon. If you were a certain kind of person you’d be nervous and worried about your teammate’s wellbeing, his health. We re-wound it again and again, holding our sides and falling off our chairs. 


One teammate got hit hard enough early in the game that when his unit was called to get on the field, he looked blankly into the stands, then out to the field and then at the coach, who was screaming at him to get out there. He looked like he was disinterestedly watching a movie. At the end of the game, as we were shaking hands with the opponent, he asked why we were shaking hands at halftime, staring at the clock. After we told him the game was over, he asked who won. In the locker room, while everyone was showering, he started crying. He couldn’t figure out what was going on. I remember him like that—this 6’3” 230 pound young man in a towel, crying and looking around, peeling the tape from his wrists, while his buddy helped him by his elbow into the showers. 


Against Hofstra, one of our defensive backs—a little, quick, very hard hitting guy—got a perfect line on a receiver, whose head was turned away from him while reaching for the ball. Our guy had time to get to nearly a full sprint and, just as he was taught, ran directly through the receiver—“blew him up”—beautifully running his forehead through the exposed and vulnerable head of the receiver, who, after the hit, lay more or less motionless on the ground while our guy took big celebratory steps and held his hands to the crowd, who screamed and danced at the hit, just as we on the sidelines screamed and danced at the hit, just as ESPN viewers screamed and danced as it was replayed, all of us screaming and dancing at the beauty of the hit, perfectly executed, that lay the young man motionless in the background. 

I held on to the ball, somehow, and somehow ran the few steps out of the drill, and nearly into the circle of kids screaming “Damn!” and “Oh Shit!” Kids I couldn’t see very well for being so dizzy I felt like I was on a ship in a rough ocean. I turned to see Mark on all fours, looking back my way, grabbing his facemask and fixing his helmet before gathering himself up and wobbling to the next station.


Blow him up. Punch him in his face. Knock him out. Knock him the fuck out. Knock his ass the fuck out. KO him. Blast him. Run right through him. Knock his head off. Lower the boom. Put him to sleep. Lights out. Night night. Smashmouth. 


Thinking about this piece, I am watching YouTube movies with titles like, “Football Hits: Warning, very graphic,” or “Bone Crushing NFL Hits,” or “Here Comes the Boom,” almost all of which have some kind of celebratory, if a little bit foreboding, soundtrack. I wonder who the people are spending time finding the “bone crushing” hits, selecting the music, uploading the videos. I have to admit I feel a little flutter in my body at the hardest hits—a flutter somewhere in my torso, in my chest, but lower too. I make sounds, despite myself, like “Whoo,” and “Ohhh.” Despite myself I clutch my sides or raise my hands to my head or wince.  Often I picture myself making the hits, straddling the victim. But I also, more often, picture myself taking the hits.  In my imagination I always jump right back up, although some of these men not standing right back up are bigger and faster than I’ve ever been. 

Each movie has a kind of dramatic arc, a beginning and end, and a soundtrack that lends to the narrative. In the YouTube movie, “Huge Hits at All Levels,” the first shot is of a little kid—he might be in high school—who hits another kid hard enough that his own legs fly into the air while his victim, after going down fast and hard, bouncing off the grass, immediately grabs his helmet and kneels while the Eminem song churns along.  This video seems to appreciate the aesthetic value of the post-hit celebration, the looming, the taunting, the points at the crowd. Another clip, after a number of college players and pros hurting each other, shows a child from a Pop Warner game, probably 9 year olds, as he levels another child—the one’s forehead striking with a lot of force directly into the other, smaller child’s face mask. The tackler seems to try to be big and tough, stands up with his arms a little bit off his body like the young guys in the gym, staring in the mirror. But he doesn’t look tough, he looks goofy, sweet, like a big little kid who doesn’t really know what just happened. And when the hit child does not get up, you notice his teammate, a very little boy, coming toward him clapping, encouraging him to get up, which he does not do. And you see running into the frame a coach of the tackler, half squatting with excitement, shouting to him. He is a grown man in bright green coaching shirt and visor, giddy, ecstatic, and not, apparently, too wrapped up in the other little kid not getting up.


Andre Waters, whom we in Philadelphia loved for the way he sailed though the air at the knees of quarterbacks, for the way he wore tape on his forehead beneath his helmet for a little more cushion on the battering ram that was his head, for his complete disregard for his body over a long career (all of which, incidentally, is the same reason he was loathed elsewhere around the league, and nicknamed Dirty Waters), committed suicide by shooting himself in the head on Nov. 20, 2006. I can remember being a little boy, watching the Eagles with my parents, eating hot roast beef sandwiches in gravy and waiting for Waters to blow someone to pieces. And when he did, because he almost always did, we’d hoot and holler, spill gravy on our shirts. One of the awards Andre Waters won in his long career was the Ed Block Courage award, which Wikipedia says goes to the player “voted by their teammates as role models of inspiration, sportsmanship, and courage.” It continues, “Sponsorship proceeds promote the prevention of child abuse by raising awareness of the epidemic and assisting agencies who provide for the care and treatment of abused children.” 


Put him to sleep.  Night night.  Lights out.

1 A hoot? Look up on YouTube the game in which Buddy Ryan put a bounty on Lawrence Taylor (and the announcers say as much), who proceeded to almost single-handedly eviscerate the Eagles.

2 Easily the bigger controversy happened in the NFC championship game when, after making what was a game-saving, game-ending play, Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks, just a little bit excited, ran up to the San Francisco 49ers’ Crabtree, smacking him on the ass and saying, “Good game, good game.” A nice, subtle version of talking shit. What he meant was something like, “Your season is over. Enjoy watching the Super Bowl in the warmth of your own house, reclining on your big couch in sweatpants and fuzzy socks.” Crabtree knew exactly what Sherman meant which is why he shoved him away by his helmet, and that was that. Until Sherman was interviewed minutes later and he yelled and was excited and said I’m the best, don’t talk about me, etc. Of course everyone has an opinion about this, and many people find Sherman’s antics disgraceful, classless, “thuggish,” etc. Yes, I think the attention paid to Sherman has to do with race, and the “thug” moniker is, as Sherman has astutely pointed out, a version of another less acceptable moniker that begins with the letter “n” (this is not even to mention the overtly racist stuff people were writing). That subject deserves an essay of its own, which I’m not going to write right now. More to my concern, though, is that people got upset about a guy being loud and aggressive and boastful in an interview immediately after he won a huge game when his job description—don’t be confused—is to knock motherfuckers out. By which I mean, if you read the job description for NFL defensive backs (you can find it on the Seattle Seahawks’ Human Resources website), it reads, simply: knock motherfuckers out.

ROSS GAY is an associate professor of creative writing at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of two books of poems, and is a 2013 Guggenheim fellow. He's writing a book about football as we speak.