The Poetics of Football


On Sports


I grew up outside Boston, a resident of Red Sox Nation, but mine was not a sports-loving household. My father watches football regularly these days, but he didn’t when I was a kid. He’d watch a game if it was on, distractedly, while doing something else. The rest of us did not. We didn’t follow game schedules or scores. I’ve never been to Fenway Park, though my middle school was less than a mile from the Green Monster. When they tore down Boston Garden I expressed manufactured dismay—I’d never been there either. Until I moved to Chicago after college and bought tickets to a few Cubs games on the cheap, at a yard sale, the only professional sporting event I’d ever attended was an early round of the 1994 World Cup—South Korea versus Bolivia—which ended in a tied shutout.

 My sister and I played soccer. She was better than me. I figure skated and entertained deluded fantasies of making it to the Olympics, but I couldn’t get any height on my jumps and my spins were too loose and wobbly. Eventually I switched to ice hockey, which I played with the same poor-to-barely-adequate ability as each of my prior athletic endeavors. In college I spent a week on the women’s rugby team before quitting because it hurt.

As a spectator of televised sports, I preferred basketball because it was fast and high scoring and, since the court was small, the cameras stayed close to the players. They loomed on the TV screen, all grimace and sweat and flinching muscles. Everyone always told me football was the game to watch, but I shied away from it because it seemed too complicated, too populated with players, too dependent on multicolored graphics of circles and x’s and arrows superimposed over the field. The fundamentals of the game were not intuitive. To watch football, one first had to understand football, and that struck me as a challenge on par with mastering quantum mechanics.

Until recently, my understanding of the game was: a bunch of guys move a ball by tossing or running it downfield, and every few yards everyone collapses into a pig pile. “Look, they’re all in a pig pile now,” I’d observe unhelpfully to the guy I was dating, the one who eventually got me into watching football. In response, he’d groan and bury his face in his hands.

I tended not to pay much attention to what was happening onscreen. I hadn’t been raised enough of a fan and therefore had no stakes in any of the games, neither teams to root for with any real passion nor rivals to scorn. I could only justify sitting through a game, with its endless stopped clocks and replays and analyses, if I was simultaneously occupied in some other more productive activity. Thus, I took up knitting.

I did a lot of knitting back in those first years of dating a football fan. My boyfriend and friends would sit on couches with their bodies canted forward, eyes fixed on the flickering screen, while I untangled balls of yarn in my lap. Still, I listened: to the commentators and sideline reporters, to my muttering friends. And after awhile the listening became its own source of fascination, because I kept hearing words I thought I knew, but they no longer meant what I thought.

I love the precision of language required to speak with any insight or depth about sports. When I figure skated I took pride in listing the jumps, not only because I could land most of them (sloppy, single versions of them) but for the sound of them and the sense that naming them made me an insider: lutz, toe-loop, flip, axel, salchow. In hockey we talked about face-offs, neutral zones, hat tricks, slap shots. My friends who play or watch tennis have their aces and deuces, their lets, sets, and rallies.

But as far as I know, no sport has a more expansive vocabulary than football. And no sport has taken so many common words, stripped them of their original meanings, reinscribed them and fed them back into the English language as entirely different entities.

For me, coming to the language of football was an exercise in disassociation. I heard blitz and thought of London. I heard down and thought up. Interference was the garble of two radio stations coming through at the same time; sack was a bag. Listening to football games gave me the sensation of eavesdropping on an extremely familiar-sounding foreign language.

Flea flicker. Wildcat. Touchback. Checkdown.

A while ago I moved to Beijing for a yearlong job. When I arrived, I only knew how to say ni hao, hello. For my first few months in China, my experience of the language was entirely aesthetic. Because the words conferred no meaning, I could hear Mandarin Chinese as abstract noise, an accretion of sounds, in a way that I could not with any language for which I held even passing recognition. I did not know where words and sentences began or ended, so I heard noises tumbled together, tones leaping and falling, vowel and consonant sounds that fit into spaces of the mouth I’d never used for anything before.

Listening to football evoked a similar sensation for me. Once I accepted that words no longer meant what I thought they did, I began to delight in them as units of sound.

The language of football is sensual: consider the euphonic assonance of a pick-six or a squib kick, the sibilant whistle of pass interference. It is hard edged and muscular, brutal, abrupt. I love its colliding consonants, its rhythms and punctures.

Sack, snap, spike, blitz, rush, juke, scramble.

What did any of it mean? I didn’t know. Honestly, I didn’t really care.

Bootleg, buttonhook, chip shot, chop-block.

Sometimes I’d look up from my knitting and ask for clarification. Then a patient friend or boyfriend would explain to me and I’d squint thoughtfully at the TV, nodding and saying, “I see,” or “Aha.” But more often than not, I’d immediately forget what I’d just been taught.

I love the verbs and compound words of football, the way adjectives like audible have been repurposed as nouns. I love that option is a thing itself, rather than just a placeholder for other things: not what are our options? but run the option.

Above all I love the phrases, which are—taken out of context—fantastically surreal, deliciously obscene.

Ice the kicker. Shoot the gap. Flush the pocket. Up the gut. Muff the punt.

I’ve continued watching football because the people I share my life with watch football. I’ve adopted my friends’ teams and have come to feel genuine joy and anguish at the outcomes, though mostly because a win thrills my company and a loss has the potential to sour an evening. I’ve developed a clearer understanding of the nuances of the game, though my knowledge still leaves much to be desired.

I suppose I am a Patriots fan by birth and a Packers fan by marriage: this Super Bowl, to mix sporting metaphors, I have no horse in the race. But I’ll be watching the game, or more likely—as I have knitting to do—I’ll be listening.

Hitch, post, slant, slot, fly.

Ariel Lewiton is an M. F. A candidate in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Her work has appeared in, China Daily, and elsewhere.