Every year we wait.
We wait with bated breath, face paint purchased, coolers full of ice, grills freshly cleaned, coals and meat at the ready, beers lined up in formation, newly purchased giant foam fingers proclaiming us to be “#1” waiting to be donned for the first time after last year’s fingers were torn to bits in frustration .
But we wait nonetheless because our hope for the football season – like the newly planted and freshly painted sod – is renewed each fall by visions of our bravest warriors returning to fight the ancient battles about to resume anew.
So we wait, every year we wait.
We wait to eat together, to drink together and to dress in colors that don’t occur in nature together.
We wait to clan together, to hive together, to cheer together and to sulk together. The game is our bond and through it we find comfort in times of heartbreak, heartbreak in times of joy and the sustenance, strength and hope to persevere through another long winter.
Fall’s arrival may signify the end of Mother Nature’s cycle of life but it’s also when mankind defiantly raises its middle finger (foam or otherwise) to the approaching Season of Death by creating new life of our own.
Orchestras, dance troupes, theater companies, television networks, Hollywood, they all either begin their new seasons or release their best work in the fall.
This is not a coincidence.
And so, too, like the patrons of the gentler arts (though none are any finer), we football fans, we merry band of brothers, wait again for the dances and dramas and symphonies that move our souls.
Our ballets feature men bigger and heavier than any appliance we’ve ever owned (and sometimes named after them) jumping nimbly over around and through equally large and equally fast men who pirouette and elevate through forests of limbs with the singular purpose of stopping them.
And when they do it, it is often with the equivalent g-force of an automobile accident.
And yet, heroically, up they leap to do it again. And again. And again. And again, goddamnit because we’ve waited for this and it’s now or never, pal, the game is on the line and you’re going to have to go for it on fourth down.
We’ve waited. It’s all come down to one play. No time-outs, three seconds on the clock, it’s all on the line. We’re nauseous with worry, knuckles white around the remote and we wouldn’t have it any other way. The scripts to these dramas are improvised anew each and every week and whether the hero lives or dies is unknown to anyone present until the very moment the curtain falls. Win or lose its ultimately the drama that keeps us coming back. “On any given Sunday,” as the old adage goes, either team is just one fumble, missed tackle or punt return away from a shocking defeat or one one-handed catch, miraculous run or recovered on-side kick away from an unexpected victory. Theater goers use their entire seat when watching a performance. We only need the edge of ours.
This is what we’ve been waiting for.
There are, of course, the traditional, seasonal performances we expect and look forward to each season when we face our division rivals but there are also new performers creating new works that present us with new challenges, as new teams are mixed into the schedule each year that supply us with fresh surprises, victories and heartbreaks oftentimes at the hands of unfamiliar virtuosos.
Each year the star performers we’ve grown to love (or hate) either meet or exceed or fall miserably short of our expectations while at the same time unknown ingénues, understudies and rookies come off the bench to take their place and thrill us with talents unknown to any of us save, perhaps, for themselves.
When everything else around us is dying we are blessed to be present at the birth of new careers and watch to fresh young talents blossom into genuine superstars and heroes.
We are not a passive audience. We are as much a part of the team, the game, the battle as anyone on the field.
We stomp, we clap, we boo, we add our voices to choruses that are sixty, seventy, eighty, a hundred thousand voices strong as we sing the praises and utter the curses meant to spur our warriors on as they fight not only for their honor but also for our own.
We struggle along with them, and through them we too succeed or fail, win or lose, live or die.
Through them we too are sometimes champions and sometimes losers and we wait we wait we wait every year for the chance to join them in battle once again no matter the outcome of last year’s campaign.
“Maybe next year,” we console one another when we are not the victor and when next year arrives all is forgiven, hope is renewed and we once again don our tribal colors, smear war paint on our faces, raise our glasses in toasts, place meat upon fire in burnt offering and remove our shirts in frigid subzero temperatures as acts of pure faith and devotion hoping that through our humble sacrifices and tributes that God himself will bring victory to our tribe, raise us up above all others, make us his chosen people, his chosen team.
These are our ancient rivalries, grudges and blood feuds – updated and writ large in instant replays Talmudically dissected on end zone JumboTrons.
Rivalries passed down from father to son to daughter to grandson to great granddaughter.
Feuds and rivalries that are older than any of the players on the field, most of them older than the very stadiums the battles themselves are waged in but they persist eternally as they are our traditions, our history.
People root for teams from cities they’ve never lived in or even visited because that’s who their father or grandfather rooted for. They were born into this eternal struggle. It’s in their DNA.
Our tribe vs. your tribe, my clan vs. yours – our territory and our honor are at stake – and so we’ll meet.
Whether it’s a Saturday morning, a Sunday afternoon or a Monday night is of little matter because whenever the game is played we’re ready to settle our differences with the oldest and simplest form of conflict resolution known to man: battle.
It is a struggle as old as man walking upright, probably older.
And so, again, we wait.
We wait for each weekend when our warriors meet to fight your warriors for the honor not only of all those present or watching on TV but also for the honor of all the generations of players and fans who’ve come before them while proudly wearing our colors. These battles are ancient, intractable and far bigger and more important than any one player or coach or fan.
Battles endlessly plotted for, planned for, schemed for and orchestrated by the calculating generals who prowl the sidelines and fight to take territory away from their enemies–not just one battle at a time but sometimes one yard, one foot, one inch at a time.
These battles are our shared history, and–as history is written by the victors–every week we must face off again to fight for the privilege to write it.
Though we may live in a world filled with secular Jews, lapsed Catholics and “twice a year at the holidays” Lutherans, there is no such lack of devotion for us.
The members of our congregation always attends service. We are a devout lot.
We evoke the names and feats of legends and heroes past in hushed, reverent tones and talk of Immaculate Receptions, Hail Mary passes, Davids slaying Goliaths.
We gather, we form minions, we share communion of chips and beer and we pray.
When we go to the game our services also have accompanists: horns and drums and music of the primal sort first performed on hollow logs and ram’s horns that you can feel pulsing through your very bones along with the stomps and claps and cheers thousands of your closet friends – strangers all – who are nonetheless tied together by their shared faith that this year will be the year.
And with this music in the background we cry out to the heavens and speak in tongues as the spirit overtakes us and we wait for God’s Will to Be Done as the kicker tries for a 54-yard field goal in the driving, blinding snow to win the game in overtime.
This is when mountains skip like rams, hills like young sheep, and the defensive line is pushed backwards like the river Jordan and our team crosses the goal line and leads us, together, into the Promised Land.
These are our miracles.
And we get to witness them every week.
But our faith has many houses of worship besides the stadium: the corner bar, on the radio at work, at home with your friends in your living room – wherever it is you gather in Your Team’s name Your Team is there among you.
In the name of the Offense and the Defense and the Special Teams, Amen.
These are our beliefs and our devotion to them is strong.
Our congregation has adherents all over the globe and from all walks of life who all have their own unique stories about their journey to our faith.
It may, to an outsider, seem a rather complicated form of worship attended to by a clannish lot of borderline hooligans and, ultimately, it is.
But it is easy to make sense of – we’re always happy to explain it to newcomers – and our hooliganism is little more than the pageantry – and devotion – of the faithful.
Above all else we shun any notions that our faith is an exclusive one and we enthusiastically welcome all comers into the fold.
Only one question is asked of those looking to join us: Are you ready for some football?