The National Football League–Why Football Matters

In several hours, the National Football League will reveal its schedule for the 2007 season. Shortly after comes the drafting of players, and several months later an actual game is played. At some point an 0-6 team will go on the road and shock a 6-0 team in front of their home fans. ESPN Uber-announcer Chris Berman will look in the camera and say “That’s why they play the games.” On any given Sunday, competitive balance provides hope for a thrilling upset.

As thrilling as those moments are, the real NFL is the one that contributes to the betterment of society as a whole. On September 11th, 2001, life was temporarily brought to a standstill. The stock market had to decide when to reopen. Television comics had to decide when to go and be funny (Jay Leno and the rest all waited for David Letterman to decide how to proceed). In the world of sports, everyone turned to Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to decide when and if games should be played. Former Commissioner Pete Rozelle allowed NFL games to be played 2 days after JFK was shot. He claimed it was his worst decision as commissioner. Paul Tagliabue gave the league one week off, and then had games resume a week later. What transpired was sheer beauty.

American flags were everywhere. Fans cheered players from opposing teams. Yet despite their being 32 teams in the NFL, many fans were fixated on the New York Giants. The Giants (and Jets) had to pass Ground Zero every day on the way to practice. Yet instead of feeling guilty for playing a game while the NYPD and FDNY were suffering, they felt emboldened. This was mainly because New York’s Bravest and Finest wanted the Giants to play, and they wanted them to play hard. The Giants went into Kansas City (a difficult stadium to play in for road teams) and beat a good Chiefs team 13-3. It was the emotion of their defense that won that game. As the players knelt in prayer after the game ended and hugged eachother, the New York Giants for 3 brief hours carried an entire state on its backs and across the goal line. No, this was not a victory over Al Queda, but it was a victory for the American spirit that the game was played. As every NY Giant defender pounded the KC quarterback to the ground, one wondered if the FDNY and NYPD heroes pictured Al Queda getting sacked.

When Hurricane Katrina struck, New Orleans was devastated. In came the NFL to the rescue. First, they donated a million dollars right off the bat. Then they realized that while players in New Orleans had lost their homes, those players could be a force for good. One player took residents of the city on shopping sprees. One gentleman who had a job interview the next day bought $250 worth of clothing, including a nice new suit. People were given a sense of hope. In the first week of that season, the New Orleans Saints traveled to Carolina to play the Panthers, a team many (correctly) regarded as a Super Bowl contender. Before the game, a blood drive was held, and the people of the Carolinas donated in abundance to their Louisiana brethren. On the last play of the game, the Saints won 23-20. It was the upset of the year. No, it did not fix the city…but for people trapped in the Superdome, it was 3 hours of a respite.

One year later, the Superdome that was used to house those devastaed by Katrina was finally ready to host a football game again. The Saints were hosting the Atlanta Falcons, at the time regarded to be an elite team. Before the game started, a preacher gave a fire and brimstone speech of determination and resolve. “In spite of flood waters, in spite of plumbing that doesn’t work, in spite of it all…we are still here. We are still here. We are still here.” This was followed by a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching in.” The crowd went crazy. This was not just a football game. It was a city announcing to the entire nation that they were ready to compete, and compete hard. Then the game started. 90 seconds into it, the Falcons lined up to punt, and the Saints smashed through the line and blocked it for a touchdown. Just like that, 7-0 Saints. Before that moment, guys named Gleason and DeLoach would not be recognized on the street. Then in a flash, they had created the best blocked punt in football history, and one of the greatest moments in all of sports. The Saints won the game 23-3, but the real victory was after the game. For an hour, the fans would not leave the stadium. Neither would the players. The players did laps around the field high-fiving as many fans as possible. The Saints came marching in, and they were here to stay.

To see a good, decent man like Tony Dungy win a Superbowl so soon after suffering the worst tragedy any parent can face (the suicide of his son) makes me believe that somewhere out there, alot of what is good and right in this world does matter. To see glowing obituaries of Eddie Robinson (May God bless you in Heaven Coach) for his 55 years at Grambling shows that when done right, teaching football can be a way of teaching the values that make for a better life.

Football is more than just hard hits. It is about loyalty, teamwork, and and getting up after repeatedly getting knocked to the ground bloody, battered and bruised. One feminist writer said that to understand men, one had to understand football. To understand life, one had to play football.

At some point in the future of America, there will be more tough times…perhaps even tragedies. As long as there is a National Football League, I believe that a very small percentage of that pain will be reduced for enough people to make it a relevant healing. While the Super Bowl is for the Championship, and The Pro Bowl showcases the best players, it is the games after 9/11 and Katrina that give the NFL, and football in general, its noble legacy.

I eagerly await the schedule of the 2007 season, and with even greater eagerness, I await the first kickoff of the first game in September. No matter what challenges we face in life, we can meet them. We are Americans. We are led by real heroes, such as Firefighters, Police Officers, and EMTs. Those heroes, in their darkest days, turned to football.

That is why they play the games. That is why I watch the games.

May God Bless the USA and the NFL.



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