In the waning winter daylight of January 30, 1994, along a snow-blown highway north of Toronto, a Volvo station wagon raced toward the city. Behind the wheel was my mother, driving faster than she should have, an act of lawlessness that would soon earn her a ticket. I was seated beside her, all of fourteen years old, my wrist freshly fractured from snowboarding, pleading with her to drive faster. We weren’t speeding to the hospital, despite my mother’s pleas. We were racing home to watch the Superbowl. “We can go after the game!” I told her. “I can’t miss kickoff.” Here I was, pushing aside the pain for the game, just like Emmitt Smith would do that fateful evening, running over 130 yards despite the agony of a busted shoulder.
Oddly enough, I was not a real football fan by even the loosest definition of the term. The Superbowl was the only NFL game I watched each season, and I mainly did so for the commercials and the junk food. Sure, I once felt a kinship with the Buffalo Bills, that always-a-bridesmaid team from the hardscrabble, half-abandoned city across the border. I had grown fond of the Bills over their past three consecutive Superbowl losses, and I hoped that this game would be different. But I bore the pain of my broken wrist and my mother’s speeding ticket because I wanted to eat a small bucket of KFC popcorn chicken while watching an advertisement for it at halftime.
Even though I’m no more of a true fan today, NFL football (which I’m just going to call “football” from here on in, despite the protests of CFL and soccer fans) is a sport that both confuses and entrances me. Its rules are arcane, its combination of formations and plays almost incomprehensible, and there is far more pageantry than actual play. I have only been to a handful of games over my lifetime, from the searing metal bleachers of Tampa Bay to the frozen metal bleachers of Buffalo, and I have never followed a team for more than a single Sunday. My scattered knowledge of the game comes from a combination of movies like Rudy and The Program, a losing season as a 138 lb linebacker in my summer camp’s league (where placid Jewish counselors transformed into raging, clipboard tossing coaches), and two years playing Madden NFL ‘94 on the Super Nintendo system, the video game where the only play I called was the Hail Mary, time and again.
And yet I love football, in the same way I love classical music: with blind, opportunistic glee the few times a year I indulge in it. I love the built-in tension of the format, and the possibility for mania each play holds. I live for fumbles, turnovers and crazy runs, but root for no one in particular, except whatever team’s behind. I love the NFL’s sheer bigness. I love the ritual of tailgating, the very idea that wings and pulled pork and beer are linked to athletics. No game is more deliciously American. If the Denny’s menu were a sport, it would be football.
I now understand that mad, beautiful sport just a bit more, after reading Rich Cohen’s recently published book Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football, a fan’s exploratory memoir of the season that he loved most. Monsters was the first football book I have ever picked up, and I read it largely because Cohen, with his flourishes of Rothian humour and Wolfeian bravado, is the type of writer who would make the paint drying business an exciting read. Cohen is not a former player, coach or hardcore fan. He is the suburban everyman who tacked the posters of players above his bed in high school. But he understands his love of a sport that seems irrational, even to some fans. Football is about unpredictable results, two armies locked in trench warfare, scrapping for victory. “What makes a game exciting?” Cohen asks, “The tension of anticipating the play that will bust open the piñata.”
Cohen serves up the 1985 Bears as football’s pinnacle, opening the book as he boards a chartered flight from Chicago to the 1986 Superbowl in New Orleans. The plane is filled with “huge beer-swilling South Siders with the sort of mustaches that suggest virility,” barely containing their superfan bravado and bratwurst as they roll around the fuselage like drunken bowling balls. But as Cohen pulls back from the game (which the Bears won in a massive blowout), he shows how the Chicago Bears are the core team at the heart of the NFL’s story. Though American football began on Ivy League college campuses in the 19th century, the NFL started in the 1920’s and was rooted in the factory teams of the Midwest: thrown together packs of WWI veterans and manual labourers playing under the banner of the steelworks, mines, manufacturers and meat packers who were their patrons. The Bears began as the Decatur Staleys, the team at a starch factory, but soon relocated to Chicago under their current name. They were led by coach and owner George Halas, a player from the rough and tumble helmetless old school of men who chewed glass for fun. Halas looked for hungry, working class players who exhibited “that old zipperoo,” and he quickly became the NFL’s founding prophet, setting the tone of the league in a way that’s endured to this day.