By Christopher Cudworth
Growing up in the 1960s when the Green Bay Packers were a green and gold apparition of toughness and admiration, it was in my nature to think of football as the pinnacle of athletic prowess. Bart Starr was quarterback of the Packers and Johnny Unitas quarterback of the Baltimore Colts. Things were predictable and sane with football then. The popularity of the NFL was just starting to rise.
Now it is out of control.
I don’t hate football. I just hate how it saturates our culture. It’s unhealthy in many respects. The NFL is one of the greediest organizations in the world, and it promotes itself in ways that block out normal thought.
But through my early associations with the sport and a healthy amount spent playing the game as a youth in countless sandlot renditions of touch, flag and tackle, it is still fun to watch the sport.
Today at 1:00 p.m. or town football team in Batavia plays for the state championship in Illinois. Last time that happened a few years back more than 8,000 people jammed the stands at the University of Illinois, where Batavia lost the title game to Normal High School, a team rife with big farm kids and a tall tight end who gained 10 yards on countless sidelines plays.
This time around Batavia looks even better-positioned to win the game even though they’re playing the only team that beat them this year. Because what are the odds of a non-conference game against your future state title opponent. Payback is delicious?
A good friend of mine, Dennis Piron, is coach of Batavia’s team. I know how many hours he has put in over the years, first as a defense coach and now head coach of a talented group of kids who have played together since middle school.
Dennis is 10 years younger than me, and our association goes back to his late 20s when I began doing marketing for his health club. The marketing worked. His health club thrived. And then he got testicular cancer. I recall walking around the block slowly with him following his surgery. His All-American track star body6 (48.6 400 meters) was wracked with pain from the surgery and fatigue as well. But he kept going through those dark afternoons.
Later we did business together with a developer who purchased his club and wanted to sell it to a hospital group but the deal fell through.
That convinced Dennis to go into teaching in his home town. He also coaches the track team where he has had numerous state champions, both men and women.
His football program is principled and balanced. He does not advocate early experience with tackle football, preferring instead for young kids to play flag football and learn fundamentals. The tough stuff is saved for middle and high school years.
So his team is poised to make the ultimate statement of success. Winning a state championship is no easy feat.
I’ll be sitting in the stands watching his familiar sideline body language and thinking back on how I so wanted to play the game. I’d won a Punt-Pass and Kick competition at the regional level and thought I should go out for quarterback. When freshman year came around my father drove me to the school and pointed me to the cross country locker room. “If you come out, I’ll break your arm. You’re not playing football. You’re a runner.”
My dad was right. I weighed all of 124 lbs at the time. And while tough and wiry, I’d have been crushed under those Kaneland farm boys.
So I became a runner, and football became a strange sidelight in life. Our cross country team went 9-1 while our football team went 0-9. Yet the football team was revered while our cross country team was ridiculed as a “pussy sport.”
Huh, I thought.
That pattern continued through the rest of high school until junior year when again the football team was 0-9 and our cross country team went 9-1, won districts and grabbed the imagination of the school. People turned out to watch us run.
But people still turned out in big numbers to watch the football team lose.
Football and town identities are intertwined, it seems. Win or lose, people support their football teams.
Yet warming up for a cross country meet at a rival high school in Cary, Illinois, we were being led around the course by a runner known for his crazed ways. And when we approached the area where the football team was practicing, he peeled off at a sprint and ran through the team practice yelling KILL KILL KILL!
I have never forgotten that demonstration of civil disobedience in the face of a football culture that reveres the game. That runner was prescient in many ways. Football is a great game. But it also symbolizes the worst of what we are as a nation. Sometimes.
That said, I hope Batavia wins. Because not all of the world’s problems can be solved on a gridiron.