The sport of American football is a curious pastime. And even though there are moments within the game of balance and delicacy, for the most part it is a study in brutality. Some parents won’t allow their school aged children to play, fearing they’ll be hurt. Others literally force their young men to play whether they want to or not. A few girls have made their high school football teams, but not many, mostly football is a proving ground for American manhood.
In 1881, the poet Matthew Arnold wrote in an essay “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton.” Eton is England’s all-boys boarding school and Arnold meant many who fought against Napoleon and in other wars were prepped for combat by rough play at the school grounds.
Whether we like it or not, the adult world is a tough, cruel place to exist. Both physically and mentally. One might argue that the American football field prepares young men to encounter pain, to get a taste of it, and to realize on a personal level if they can deal with it. Some play and though they might not admit it, detest the savageness that is necessary to participate. On the other hand, there are those who take to it in grade school and relish the ferocity they find they harbor within. I’m one of those.
To this day, I might find while driving and observing an approaching vehicle in the other lane, I might fantasize dipping my left fender into the other car — not because I want to die. No. I just miss the contact. I miss pulling from my guard position and racing down the line to collide with the defensive end, he rushing forward and not seeing me barreling toward him, I was able to dip my shoulder into his mid-section and knock him back and out of the play. There’s no other game (don’t say rugby, it isn’t the same, I’ve played that game, too) where it’s legal to hit an opposing player with all your force and might. (Yes, there is boxing, but it isn’t the same either.) I miss that.
All this is prologue to the subject of this week’s column: the Damar Hamlin incident. I must assume most readers know that Hamlin, playing defense for the Buffalo Bills against the Cincinnati Bengals, tackled a Bengal receiver and sustained a horrendous blow to his heart. He was in intensive care and could have died. He’s out of the hospital now and happily recovering from his injury. Before I go further, I must say that I do not lack empathy. I care about Damar. I’m sorry he got hurt. But, he was playing the game of football. As a defensive player he had, since high school, made hundreds — hundreds — of vicious tackles. This one was no different. He should have jumped up and gone back into formation. This was an anomaly. Injuries to the heart do happen. Some parents make their kids in youth league baseball wear a chest protector. I haven’t seen that, but I’ve heard of it. OK.
Now, before you call me a heartless brute and call the paper to get me fired, remember, I do feel for Damar, but enough already. I’m sick of turning on the news or a sports show and hear Damar, Damar, Damar! What if he had been hit by a car on his way to the stadium. They’d have played the game. They played the game last weekend. They’re going to play more games this weekend. It happened.
But I’m curious. About the same time this event occurred, a first grader in Virginia brought his mother’s handgun to class and shot his teacher. Horrible. She is in stable condition in the hospital, but why aren’t there people standing outside the building with signs and pledging to remain out there until the teacher is able to walk out on her own? That happened in Cincinnati outside Damar’s hospital. Why do people care more about a football player than they do about a teacher? Also, at the same time, in Portugal, surfer Marcio “Mad Dog” Freire died while competing in a “giant” wave contest while trying to conquer a wave as tall as a 10-story building. Few people know about this. Trust me, there is no one on TV screaming about banning big-wave surfing contests. No one cares.
From 1900 to 1905 there were 40 deaths as a result of playing football, 18 in 1905 alone. It got so bad, President Theodore Roosevelt had to call together several insiders from Harvard, Yale and Princeton that year in order to modify the game, create new rules to make the sport more palatable and less deadly. At the same time, Roosevelt acknowledged the need for such a pastime and admitted he recruited some of the nation’s best football players to join him in the Spanish-American War because he knew they had grit. None of them flinched while rushing up San Juan Hill.
So, the game will go on. It’s now part of the fabric of our society. It’s a game, for the most part, designed by and played primarily by Americans only. And, frankly, most people have now pretty much forgotten about Damar. But not me. I love Damar, so don’t get mad at me.
Garry Boone is a Hillsboro resident.