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In February, 2017, I began a monthly column for my home town paper, The Yuma Pioneer, wherein I attempt to discuss lessons (valuable and otherwise) I learned as a horrible six-man football player on the High Plains. I shall archive them on this page, or not, as time permits.

Feb 17 Mar 17 Apr 17 May 17 Jun 17 Jul 17

July, 2017
Headbangers' Heaven

I used to love concussions.  I reckon I had two of 'em in my time as a six-man footballer.  We'd kick off, and then everybody would sprint at each other like a pair of Red Rover teams gone mad.  The objective was to knock somebody's block off, preferably someone from the opposing team.  On two occasions, I'd actually managed to tee-up someone and slam into him.  Boom!  Next thing you know, I'm peering out of the earhole of my helmet and one of my teammates is saying, "Dude, do you know where you are?"  And then, as the sparkles melt away from my eyes, my muddified brain tells me to say, "Blue."  Which is hilarious because blue is a color, not a place.  And then my teammates would gently turn me around because I was walking toward the wrong sideline.

Sit on the bench, helmet off, dreamy haze.  A little while later, Coach asks if I'm ready to go back in and I say, "Yes," because I don't fear concussions, because they're fun!  So I'd go back in and play the rest of the game, badly, which always went unnoticed because I played badly under all circumstances.  Then, after we lost the game, everyone would have a laugh at how discombobulated I was.  It's a blast, seriously.

Even after my football days were over, in my mid-twenties, a buddy and I played a game where we'd roll up a newspaper and whack each other on the forehead.  Why?  Because it was fun!
Let's be clear: rolling up a newspaper and hitting someone on the head is a really stupid way to get yer kicks.

Is running full speed into a guy holding a football any less stupid?  As football players in the late 80's and early 90's, we kind of knew that concussions were kind of bad, but we also figured we'd be fine once the old cobwebs had cleared out of the old noggin.

Now, thanks to our good pal, science, we know just how unhealthy concussions can be.  And yet I still hear arguments that go like this, "NFL players need to stop acting like wimps.  They know what a concussion is and they get paid too much money to start whining when they develop chronic traumatic encephalopathy."[1]

I can't think of a single thing about that argument that holds merit.  Unless, of course, you consider If you get paid a lot of money, then you shouldn't be a wimp to be a valid point of debate, which it isn't. [2]

Certainly, all football players know that they're going to bang their heads.  But do they understand the true consequences of all that headbanging?  Way back when, in the distant year of 2010, who knew that linemen could develop CTE simply due to an accumulation of micro-concussions that occur on play after play?  The NFL did[3] and yet they denied it.  In doing so, they deceived their players (and fans).  Give the NFL credit, at least they had a sound argument.  If players (and fans) were to understand the consequences of concussions, they might stop playing (and watching), and that would slow down the river of money.

The NFL put its players at risk in the name of profit.  Yes, people have always kind of known that playing football was unhealthy.  But they didn't always know the extent to which the sport could destroy their lives.  And that kind of makes me sick. 

All of this begs the question, "Given what you know, Mr. Righteous Pants, do you still watch football?"  I'll have to think on that one.  Can I get back to you after the Superbowl?
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[1] I've just employed a strawman argument, which is bad writing.  But, just like Loretta Lynn in a cornfield, I stand by my strawman.

[2] "Don't be a wimp" is something third-graders shout at the indecisive kid lingering at the edge of the high dive, not something adults shout at someone who (a) played professional football and (b) can no longer remember his own address.

[3] For evidence, the documentary League of Denial is a good place to start.

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June, 2017
To the Victors Go the Spoiled

We’re all aware of Vince Lombardi’s legendary quote, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." [1] Today, I shall argue that winning isn’t a thing at all. 

I like to brag that the 1990 Liberty Knights only won one football game.  This isn’t entirely true.  At the end of the season our record was 1-7.  But then someone discovered that the Woodlin Mustangs had allowed an ineligible player to participate in their victory over us earlier in the year, which meant they had to retroactively forfeit the game.  And so, due to a technicality, the Liberty Black Knights doubled our win-total.

Yippee.

Changing our final record didn’t change the fact that, in our newly-discovered victory, Woodlin had forty-fived us before the fourth quarter, it didn’t change the fact that our running back twisted his ankle and had to sit out our next game, and it didn’t change the fact that Woodlin would have beaten us even if half of their team had been on the down-list.

In reality, Woodlin “won” the game.  The players they put on the field trounced the players we put on the field.  In another reality, Liberty “won” the game.  The players we put on the field did not violate eligibility rules.  Even though we lost the game, we won the game, simply by not cheating, which is the equivalent of passing a test because you spelled your name right at the top of the paper.

But I don’t care about any of that, because, as I mentioned five paragraphs ago, winning isn’t a thing.

Well, obviously, that’s silly.  Without winning, how would we know for certain that the Broncos won Super Bowl 50?  How would we know who earned the most money on Jeopardy last week?  Without winning, how would we know that we live in the greatest country in the history of the world?

Hang on a minute.  How do we know that we live in the greatest country in the history of the world?  It’s not like the United States competes in an annual Greatest Country in the World Contest.  And if we did, and if we won, I’m fairly certain that someone would claim that the referees were being paid off, and therefore declare the results invalid.

I mean, I sure do like living here.  But I really don’t know a whole lot about the other 195 nations on Earth.  I hear things are pretty good in Norway; low crime, great health care, lots of fjords.  Maybe Norway’s the world’s greatest country.  Maybe it’s Canada, or Costa Rica, or some place in Africa.  Who knows?  Who cares?  I like it here.  This is where I'm from. [2]  I love our free press, free speech, and freedom of (and from) religion.  The Bill of Rights is awesome!  The constitution was a brilliant document!  I love Colorado!  I love Yuma County! 

That’s good enough for me.  My self-esteem ought not to hinge on whether I’m a citizen of the world’s greatest country, or if my football team won one or two games, or if I’ve once again failed to write a coherent column.

In fact, there are many cases I’m just as happy to lose as to win, which is why I often do things that might seem nutty to an outside observer. When I fail at something--which is often--I endeavor to examine where I went wrong, take note of where I managed to go right, and then move on just a little wiser for having taken a risk.  Or, in the case of six-man football, I was able to move on with the understanding that, no matter how many games we won in 1990, I would be wise to never touch a pigskin again.   
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[1] For the record, Lombardi appropriated the quote from a guy named Red Sanders, coach of the UCLA Bruins, who was apparently saying it as early as 1950.

[2] Speaking of which, George Bernard Shaw may have been onto something when he said, in 1893, “Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it....”

May, 2017
Letting the River Run Dry

I used to hate Arickaree School.  Really, really hate them.  In the eighties, Arickaree had an incredible run in basketball and football where they beat Liberty, like, a thousand times in a row.  Arickaree was Gargamel and we were a bunch of Smurfs[1] .  I didn't hate just the athletes, I hated the coaches, I hated the parents, I hated their school colors (green and yellow), and I hated the Yuma Pioneer for printing articles with headlines like "Osthoff Scores 112 Points on Struggling Liberty Hoopsters." [2] 

My Arickaree-hate continued even after I'd graduated high school.  When some of my friends married, had kids, and then moved close to Cope, I actually thought they were traitors for sending their kids to Arickaree.

I remember when I finally came to my senses.  I was at a Liberty School reunion and I ran into someone who'd graduated from Arickaree and I told him that I hated everyone from his school, himself included.  His reply was, "I have no idea what you're talking about."  

I spent ten minutes trying to explain why I could never befriend an Arickaree graduate.  The more I tried to explain, the more I felt like a dope.  How can you not feel like a dope when you find yourself saying things like, "I loathe you because you are associated with a school that had some good athletes in the eighties"? 

The poor guy I was talking to, he calmly walked away before I'd successfully made my point.  This was wise, because I didn't have a point to make. 

You see, I had mistaken a sports rivalry for real life, and those are two entirely different things.  A sports rivalry is an invention designed to make games more interesting.  For instance, whenever we played Arickaree, I knew we were going to lose.  Everybody knew we were going to lose.  But, because we considered them our rivals[3] , I was able to stoke the fires of indignation in my brain.  As far as I was concerned, Arickaree were dirty cheaters[4] .  I used this as extra motivation, and sometimes it translated into better performances.  Okay, fine.  That's a sports rivalry. 

But then I took the rivalry out of the context of gamesmanship and I dragged it into the real world.  When I told the gentleman at the Liberty School reunion that I hated him, I wasn't being true to my school or loyal or patriotic or anything of the sort.  I was just being angry, and for no reason whatsoever.  I wasn't for anything, I was just against Arickaree, because it felt good to hate them.  I can't think of many things that are more pathetic than hating someone just because it feels good. 
 
Still, it's fun to yell and it's fun to be angry, especially if a bunch of other people are shouting along with you.  Whole segments of society operate on that principle.  Entire careers, entire political movements, entire television networks, are based on this premise that, no matter what “we” may be doing, “they” are doing something worse, and so they deserve our contempt, and so that makes us superior to them.  Again, this is not a big deal when you're getting ready to watch a homecoming game, but it's ridiculous when placed in the context of real life.  

If you want a real-life example of anger masquerading as morality, go to a political website that you disagree with.  Read the comments below the articles.  Many of those comments are condescending, tribalistic, vitriolic nonsense.  Now go to your favorite political website and read those comments.  What's the difference?  Same anger, different cheerleaders.   

When I watch high school sports these days, I couldn't care less who wins.  Instead, I try to enjoy that fact that I can sit in the stands and see a bunch of kids toss a ball around.  I enjoy the good plays, the goofy mistakes, the odd coaching decisions, and the crunchy concession stand hamburgers.  One thing I don't want to bother with is anger, and my life is much better for it.

And, to that anonymous gentleman I confronted at the Liberty School Reunion all those years ago, I thank you for your grace in the face of my pointless hostility.  I no longer hate you, sir.  However, I am still jealous.  But that’s a subject for another column…
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[1] I'm assuming everybody on Earth knows who the Smurfs are.  If do not know who the Smurfs are, consider yourself lucky.

[2] This is not a real headline.

[3] Anybody who beats you all the time is your rival, even if that rivalry isn’t reciprocated.

[4] One example: Their basketball coach drew up this clever screen play for missed freethrows, and it tricked us every time.  That wasn't cheating, it was thinking. 

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Further reading:  The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I don't love this book as much today as I did when I was a kid, but it's still fun, and goodly chunk of the final third of the book has to do with misplaced anger.

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April, 2017
Food Fight

Today, rather than discuss 6-man football, I'll focus on the NFL, with a particular focus on referees.  As a reminder, a referee is someone who wears a black and white shirt, who exists in a land where nothing is black and white, and who is loathed because he [1] has the final say.  Let's examine the previous sentence clause by clause: 

A referee is someone who wears a black and white shirt… The striped shirt is not very fashionable.  I wouldn’t recommend wearing one to a wedding, or funeral, or any non-sports engagement.  However, the design stands out nicely in a crowd and so it works well in a ball game.

…who exists in a land where nothing is black and white… You know how, when you’re watching the Broncos and you throw popcorn at the TV because the refs didn't see the defensive back interfere with Demaryius Thomas?  Meanwhile, on the same play, a fan in Massachusetts is throwing Boston cream pies at his TV because the officials failed to flag Demaryius Thomas for interfering with the defensive back.  Two fans watching the same television broadcast, but seeing opposite things.  Clearly, at least one person is mistaken here.  So why is everybody throwing food?  Because, when it comes to judgement calls, nothing is black and white.

…and who is loathed because he has the final say.  This, to me, is the key to this discussion, because it’s not entirely true.  The referees do not have the final say.  They have a say in the final say, but I'd argue that the players have a greater say in the final say than the referees.  After all, the players are the only people in the game who can actually score the points that end up on the scoreboard, and the scoreboard is the final, final say.  
Still, the referee is a convenient, easily loathe-able punching bag.  Referees don’t have fans, they’re just supposed to be invisible while simultaneously keeping both sides honest.  It’s an endeavor that frequently fails because:

1) Referees are humans and humans make mistakes.
2) Fans are humans and humans don’t like to accept reality (Rahim Moore! Jacoby Jones!) when it doesn’t agree with the desired outcome (Superbowl!).

This is why you get people in Denver and Boston throwing food at their TVs for the same play but for opposite reasons.  Which is fine; a little cognitive dissonance within a football game isn’t going to hurt anyone.

But what happens when we disagree about the nature of real reality?  Turns out, we do the same thing: blame the referees.  In this case, the refs are the press.  If we don’t like the news, then the media must be lying.  Fortunately, we live in an age of wonder, where it's easy to find a  media outlet that'll validate our beliefs.  And once we find that outlet, we stick with it.  This is fine in the world of sports, which is entertainment.  But in the real world?  Not fine.  It shouldn’t be difficult to come to a consensus on such apolitical topics as whether or not, for instance, adding carbon emissions to the atmosphere will lead to catastrophic global climate change.  Take the measurements.  Analyze them.  Come to a conclusion.  Done. 

Instead, we’re debating the very nature of the scientific method.  The scientific method, as we all recall, is a common-sense, logical approach to problem-solving.  There's not much to debate there, and yet we can't help ourselves.  Because we pick our favorite press outlets, with their sculpted personalities who share demographically-tested talking points, and then we offer them the same unconditional love we reserve for football teams.  No matter how you approach the topic of global warming, you must admit that it's absolutely nuts to approach serious issues as if they were entertainment.

Here’s some good news.  Just as with referees, the media does not have the final say in political matters.  That belongs to us, the voters.  But there’s some really bad news: most of the popular press exists purely as profit-driven entertainment, dominated by organizations who care about ratings more than the truth.

Consequently, in order to re-establish a common reality, we owe it to ourselves to stop thinking of the media as the referees, and to instead think of ourselves as the referees.  It's up to us to decide whether we want to get all our news from the same TV programs, the same radio personalities, the same websites, and the same community of friends, or whether we're willing to challenge our preconceptions (that cornerback mugged Demaryius Thomas) by exposing ourselves to different points of view (Demaryius Thomas mugged that cornerback).  Ultimately, we may stumble upon a greater truth: we're not as right as we think we are.

This starts when we stop asking the media (press, TV, radio) to define our reality, and instead ask ourselves if what we’re seeing is real.  Otherwise, we’re just throwing food at the TV. 
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[1] I say, “he,” but with the understanding that women are also perfectly capable of officiating sporting events.

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For further reading: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.  Written in 1985, this book explores the pernicious influence of television (and more or less predicts the even-worse influence of the internet) on how we inform ourselves.  The first few chapters are full of academic language, but once the author lays out the groundwork for his argument, it’s a breezy, if depressing read.

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March, 2017
Catching Vinegar With Flies

In 1990, the Liberty Black Knights won a total of one football game, against the Bethune Bobcats.  Given how crummy we were, the Bobcats must have been having a very bad day.  But we clobbered them (by two points) and in doing so, I learned what it's like to crush an opponent (by two points).  For once, my team got to smile as we went thru the end-of-game good-sportsmanship handshakes.

Also during that game I learned what it's like to earn an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.  That was awesome, too.  (Cue Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days.")  It was the second half and we were on defense.  Just as Bethune hiked the ball, our nose guard leapt over the center and smashed Bethune's four-foot-tall quarterback into a two-inch-tall pancake.

In my excitement, I hugged our heroic nose guard and shouted, "You're a h***ing m***********r!"  Which got me a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.  Our coach yelled at the ref, "What's the h*** was that for?"  The ref replied, "He used the F-word."  Our coach then yelled at me, "What did you say, Hill?"  To which I, playing the role of a dumb seventeen-year-old boy (which I was), replied, "I dunno."

After the game, as my teammates and I were celebrating our victory, somebody asked me what I’d done to earn that flag.

I glanced around the locker room to make sure Coach wasn't nearby and confessed my linguistic transgression.  Everyone laughed, because it was funny [1].  And then Coach, who had been standing right behind me, said, "So you lied to me?"

I nearly leapt out of my uniform, and then I said, "Yes, sir."

Coach then shook my hand and said, "Good job." 

There are many lessons to be learned from this incident.  First: in a sport where adrenalized young men are encouraged to beat the everloving snot out of one another, it's ridiculous to expect them to speak the King's English at all times, especially when their coaches routinely employ profanity during practice, during games, and in casual conversation.  Second: When you win, you can get away with things that would otherwise earn you a couple of laps around the football field on Monday.  Third: I totally deserved that penalty.

It is the third lesson that I wish to address here.  Sure, I could argue that, "Coach cusses, so why can't I?"  But that's a terrible argument.  Just because somebody else is vulgar, that doesn't mean I should be, not when the rules of the game clearly prohibit that kind of language.  That's like saying, "Come on, Mom!  Little Johnny blew up a frog with an M-80, so why can't I?"  Or, to take a totally random example from an otherwise unrelated pre-Super Bowl interview, "There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers.  Well, you think our country is so innocent?”

Or, if you’re biblically inclined, you can consult the Book of Peter: "Do no repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing." [2]

I bring this up today because I recently got into a conversation with someone who believed in certain things that contradicted observable reality and, in my frustration, I failed to wonder, much less ask, why she might hold these strange beliefs.  Consequently, I said many, many things that would have warranted flags for unsportsmanlike conduct   After our conversation, which did not end well, I felt like a schmuck.  This was not a football game.  I did not win.  At best, I had managed to humiliate the person I was speaking to.  And if humiliating a person is the best one can hope for, one has failed miserably.  So, after a period of reflection, I tucked my tail and called her up and apologized.  To her credit, she accepted that apology.  She didn't have to do that, but I'm grateful that she did, and we've made plans to resume our conversation, and this time I intend to extend to her the proper human respect we all deserve.

And so, thanks to six-man football I'm reminded that if I, or you, or even an inexplicably successful, um, TV personality feels compelled to change minds, it's probably best not to insult the very people whose minds we're trying to change. 
________
For further reading: The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. Written by Matthew Stewart, this is an outstanding examination of the contrasting views of two of the 17th Century's greatest philosophers.

[1] To be clear, I do not object to the use of sailor-speak.  In fact, I'm a big fan of it, as long as it's used for constructive purposes.

[2] Peter 3:9, New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd Edition

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February, 2017
Lessons From Six-Man Football

My name is Gregory Hill, and today I’m writing as a former, and really awful, six-man football player for Liberty High School. When I was a freshman, we lost all of our games   Because of this, and because I didn’t like getting my butt kicked all over the field, I skipped the next two years.  As I senior, I returned to the team, but only because I lost a bet.  (The story of that wager is funny, very long, and would impugn the dignity of several humans if I were to tell it here.)  We won one game that year.  (For the record, in the two years I didn’t play, the team was phenomenal.  You do the math.)

No matter how I felt about the sport, it did, as coaches always promise, impart some valuable life-lessons.  In this column, which I hope to write once a month, I shall divulge some of those lessons.  Today’s lesson is:

Six-Man Football is a Reasonable Approximation of the Urban-Rural divide. 

If you’ve ever looked at an electoral map, you are at least casually familiar with the Urban-Rural divide; the cities are blue and the rural areas are red.  Why is this?  One depressingly popular answer is, “It’s because those people in [insert region of your choice] are dummies.”  Or they’re elites, or they’re vulgar, or violent, or lazy, or…   

I’m of the radical opinion that people are the same from one region to the next, it’s just that different regions require us to behave in specific ways in order for us to get along within those regions.  It’s no wonder then, that when people from red areas meet people from blue areas, there’s going to be some cultural confusion.

Which brings us back to six-man football.  First, is six-man football actually football?  My broken pinkie and crummy knee would say yes.  However, if, in 1987, someone had plucked me off the 80-yard field where I played a position known as  guardtackletightendwidereceiver, and then brought me to Denver and tossed me onto a 100-yard field in the midst of a varsity eleven-man team, I would have been dead within moments.

Because, while six-man football is football, it is not eleven-man football.  You can’t play eleven-man when there aren’t even eleven boys in your entire high school.  Which is why somebody had to invent six-man football, a game similar to eleven-man, but with significant differences in the rules.

In six-man, it takes fifteen yards to get a first-down, hand-offs are illegal, quarterbacks can’t run the ball, anyone is eligible to receive a pass, and so on.  My favorite rule was the 45 Rule, aka the Slaughter Rule.  When I played it went this way: if a team got ahead by 45 points, the game was over (but you had to play the entire first half). Without the Slaughter Rule, my teams would have lost most of our games by sixty or more points, and lord knows how many more pinkies I might have broken.

The six-man rules exist primarily to prevent one person from dominating a game.  I’ve always thought about it this way: In eleven-man football, if nobody blocks, then the poor sucker with the ball is going to be chased by 11 bloodthirsty kids.  In the same scenario in six-man, you’re only gonna get chased by six kids, at least one of whom will stand 4’11” and weigh 106 pounds. 

There’s nothing unusual about a 6’7” 270lb kid in eleven-man varsity football.  In six-man, a kid of that size is so rare that, assuming he has the teeniest bit of athleticism, he’s going to dominate like a Newfoundland at a Chihuahua party.

Six-man rules (aka regulations) exist for two reasons.  One, to make sure that schools with small populations are allowed to field a team.  Two, those rules exist to make it harder for one player to completely take over.  Which is to say, the rules make it easier for the little guy to have a chance.  It’s almost as if someone said, “Kids in rural America are entitled to play a version of football that suits their limited resources.”

Let’s now return to the Urban-Rural Divide.  Because of high population-density, people in cities have to play by different rules from people in rural America.  If you live in Denver, you will probably interact with hundreds of strangers every single day; in traffic, walking down the sidewalk, waiting in line at the grocery store.

There’s an implied rule that you must get along with every one of these strangers, even if it means that you have to pretend they don’t exist.  For instance, don’t stare at people on the bus unless you want to make them very uncomfortable.  Confusingly, there are other times when you absolutely must acknowledge the existence of strangers.  If you’re driving down a busy street—or any street, frankly—use your turn signals.  Otherwise, you could potentially throw the whole system into chaos, and maybe clobber a bicyclist, which is not only rude, but painful.

Country life has its own rules and regulations, some of which are the complete opposite of city rules.  For example, in those rare situations when a stranger sits next to you in the bleachers of a six-man football game, you’re absolutely going to pay close attention.  You may even find yourself staring.  Because, compared to an urban setting, strangers are uncommon out here, and humans tend to be fascinated by uncommon things.  Or, if you’re the type of person who religiously uses his turn signal, even on a dirt road in the middle of the night on your way home from Music Night at the Grassroots Community Center, there’s a good chance your passenger will call you a nut.

You can’t just pluck someone out of Joes, Colorado and expect them to thrive in the city.  And you can’t take someone from Denver and expect them to thrive on the Great Plains.  Because humans, by necessity, behave by different rules in different places, and those different ways of interaction lead to wildly divergent ideas of privacy, courtesy, and fellowship.

Fortunately, as long as we can acknowledge these differences and respect the appropriate societal rules (either formal or implied), we can all still find a way to enjoy the game.

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