|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.
As I mentioned last month, I’m going to spend a few words on Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who, in the name of civil rights, refused to stand for the national anthem, and the brain-ripping controversy that has followed that decision. I had hoped to whip up a quick little piece that’d capture the various perspectives on this subject and then wrap it all up with an amusing life-lesson-learned. As with most of the things I leap into, I was altogether too hopeful. Quick little piece, my eye. To get to the bottom of this one, I’d need to write roughly five hundred pages, annotated, footnoted, and illustrated with pie charts and nineteenth-century woodcuts. Something tells me that our dear editor, Tony, would rather not give over the next three years' worth of the Yuma Pioneer so I can talk about the history of patriotism, nationalism, civil rights, and whatever else might pop into my head. And I rather suspect that you, dear reader, would be even less inclined to endure such a thing. On the other hand, it’d be an insult to your intelligence if I were to try and boil down my thoughts until they could fit in a single column.
What, then, shall I do? I guess I’ll do what I always do, and write until I’ve finished, and hope you’re willing to read until the end.
Let’s begin with a recap of the Colin Kaepernick saga.
Last year, Kaepernick, who played for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand for the national anthem, which is traditionally played before the beginning of an NFL game. His explanation: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” He’s talking about the numerous cell-phone videos that show black men being killed by police officers. Specifically, he’s referencing those videos in which there is no clear indication that the dead men behaved in a manner that would warrant an instant death sentence.
Kaepernick faced a massive backlash for his protest. And then the backlash was faced with backlash. With your permission, I’ll summarize those backlashes with an imaginary conversation between two imaginary people drinking coffee at an imaginary diner:
ORVILLE: Kaepernick’s protest was an insult to the soldiers who fought to keep our country free!
WILBUR: The protest has nothing to do with soldiers!
ORVILLE: The NFL is a private business. They have the right to tell him to stand his butt up or get the heck out!
WILBUR: You’ve got a point there. Except, last year, the NFL commissioner said, “Players have a platform, and it's his right to do that.”
ORVILLE: Tell me, smartypants, why won’t any team hire him?
WILBUR: Good question!
ORVILLE: He’s a coward is what he is!
WILBUR: Does a coward risk his career to call attention to issues that affect groups of people he doesn’t even know?!?
ORVILLE: His message is incoherent! What’s he trying to accomplish?
WILBUR: He’s trying to get people to think about the value of black lives and the value of proper training for police officers!
ORVILLE: Go fly a kite!
WILBUR: No, you go fly a kite!
And that’s more or less where we currently stand. As always, we’re got two schools of thought, shouting at each other from mountain peaks that are so far apart, they can’t even hear one another. Welcome to America in 2017.
As humans, we’re all biological creatures who simply want to enjoy long, productive lives. It’s only when we talk about abstract concepts—such as race or politics--that we start to diverge. As those abstract concepts stack up, they can isolate us from one another, until we’re so far apart that we can’t communicate. And so, as I continue writing about this subject, I’d like to climb down from my mountain and I’d invite you to do the same, for here at the bottom of things is where we all meet. Hopefully, by the time I’m done, we’ll have made our mountains a little closer to one another. With that being said, I’ll continue this next month (or maybe sooner if Tony has room) with a discussion about Old Glory, The Star Spangled Banner, and a suicidal albatross.
When I was a gangly freshman on Liberty's six-man football team, I once made the mistake of calling our coach "sir." He had told us to do some push-ups or something and I said, "Yes, sir." To which he replied, "I like the sound of that. Everybody shall call me 'Sir' from now on." And so, from then on, Coach was 'Sir' and we were his obedient--if not athletic--soldiers .
Once we figured out how it worked, this chain of command business really wasn't so bad. If you do what Sir says, then you don't have to bother with thinking, which only has a tendency to complicate things anyway. What was bad was our offensive line, of which I was a member. We couldn't block worth a lick, which played a significant role in our 0-8 record that year.
By the time I was a senior, we still couldn't block. But then, one Saturday in 1990, I was watching a college football game and the announcers started talking about a CU player who was doing a crummy job of blocking. As I recall, they stated that, on a running play, one must drive forward into his opponent, opening up a hole for the halfback. (That's how I tried to block on every play.) However, the announcers continued, on passing plays, the linemen should take a step back and focus primarily on keeping the opponent from getting around you to sack the quarterback. That was a revelation. My teammates and I had been pass-blocking incorrectly all this time. For our next game, I switched up my technique and it worked !
But here's the ridiculous thing, I didn't share this insight with anybody. I vividly remember thinking, Should I tell my teammates? Nah, that would just make me sound like a smarty-pants. Should I tell Sir? Nah. It’ll make him insecure and when he’s insecure he makes people run laps.
I was more concerned with my own status within our football culture than I was with the success of our football team. Clearly, this was foolish on my part. Coach Sir had failed to see a glaring flaw in our technique. I was in a position to correct that flaw. And yet, because of a fear of upsetting the status quo, I chose to keep my mouth shut and, in doing so, I chose to let our quarterback got sacked over and over.
What pithy lesson did I learn from all of this? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure, but I'll make a guess: For the good of the team, it's sometimes necessary to speak up to Sir, even if you don't think he'll take it well.
With this in mind, you can look forward to next month's column, in which I'm going to take an unpopular view on the controversy around Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who refused to stand for the national anthem.
We’re all aware of Vince Lombardi’s legendary quote, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."  Today, I shall argue that winning isn’t a thing at all.
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.  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.
 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.
 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....”
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 . 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." 
 I'm assuming everybody on Earth knows who the Smurfs are. If do not know who the Smurfs are, consider yourself lucky.
 This is not a real headline.
 Anybody who beats you all the time is your rival, even if that rivalry isn’t reciprocated.
 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.
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  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.
1) Referees are humans and humans make mistakes.
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.
 I say, “he,” but with the understanding that women are also perfectly capable of officiating sporting events.
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.
 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.
 Peter 3:9, New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd Edition
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.