The ocean of balding, fifty-ish heads swiveled as one unit towards me as I finished asking my question about football of the great (sort of) Lenny Dawson, HOF quarterback who set a Chiefs season record of 30 touchdowns in one season. A record that stood until 2018. Not bad.
The men stared at me. I waited.
We were at a conference in Snowmass, Colorado. Mid-June, 1985. Bunch of cable guys. I was working in sales for the nascent satellite industry. Denver is a hotbed, being ground zero for satellite uplinks due to our location smack in the geographic middle of America.
Dawson was our motivational speaker. True to his gender and his generation, he had made a number of Polack jokes, racial slurs and a few other indignities. The boys were eating it up. Star-struck. Boys do that.
(Okay, okay, I can see an audience full of idiotic women doing the same thing if Kim Kardashian showed up, but I digress)
I was the only woman in the room.
Let me back up here.
As a Boomer, women in my generation generally were not football fans. Not usually. We didn’t know the rules, know the stats, or get excited when September (before pre-season) meant the beginning of sweet season.
My father was the Washington Redskins’ first television announcer back in 1948. This was before I was born, but his early work for WMAL as they began to expand into this brand new world would shape my entire life.
As I was growing up in Central Florida, my father’s love of both college and pro football informed my weekends. Any time I wasn’t riding horses, I was watching the games with Dad. It became part of my DNA. Even if we couldn’t get the games we wanted (we had the Dolphins, which frankly, were at times pretty damned good) the point was to see football.
Those days were marked by teams that had long-time members. Free agency was decades away. You knew the guys, the stats, and had a good idea of what your team makeup would be. Dad’s hero was Johnny Unitas. Mom, who came from Wisconsin, loved Hornung and Nitschke.
Football was mother’s milk. I grew up loving the rules, learning the strategies, being fascinated by stats and performance. For years I had no idea that these guys were wearing pads (no really). I thought those shoulders were real.
A girl can hope.
For my generation, Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions was one of the very last of the great stars who retired from his original team. He chose not to leap frog somewhere else ISO a ring, like Neon Deion Sanders. I respect Barry, but I rather wish he, like Dan Marino, had walked away with some heavy finger metal before leaving the game. But such is the sport. They gave us a good show for along time. Lotta guys didn’t exactly enjoy being on Barry Sander’s Sunday night ESPN newsreel getting left in the dust.
I love football.
My ring tone is the theme from Monday Night Football. To my endless amusement, when I get a call in public, women look around and say “isn’t that the TV?” Guys look around and say “Where’s the game?”
Favorite movies, and one of them (Draft Day) is playing right now (this Thursday is the HOF game), are Rudy, Express, just about every football movie ever made from We Are Marshall to Remember the Titans. I watch Rudy every year at the beginning of pre-season. Yes, I cry at the locker room scene.
Every. Single. Time.
I am still annoyed at Joe Montana for slamming the movie about this scene, which he claims was pure fantasy. And that matters why? This is called artistic license. Montana is a HOF star. Rudy Ruettiger was 5'6", barely 150 lbs, and made the Notre Dame practice squad, played for all of 27 seconds in his very last game, the very last year of college, and proved to an entire world of fans that yes, dreams can come true. He was the last player to be carried off the field on his teammate’s shoulders. What, Montana is jealous of that? Grow up, Bird Legs. You played for sixteen seasons. Ruettiger played for 27 seconds.
But I digress. I am nothing if not passionate about my sport.
Draft Day is formulaic, almost silly. But I love that movie. Especially the line “you pancake-eating motherfucker.”
I use the Rudy movie sound track for my workouts. Have for years. That’s one of the best movie soundtracks of all time.
I love football, even as I increasingly travel in fall. Time is running out in my life, and I make some tough choices about where I put my butt: on a horse in some wonderful part of the world, or on my bike, which is up on a trainer so that I can work out while I watch the games?
Lately, I have been picking horses, which is why this year I will be in Mongolia and then Ethiopia, if all goes well, riding at twelve thousand feet.
But still I will miss sweet season.
The other reason football was so important was that it was the only thing my father and I could discuss without rancor. A beer in hand, and many more coming, he would take the time to explain a play, why a guy got thrown out and why a coach was going for it on fourth down.
I loved football not only because it was my sport (at 13 I could throw a perfect forty-yard spiral, not making this up) but I also really understood the game. So well that when I played flag football for my middle school, I played QB as well as defense. Only I did tackle at times in my enthusiasm to get that damned piece of plastic ribbon.
What I really wanted was my hands on that pigskin. Screw the plastic ribbon.
Football gave me scraps of my father. A little drunk, but at least not belligerent.
So when Dawson had finished his speech, what there was of it, guys in the room did what starstruck fifty-ish guys do when face to face with a hero:
“Hey Lenny, who do you pick for the Super Bowl this year?” (It’s June you moron).
“Hey Lenny, who was your favorite player on the team?” (anyone who caught the ball and got us a win you moron).
That went on for a while.
Then my hand went up.
Dawson’s face showed surprise when I stood. Oh no. You could see the consternation on his face. Who let her in here?
“Mr. Dawson, decades ago when the guys ran out on the field, it was like a symphony. We knew the music, knew the guys, knew the stats, and were loyal to the team because they were loyal to us. I wonder if you would comment on the state of football today, and how that has changed both for the players and their fans?”
Silence. As a unit, all the heads swiveled back towards Dawson.
His face got red. He was flustered. Not only had some broad wandered into the men’s room, but she had asked him a real question.
I waited. We all waited.
Finally, he burst out,
“YOU CAN BLAME THE AGENTS! NEXT QUESTION!!!
I sat down, disappointed. The guy sitting next to me slapped my back so hard I nearly puked my lunch.
“By God I wish my wife knew that much about football!!!”
My table was beside itself. They gathered around me as we all got in line for a chance to get a cheap plastic football signed by the Great Man Himself. When it was my turn, he glowered at me, signed it and tossed it. Sloppily. I caught it.
I usually do catch footballs. Even lousy spirals, as this one was. Good thing he didn’t throw like that at Kansas City.
The guys gathered around me outside the conference room.
“He was a dick to you,” one of them said.
The others nodded. I had a fan club. Small, but it mattered.
The following October, I was sitting at the front of a box seat on the thirty yard line at Mile High Stadium on a 70-degree Monday night. Broncos vs. Raiders. The classic AFC Divisional rivalry. Broncos almost always lost. I was treated to some of the best food ever while Dierdorf, Gifford and Michaels explained the plays happening down below. Man food. Beef. Really, really, really GOOD beef.
I could see all of it through my bare feet, hanging out the open window of my box.
The Broncos won. Helluva night.
I got that box seat because one of my little fan club was willing to trade sales training for any game I wanted.
Really? MNF. Broncos/Raiders. (I would have settled for a Bears-Packers game or a Redskins-Dallas Cowboys game, but that’s a whole other level)
That stadium is long gone. I have never again been to a live game, preferring instead to watch all three on Sunday at home.
Where I can dissect the plays, argue with a friend about whether the guy’s knee hit the ground, and we can moan about having lost a superb QB to another team and we got WHO this year? Joe Flacco?
JOE FUCKING FLACCO? Are you kidding me?
I had been sitting in a small cafe in Costa Rica ion 2013 when the Baltimore Ravens beat us in double overtime, Now that SOB is playing for US?
Look, Elway picked up a busted, sidelined Peyton Manning. A guy who, at the time, I respected, but like a lot of under-informed fans, believed was one hit away from being carted off and in a wheelchair for life. Manning’s story with the Broncos stands as one of the great football stories of all time, much like Kurt Warner, who rose from a $5.50 supermarket stocking job into one of football’s best quarterbacks.
Manning got us our most recent Super Bowl. Well deserved both for him and for us. Now we have yet another battered, aging future HOF quarterback. Something tells me to stay tuned.
I love football for this very reason.
Today most Millennial women I know, if they happen to care about the sport, know as much or more than I do about football. I’m no longer an anomaly, which gives me pleasure. On top of that, women play football. I missed that bandwagon the same way I missed being a fighter pilot in the Army: too many years too soon.
Times change. Football has too, but it’s still my sport. Even as my favorite refs retire (goodbye, Ed Hoculi, I’ll miss those guns) the rules continue to change, even as my favorite QBs age out and my own teams struggle to replace HOF greats. And as some of my favorite players struggle, as I do after twenty-one concussions from playing in life just as hard as my football faves play on the field.
Football for me marks the true beginning of fall. Its music, its theme songs, even its brutality are all something that thrill me. I have never been able to embrace hockey or soccer the way I have football. Because football also gave me my father, albeit in small snippets. My father probably got to know me better through my love of football than any other way. Like many, many boys of my generation. In my family, I was the one who joined the Army. I was the one who loved football. My brother eschewed both. As a result, I got more time with a distant dad than he did, despite the fact that the gender piece clearly troubled him in the process.
I love football. Even with the occasional crappy off-season behavior.
I’ll take that. Along with the lumps and bumps of a lousy season.
It’s my sport. Even if Len Dawson is an asshole. Some of our heroes are. Peyton Manning- and yes he does play golf with Trump- responded in less than a week to a letter I sent him. That’s class. His comeback story, which along with Walter Peyton’s famous training regime (okay, okay, and Jerry Rice’s too, leaving arrogant rookies far behind as he ran up mountains) stand for me as the kind of motivational story to move me when I have been injured, sidelined or even just had a shit day.
I look at it this way: if Len Dawson hadn’t been a jerk, I wouldn’t have sat in a box seat on the thirty yard line at Mile High Stadium on a Monday night in October, watching the Broncos beat the Raiders.
I’ll take that trade any day. I just wish my dad had been there to watch that game with me.