Another football season is nearly upon us again and I still haven't forgotten what I said back in April. I still plan to skip the entire season, and I still believe it is a good idea. But I have no illusions that it will be as easy as it seemed in April.
Over the past couple of weeks, as I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid talk radio or any water cooler conversations about the upcoming season, I've had many opportunities to reflect on the enormous effect that football has had on my life. Doubtlessly there have been good effects, but today I'm focusing on the bad.
As far as I can remember, the obsession began to take form when I was six. I have vivid memories of getting out of church and waiting eagerly for my dad to come out and start up the car so I could hear the Vikings game. Church normally got out at 12:30, about a half hour into the game, so my mind would be fixed on what I was missing as the Sunday school lesson was wrapping up. Then I would race for the door in the hopes that the Vikings had taken an early lead.
During these Sunday afternoons there was always something about the differences between church and sports that left me just a little bit confused. I was always told that church was more important than sports and that football was just a game and shouldn't become more important than God. This seemed reasonable, but it could not account for the fact that the sportscasters always seemed to take their area of expertise far more seriously than the pastors. As I listened to Joe McConnell and Stu Voigt in the back of our station wagon every Sunday, the way in which they described the events on the field had such a sense of weightiness and awe as opposed to the way in which the pastor described the events in the Bible. There was a seriousness about it that was lacking in church, and it was easy to recognize. While the pastor could talk about what I was told were the most important realities in the universe as though he were telling us about a lighthearted game, Joe and Stu could describe a fourth-and-goal on the one as though nothing less than life and death were at stake.
This pattern of thinking only seemed to grow stronger as I grew older. Pastors came and went, telling the same tired old Bible stories over and over again while I would frequently sneak a copy of Sports Illustrated into church to keep from dozing off. Meanwhile, football season would roll around every September and remind me again of what was truly important in life. No pastor ever described heaven or hell or sin or atonement with the seriousness that Frank Gifford described the Monday night showdown between the Bears and the Dolphins in 1985:
I was left with only one conclusion by this point. I wanted my values to be in line with reality, but I was unsure of what exactly made one thing more valuable than another. But so was everyone else it seemed. Slowly, I came to realize that value could only be determined by the valuer. If I valued a rock more than a person, then by that standard it was so.
And so it continued on into my early twenties. Football provided everything that religion promised but never delivered on. As Michael Madelbaum put it...
"These games respond to human needs that can be traced back to the earliest human communities, needs to which the dominant responses for most of human history came from organized religion. Sports and organized religion share several important features. Both address the needs of the spirit and the psyche rather than those of the flesh. Neither bears directly on what is necessary for physical survival: food and shelter. Both stand outside the working world. And team sports provide three satisfactions of life to twenty-first-century Americans that, before the modern age, only religion offered: a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life; a model of coherence and clarity; and heroic examples to admire and emulate."
Football provided all of these things and then some. Religion did not. I remember these words coming out of my mouth sometime in 1998:
"Football is my religion, the Metrodome is my church, the Vikings are my god, and Randy Moss is my messiah."
This is no exaggeration. I lived for nothing other than a Vikings Super Bowl win. I longed to see the Purple kingdom come. I understood that the Vikings were most glorified in me when I was most satisfied in them and so I devoted myself entirely to the cause of Purple. I won't go into detail about all of the things I did in my devotion to Purple; just go rent Fever Pitch and you'll get the idea. Losing to the Falcons in the NFC Championship game that year was like standing before God on judgment day and finding out that the Muslims were right.
To be continued....