Making Plays


My father wouldn’t allow my siblings and me to watch football games on television. He disapproved of the sport; to him it seemed like combat, a display of brute force. He didn’t see any grace in the players’ moves—he saw no ballet in running, passing or catching.

My sister wasn’t interested in football, anyway, so it was no loss for her not to watch it on TV. But I understood the game and found it exciting. I liked seeing the attacking players move the ball forward, yard by yard.

I appreciated acrobatic tackles, where the ball carrier would be upended in a no-hands cartwheel in the air.

The no-football rule was hardest for my brother, who played football in our high school. He was good at running and jumping—he brought those skills to the game. Mainly, he was fast, so he trained as a defensive back. His task was to swat the ball away from opposing receivers, make tackles, and intercept passes.

To discourage my brother from playing, my father wouldn’t give him a ride to practice. My mother worked all day and couldn’t take him, either. So my brother rode his bicycle to the field. The ride was ten miles in one direction—“a workout in itself,” my brother explained.

*

One time, I asked him what he had done at practice.

“We learned how to tackle,” he said.

“Do you aim for the knees with your arms?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “We bring our fist down on the back of a guy’s helmet before he leaves the line of scrimmage.”

He made a motion to show how he would punch the back of someone’s head.

“Is that a tackle?” I asked.

“It flattens the guy before he starts to run.”

My brother was younger than I was, but he was bigger and stronger.

His fist-to-helmet move impressed me.

*

My father took me to a bookstore in the nearby college town. He showed me a display of coffee mugs, T-shirts and framed prints featuring the university’s trademark, a mountain lion. “I did the artwork for these,” he said.

I looked closely at the images. The edges and shading defined shape and volume, yet were not photographic. The drawings were works of art.

My father wandered around the store and found a large-format book that contained color plates of tropical butterflies. “I’ll buy this with my freelance money,” he said.