Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Tom Walton


A beginner’s guide to football, without the X’s and O’s


The Blade/Lori King
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It’s late August, and you know what that means. Are you ready for some football?

I’m not sure when football became a summertime pursuit. I’ve always associated football with wind and snow and bitter cold, like Cleveland in April. But the pros are already playing, the colleges and high schools will be butting heads shortly, and we’re not even to Labor Day.

So time is short for you to brush up on the game. I’m here to help.

Football is a game played with 11 men — or 11 really sturdy women — to a side.

Each wears the padded equivalent of a suit of armor on his body and a bucket on his head. The players run around chaotically, one squad in light-colored suits and the other in dark, trying to knock each other down.

Though football is an American game, this would explain why Canadians enjoy it. Hockey without the skates. What fun.

Football is not complicated. Each side is assigned a rectangular piece of playing field, which it must defend at all cost. These two sacred rectangles are separated by 100 yards of grass, which can be real or fake. The idea is for one group of 11 to push the other group of 11 backward until the group doing the pushing invades the rectangle of the group doing the shoving.

Whichever group invades the other’s rectangle more is declared the winner. Then everybody goes out for refreshments.

Although an invasion of the opponents’ rectangle requires the ultimate in teamwork, not all players are considered equal. The foot soldiers up front, leading the way, are called linemen. They are extremely large individuals who eat pretty much everything placed in front of them, including old shoes, tree stumps, and discarded tires.

Their job is to protect the player called the quarterback, the best-looking player on the team. His teeth are perfectly aligned, and they gleam in the sunshine, unlike the linemen, whose teeth have generally been misplaced. This makes football the ultimate class struggle — the soldiers and the prince.

The trophy they prize is called the ball. They are expected to guard it as though it’s their next meal. Pigskin — it’s what’s for dinner.

Ah, yes, the ball. Was this thing designed by committee? It’s not even round. It’s fat in the middle and comes to a point on both ends. Not unlike my Uncle Dan. And when it bounces — the ball, not Uncle Dan — nobody has a clue which way it will go. This seems unnecessarily cruel.

There are three accepted ways to earn points: running the ball into the sacred rectangle, throwing it into the rectangle and hoping one of your own players catches it, and kicking the ball through a giant tuning fork.

A team can also score by playing dirty. Players do this by taking the ball away from an opponent, either by grabbing it right out of his grasp or by catching a thrown ball intended for somebody else. Bullies, that’s what they are.

Alongside the 100 yards of grass dozens of other soldiers await their chance to enter the fray. Many of these bystanders have failed in the past and thus are discouraged from further participation. They are called third-stringers or bench-warmers.

Just behind the bench, you will see a row of lovely lasses whose job it is to incite the onlookers into raucous enthusiasm for the combatants. Like the grass, they too can be real or fake. These young ladies may even be tougher than the Goliaths they adore — especially in November and December — considering how little clothing they have been issued.

You will also notice several men in striped shirts whose only function is to annoy all involved, especially patrons who have surrendered a week’s pay to see eyes gouged and legs bitten.

I must mention the gentleman who struts back and forth on the sideline, exhorting his troops to visit indescribable acts of mayhem upon the opposition. He is called the coach.

He pleads and yells and stomps around a lot. His urgent commands are a desperate cry for help, because he knows that he will be summarily executed if his group of 11 is pushed more than it shoves.

On the other hand, he gets to wear a comfortable shirt and slacks during warm weather. When the big freeze comes, he’s snuggled all nice and warm inside a parka assembled by Alaskan Inuits from the remains of a deceased caribou, so do not feel pity for him.

I share all of this with you because football gets a lot more technical on the sports pages. Keep this simple guide close at hand when Dave Hackenberg and his colleagues go all X’s and O’s on you.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.

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