It’s Sunday afternoon in late January. I have various cooking and tidying projects going and as I start to shuck sections of the Sunday New York Times, I notice that it’s not just any Sunday, it’s playoff Sunday! Back-to-back AFL and NFL games will decide who is going to the Super Bowl in a couple of weeks. In a time long ago and far away, these games would have been anticipated in my house and the TV would be on. Not that I would be following them closely, or even at all. Rather, I’d be attending to the noise of them: the ex-players turned sportscasters with their dramatic, if grammatically awkward, football-speak; the swell of crowd noise, the shrill referee whistles punctuating it all; even the commercials for beer and supersized pickups–it’s all part of the soundtrack of winter Sundays. Sort of like the ice cream truck jingle in the summer, but far less homicide-inducing. Comforting, even.
I tune in for old time’s sake, thinking I will go about my day as I used to do with the sound of a football Sunday in the background. But I find myself on the couch folding towels watching a game I supposedly care nothing for. I know that most of those men who are earning obscenely large salaries traded in their future cognitive functioning for this moment, this chance to become one game closer to playing for the “best team in the world” even though it’s only the United States we’re talking about. I know many of them attended colleges on ginned-up scholarships because there is big money behind their schools’ athletic departments (really just men’s football); I know that they likely did, or even still do, amplify their brutish warrior strength with steroid cocktails. I know about the rape culture of college athletic programs. I know that none of this was ever designed for my gaze. Even the concept of the cheerleaders repulses my feminist sensibilities.
And yet, I find myself spending extra minutes perfecting my trifold towel-folding technique just so I can hang a little longer on the couch watching the colosseum-level brutality play out in increments of yards as helmeted and padded and injected ubermen advance a small, inflated elliptical stitched of cowhide from one end of the field to the other. I have a general idea of what is happening on the field, but I am not invested in the lives of these men. Yet part of me looks forward to the Super Bowl, in two weeks’ time. If it’s not the game that attracts me, then what is it?
First Quarter: The Early Years
The Kleindienst family was not a sports family, unless you count my father’s penchant for fishing or the family croquet games on the lawn at my grandparents’ house.
St. Louis’s beloved baseball Cardinals were not a big deal, although I do remember tuning in on my transistor radio to listen to Jack Buck call the game, but this was more an exercise in auditory literacy than a sports event for me. Listening to someone describe what eighteen men you can’t see are doing with a stick and a ball requires great visual imagination, the same kind required for what I really liked doing: reading. True, there was the summer I earned tickets to three Cardinals games for getting straight A’s. I took the special Redbirds bus with my girlfriend down to Busch Stadium. But I would have earned those straight A’s without the sports incentive. And there was a summer my parents, possibly it was really my mother, tried to integrate us into the normal suburban life around us by enrolling my brothers into little league, but that barely lasted the entire summer. It was a summer my brothers spent watching weeds grow in right field as the pop flies and line drives whizzed past their heedless gloves. There was no comparable option for me as there were no organized sports for girls. Had there been organized sports for girls, I probably would have signed up only to follow the athletic girl on whom I had a crush.
Finally, even my interest in listening to Cardinals games waned when, one evening in April, 1968, my school play rehearsal (A Pennant for the Kremlin, with unlikely me playing the ingénue) was interrupted as a classmate burst into the auditorium waving his transistor radio and shouting, “They killed King!” To which everyone around me cheered, effectively ending any tentative attempts on my part to finally make friends and branding me hereafter as an n-lover. Our classmate had been listening to the Cardinals game on his radio when the news broke.
Second Quarter: First Serious Long Term Relationship
S.H. was the fifth in a family of seven siblings and the second girl. We made regular two-hour drives from St. Louis to Beardstown, Illinois, pop. 6,000, for family get-togethers in which any array of siblings and their spouses might be present. Our lesbian relationship was not exactly welcomed except by S.H.’s sister, the oldest child and the one who frequently spoke on our behalf. I never quite felt legit with the older brothers, though it could have been because of football, not sexual orientation.
My first Thanksgiving with the S.H.’s family was one of my earliest chances to meet those brothers. As expected, S.H. and I were in the kitchen helping her mother with the meal. But, being my feminist me, I wandered into the den, to see what was up. Football was up of course! The guys were seated on the leather and dark wood easy chairs with their red checked stadium blankets, duck-hunting artwork on the paneled walls, fire in the fireplace, one brother at the wet bar mixing, the others with their Scotch and waters and gin and tonics, all following every movement on the screen closely. I tried to engage. When I saw a man running hell-bent for leather down the field I cried, “He doesn’t have the ball!” An immediate horrified silence fell over the room. This is how I simultaneously earned the contempt of my male almost-in-laws and learned about the football position known as “wide-receiver.”
Third Quarter: Second Long Term Serious Relationship
By now I have taken up running, played, albeit badly, on a lesbian softball team, cofounded Team St. Louis, the athletic organization that takes part in The Gay Games. By now I have even medaled in some races including a marathon. By now, my mother has completed her work as the Director of The Women’s Action Program at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, where one of her jobs was to write the first guidelines for schools to follow if they wanted to receive Federal Funds now that there was a law known as Title IX.
And by now, I am living with D.L. Not only was he an avid long distance cyclist and decent softball player, more importantly, he was a huge fan of football; it was something of a family thing since his brother-in-law had played and was grooming his two sons to play. Every Sunday during the season, football was on in our living room. I grew to find the sounds on the TV comforting, part of a cozy winter Sunday afternoon ritual, as integral to the feeling of security and love as the warm smells of the vegetarian chili on the stove, and the peacefulness of the cats napping in the patch of sun on the bed.
Yet I still had little idea of what was happening on the screen. My incentive to understand was muddled by the fact that our old thrift store console black and white TV broadcast in triple vision, so instead of twenty-two players on the field, there were more like sixty-six, plus so many referees! Basically it was like being nearsighted without your glasses on and watching what happens when you poke a stick into an ant pile. But it made D.L. very happy and I so grew to associate the sound of a football broadcast with happiness.
For many years at the end of January, we’d bring our potluck offering to one of our softball mate’s homes to watch the Super Bowl. Well, most of us would watch. I mainly was off in the kitchen binging on corn chips and guacamole, or outside with the smokers where you could chat without being scolded for interrupting the game.
In our last year as a couple, one where D.L. was beginning his transition from female to male (a transition I supported even if we were growing apart for other reasons), we lived in different states and I rattled around in our house. One Sunday during football season I was feeling lonely, so I turned on the game and while I was in the kitchen cooking, I imagined D.L. in the living room, cheering on the millions of tiny helmeted ants on the TV. It was almost like old times.
Fourth Quarter: Third Serious Long Term Relationship
By now I gradually had stopped calling myself “post-season”, hung up my track cleats (actually shoved them to a far corner of my closet) and admitted to myself that the racing briefs I wore to compete were probably more appropriate for pole-dancing. I was more likely at this point to drag two unwilling dogs around the bike path in the park on morning jogs than train for competition. Those jogs eventually gave way to walks as stenosis, a family inheritance, crept through my spine. My significant other, J.S. who began his transition from female to male shortly after we met, enjoyed a good football game so winter Sundays steamed along for me in a familiar way. I watched some football, or rather he did, and I listened from the kitchen although I sometimes popped out to watch a replay or two. Come Super Bowl Sundays, I actually paid attention to the game while also using it as an excuse to binge on guacamole and chips. J.S. always had the best victory whoop and it was thrilling to be along for the ride.
Towards the end of our marriage, he was spending weekends away and one day after months of this, I turned on the game almost without thinking. I didn’t even know what game it was and I didn’t really care. I needed the sound of something comforting. Something that said I wasn’t alone, that all would be ok, even if it was not really ok right now and it might be a few footballs seasons before it was ok; right now sportscasters were still waxing ecstatic, referees were still throwing flags and blowing whistles, and crowds were still performing their crazy rituals for winning while a couple of dozen sacrificial millionaires were banging their heads out on our behalf, and they would do so until the clock ran out just like always.
Overtime: My Serious Long Term Relationship with Life
Not surprisingly, getting divorced at the beginning of the Covid years muddled the complicated strains of loneliness these two events bring forth. It’s hard to pick up and move on when even spending time with a good friend could kill you. I was saved in the early months by the chance stranding of my dear friend Silver Wainhouse, who lives in France. She was in St. Louis visiting family when the great shut-down occurred. She roomed with me for the first several months and is the reason I retained any social skills at all that first year of my Covid-isolated, newly single state. She was, and still is, my angel from Uzes.
But by football season, while Silver was still waiting for the right time to make a run for France, she had moved in with her son and I was finally, truly, on my own. It seemed only a matter of time until I would turn on the game, and let the mad, pointless violence of high stakes football bizarrely lull me into a sense of well-being. That first Covid winter though, I pointedly avoided it. I wasn’t waiting for anyone to come home. It was just me. Football wasn’t my thing was it?
With each fresh start I could have taken up something besides football noise. Something equally as unlikely yet truly of my choosing. Soap operas maybe, World Wide Wrestling or even Grand Theft Auto. But I didn’t. Somewhere in my heart of hearts, the truth was waiting. Even if football and its endorphin-like effects had come to me through the loves of my life, how I know it in my bones is truly mine now. Does it invoke vague sweet memories of those past loves? Yes. Is that sad and clingy? No. I celebrate the parts of my life that brought me joy with pride, not regret. Is watching professional football games a weird thing for a queer feminist woman to enjoy? Probably. But so what? I haven’t spent a cent on it other than whatever portion of my college tuition supported it.
Come Super Bowl in a week or so, there won’t be a gathering at my house of almost in-laws, or my lesbian softball team, or even one other person, there will be only me. I’ll turn the game on if I remember, and if I feel like it. I’ll be in and out of the room if I want to, and I’ll eat football food or not. It will be a little bit like burning a candle for someone you love. That someone I love will be all of those in-laws, my wonderful old softball team, my non-sports loving birth family, my amazing superhero of a mother, my three great loves, and me. Especially me. Game on.