What are we doing here at an American Football game?
We don’t seem welcome in the spattering of Yale-apparelled fans; both of us are wearing suits. His is a dashing tweed number, while I’ve strayed to a countryside brown. We look like we have sprung from the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel.
But what is happening below us, on the field? Two teams are running at each other, tossing some sort of rugby ball around. What is happening, indeed?
My friend, let me explain, is an American, and as he points out the different “plays” and passes, I get the vague feeling that this is an epic sort of a moment. The leaves are starting to turn colour, the sky is cracked with clouds, and the already pale autumn sunlight washes out the pale faces in front of us.
“But what is a blitz?” I ask, trying to sound informed, vaguely remembering the term used at the beginning of some Arnold Schwarzenegger film I had seen at the age of twelve.
“That’s a play,” he said.
“But what’s a play?”
“Gee, a play is a sort of set plan that the team has.”
“Golly, when they line up and run at each other?”
The muscular men on the field pass below me and the ball is tossed back to a player who runs around the enemy and down the line. I’m told that he must run four lines in four sequences of running at each other.
Yale scores and people stand and cheer. Nobody really looks that enthusiastic; Yale is apparently set to beat Oxford.
“But why didn’t he put the ball on the ground?”
“It’s not rugby, dumbass.”
The man is prancing in his lycra trousers.
Mother always insisted that there was something homoerotic about these. She also said that the shoulderpads were “so eighties”. Indeed, my mother enjoys a rather slimmer cut in men’s tailoring.
We stay until the end, because seeing Yale win is certainly reassuring.
In some ways, I’m rather miffed: all of this looks far too jolly to begin with. Sports are meant to be painful and character building. My dear reader, it seems a tad of context might be necessary.
In the Empire, sports are violent, brutal and muddy. I tended to avoid rugby and football at all costs. Even my cricketing days were limited to my youth and the odd few summer moments when I would get out a bat and ball with some friends and go knock a few about, then open a bottle of wine and feel its cool odour numbing our senses Lethe-wards.
Only “Harrow Football” remained on my team sports list. Harrow Football is a game of mud and implied violence, played only at my previous school. Kicking around a leather ball that accumulates water (the pitch is two feet deep in mud and the fates have it rain every time a match is scheduled) is actually rather fun because absolutely nobody knows what’s happening. People lose boots, bash each other (elbows in, fellows!) and generally rag about. Every so often, a team manages “yards” (they must catch the ball to do this) and is allowed to take three leaps and then kick the ball past the posts. “Bases” are scored, generally, like football.
But, really, enough of this, we must return across the pond.
Another friend, who is Anglo-German and now studies at UCL, came to visit me at Yale. He decided to come to Toads one night and got chatting to the American football players who were surrounded with crooning girls.
“Apparently the quarterback’s the coolest player?” he asked.
The response was quick — “The quarterback’s not the freaking coolest, because I’m not the quarterback.” The girls swooned.
But my friend was amused and asked to meet the quarterback, who could not be produced.
Later he remarked on the strange deification of these men who hulked around the dance floor, sipping beer and chatting about sports. Maybe that is the attraction of this “football” — to see gods run around for a few hours.