I never watched that critically-acclaimed television series Friday Night Lights, which used the backdrop of high school football in small town Texas to dramatize cultural and social issues of our times. After two seasons, however, NBC punted on the series, as dramatizing a single, small town football experience resulted in a fumble. As if here in PoV country our football experiences would be the same as those of Texiens!
I find it difficult to watch dramatized or “invented” football action when real football has such a rich history. I can’t help thinking about the great, historical American game, played by men with names like Knute and Bronko and Ditka—men who played just for the chance to hit somebody, who wrestled for scrimmage in pits of wet mud at stadiums held together by rusty girders and bat nests. Those were the days when nearby lightning would never delay a game. That was the time when bones didn’t break, they just got wrapped tighter. It was the era when blood and sweat made bweat, and it was a sign of pride to leak it. I’m talking football “back in the day.”
Back in the day, there were no spherical helmets with face guards. Football was played beneath helmets that were narrow at the center and bulged outward over the ears, like a plasticized Princess Leia hairdo from Star Wars. That’s right: Forget the cerebrum and the cerebellum and the cervical vertebrae. Back in the day, helmet designers believed that the outer ears were the most important thing to protect on a head—a lesson they never learned from Vincent Van Gogh. They likely skipped art class in high school to go to practice.
Back in the day, you could run a wedge and didn’t have to line up everyone on the scrimmage. And you could drop-kick. At a real game, the marching band played Sousa and Fillmore marches and not “Theme from Love Boat” with snare and bass drum accompaniment. In the day, popcorn was made with natural animal fats in a cast-iron skillet over an open flame—not with hydrogenated plant oils in an electric contraption with a gummy, aluminum pot hung in a Plexiglas cabinet with a lighted, yellow canopy. And in a real stadium, there were only as many bulbs in the pole lights as there were incisors and canines in the smiles of the linebackers.
Importantly, however, we can find unique social and cultural lessons about our land and people when we look back at football on the bayous. In the lower latitudes, players often had to miss spring training to help families earn a living during trawling season—and that was brown shrimp season. When white shrimp season came along, they’d have to miss fall training camp for the same reason. The seasons are always in conflict: Clearly, football was invented in some meat-packing town far from warm, crustaceous waters.
Our old high school stadiums were made of welded iron, and bleacher seating used the same splintering wood planks as the boat docks that frequently jutted from the bayou sides. While you might not find alligators crawling beneath your seat, there was plenty evidence of crawfish burrowing, nutria gorging, and armadillo digging.
Our fight songs even reflected local culture. Take my junior high school anthem, for instance: “We are the Lions from the bayou land! / We’re here to make you understand: / We’re on our way to victory / And we won’t be denied a score!” If it weren’t for the special geographical comment of the first line, none of the promises of our song would be consistently fulfilled in those tough, formative years. My high school fight song was also culturally significant. Although more famous as the staple of LSU marching bands, the lyrics to “Hey, Look Me Over” were adapted from a 1960 Lucille Ball musical named Wildcat, the story of which centered around oil drilling—a fixture of our landscape that not only provided jobs to a multitude of post-football players but also altered the natural environment of their hometowns forever.
Here, where tarpons and gators and pirates fight other beasts and men on striped fields of reclaimed swampland, where pigskins are as often tossed into hot oil as they are across a field, our football has a unique history. Unlike television Texas, here in PoV country, football—real, bweaty football—IS the social and cultural issue. Here is where that great, historical American game was played by men with names like Bobby and Tommy and Bé-Bé.
(Under the Scope column courtesy of Point of Vue magazine, September 2019)