The older I got, the fewer games I watched. Eventually, I stopped paying attention altogether. I went to a liberal arts college where no one I knew admitted to watching television (ironic viewings of The O.C. notwithstanding) and the only competitive sport was jostling for unpaid publishing internships. I followed the Hawks, barely, as though skimming headlines from another country. When I went home for the holidays, I watched important games with him. I remember the time our quarterback said he wanted the ball and he was going to score, then didn’t; I remember the Worst Officiated Game in NFL History. The team was good, then they were mediocre, then they were bad.
I can’t really explain why I decided to start watching football again. A few years ago, I met a friend of a friend who was a big Hawks fan. I emailed him on a whim, and he invited me to the bar in north Brooklyn where he and his friends hung out on Sundays. I watched one game, then another. I mostly kept my mouth shut, since I has nothing to say. But I kept going back.
The bar was a 20-minute walk from my house. After I left one evening, I fished my phone out of my purse and called my father. “What did you think of the game?” I asked.
Without hesitating, he launched into a critique of our offensive line. We talked about play-calling and power running. I asked him what he thought of the rookies. If he was surprised by the sudden reignition of my interest in the sport, he didn’t show it.
This was not a fun time to root for the Seattle Seahawks. Matt Hasselbeck, the aging quarterback who led us to the Super Bowl in 2006, was fading into obsolescence; we snuck into the playoffs with a losing record. In 2011, the team was helmed by Tarvaris Jackson, a stoic soldier who was both terrified of releasing the ball and incapable of protecting it. When Jackson went down before a game against the Browns, we put in Clipboard Jesus, a once-promising prospect who resembled a surprisingly handsome homeless man. Inaccurate and indecisive, Jesus turned out to be a false idol. We lost 6–3. It was an excruciating afternoon.
The team finished 7–9 that year. We were unexceptional, but my father had a way of making me feel optimistic. I called him after every game, taking mental notes as he dissected the play of the different units. There were bright spots, young players who showed flashes of dazzling brilliance. Earl Thomas, a whirling dervish who streaked across the backfield. Doug Baldwin, an undersized receiver from Stanford who was passed over in the draft and played with a giant chip on his shoulder. Richard Sherman, a gangly cornerback with sloth-like arms and a manic intelligence. When I go back and stream highlights from those games, it feels a little like watching casting call tapes for movie stars: The lights are too bright and the script is banal, but the talent shines through.
It didn’t take long for Sundays to bleed into the rest of the week. The more I watched, the more I wanted to know. My interest spiraled into obsession. I started reading basic news reports, then blogs, then forums, then X’s and O’s analysis. I learned to spot penalties before they were called, and to differentiate between various kinds of defensive coverage. I listened to podcasts in the subway. I watched old games for fun.
My father, who gets most of his news from the print edition of the Washington Post, drilled me for real-time information before and after games: injuries, roster moves, scoring updates. He was amazed by how quickly I found answers to his questions on Twitter. “Look it up,” he’d say. “Use that thing you use.”
The team was bad, then it was mediocre, then it was good—really good. We picked up a young quarterback who everyone thought was too short to play in the NFL, a calm, religious kid who looked directly at the camera and spoke in aphorisms he seemed to actually believe. Against all odds, he turned out to be the answer.
My father still calls me almost every day when he’s driving home from work. We still talk about the news, and the weather, and the pain in his back, which has gotten a lot worse over the years. But mostly we talk about football. I tell him the rumors that I read on the Internet that day. We scoff at the ignoramuses who dare criticize our team—typically East Coast sports analysts—and praise the brilliance of our coach and general manager. We keep talking as I fiddle with my key, unlock the door, and trudge up the stairs.
Somewhere in my parents’ house, there is a framed picture of me and my father running a race together. I was 4 or 5 at the time. We’re pretty close to the finish line, and there are dozens of people swarming around us. My dad, then in his early 30s, is wearing a thin tank top and shorts, his svelte legs and arms pumping. I am sitting on his shoulders, feet dangling in front of his chest. I placed third in my age group and won a plastic medal. It never occurred to me that I didn’t deserve the prize.
When I was young, it felt like we were two halves of the same person. My hands were his hands, steering us in the right direction. His feet were my feet, carrying us through the crowd. Perched on his shoulders, I towered over nine feet tall, a sycamore in a sea of ferns. I genuinely believed I could stay up there forever.
There are things I can never tell him. I know there are things he has never told me. But sometimes, just having a thing to talk about—a meaningless, brutish, occasionally wonderful thing—is enough. Actually, it’s more than enough. It makes me unspeakably happy.
The truth is, I wish the season would never end.