The Best Concise Explanation of American Football

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Feb. 5 2014 5:42 PM

The Best Concise Explanation of Football

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What is this thing called "football"?

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

What happened with the football contest?

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Thanks for asking.

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In his column of Thanksgiving Eve, the Gentleman Scholar called for entries in his Explaining Football to Foreign People or American People Who Don’t Understand Football Clearly and Concisely Contest, promising to award either a Nerf football or a copy of Don DeLillo’s End Zone to the entrant who most effectively diagrammed the sport of Knute Rockne, Broadway Joe, and B.D. in fewer than 120 words.

Thanks for answering!

The GS was gratified to receive copious evidence of his readers’ writerly skill—a feeling that intensifies his sharp regret that he did not meet a deadline of declaring a winner before the Rose Bowl. He couldn't pull it together for the Super Bowl, either, which is a real shame: A concise guide to the game might have been helpful to very many people this past Sunday. John Fox, for instance. 

Sorry, Coach! Let’s announce some results.

Honorable mentions go to all those entrants who cited Andy Griffith’s “What It Was, Was Football”; one Chris Berry contributed an especially pungent synopsis of that 1953 monologue: “A raft of people come up around you and make you drop your orange drink as they commence to go sit on two banks set across a pretty green cow pasture, where five or six convicts run back and forth blowing whistles….”

The first runner-up is one Ian Keay, whose paragraph earned notice on account of its pungent prose and big-picture approach: “American-rules football is a series of nasty brutish pre-planned staccato thrusts interspersed with interminable down-time, player substitutions, appeals and commercial breaks….  Each team can have 53 players—composed of three sub-teams: offence, defense and special—though only 11 of these armour-plated hyperthyroid gladiatorial gargantua may be on the field at once.  Possession is paramount, progress glacial, prancing obligatory….”

Our winner is one Rick Schuster. Congratulations, good sir! Where many entrants chose military metaphors to bring the game to life, you employed religious imagery to stirring effect. It is our hope that a few of your fellow readers will sing your hymn on future Sabbaths:


Football is a redemption-themed encounter in which two teams representing competing tribes symbolically overcome adversity by possessing and attempting to return a holy egg to its sacred home while a third team in stripes enforces rules and inserts chaos.  It is played out over 100 yards, plus two ten yard sections of sacred zone.  Scoring is achieved by placing the egg on the sacred turf or by kicking it through a symbolic gate in spite of the other teams obstruction.  Each team gets four chances to matriculate the egg ten yards at a time.  If it fails after three, it can kick it to the other team.  Consumption of copious amounts of beer by observing clan members is optional.

Correction, Feb. 10, 2014: This post originally misspelled the last name of the winner Rick Schuster. Mr. Patterson apologizes for the error and also for a delay in mailing Mr. Schuster's prize, but that one's his bad: "I typoed in the e-mail address I provided with my entry."