Hunter S. Thompson wrote "Football Season Is Over" at the top of his suicide note. The end of football season was, for him, a convenient time to check out of life via gunshot. It is not hard to understand why: looking out the window in February, when the whistle has sounded and big men pour into physical rehab or the bars for the winter, is bleak as hell's backyard no matter where you are. Up north, there is snow, more snow, and grey cottony skies blocking the sun for months at a time. Down south, the trees spit their leaves, and half of the mid-South looks like the back of a porcupine's ass. In Florida, the snow birds pace the sidewalks like bedraggled death-herons lurching from one cafeteria to the next. It may be the most macabre of all scenarios, but you wouldn't believe it until you see it.
You don't believe many things until you see them, because people remain visual learners. For instance, you won't believe that you can lose that game, and there the score sits in indisputable yellow lights on the scoreboard. You won't believe now that in four months you will sit at the window and see it all happen all over again and then find yourself staring at the metaphorical piece of paper reading: Football Season Is Over. Camus stated that all reasonable men consider their own suicide. I'm not saying I think it is a noble decision in his case, or in any others.
If I were going to understand it, though? That first Saturday morning without football would be the day to do that.
My grandfather died in February. He looked like Bill Clinton crossed with Shrek. Personality-wise, he was more of the latter than the former, and in a good way. He liked to cook country ham on a hot plate on his sealed concrete patio. He tended a terraced garden big enough to feed a family and regarded squirrels with a hatred bordering on the pathological. He would take me out in his shed -- a mini-house across the creek in the back of the property with wood-burning stove, radio tuned to WSM radio, and a hundred well-oiled tools hanging on the wall -- and just sit there occasionally telling me stories while he fed split wood into the belly of the stove.
He was usually sipping on coffee during these chill sessions. Later, after his death, we would find whiskey bottles stashed all over that shed. I did not lick a taste for stimulants mixed with alcohol off the grass.
He was one of the first people I can remember telling me anything definite about football. My grandparents owned a Magnavox. They don't even make these anymore, and by they I mean "Americans who made televisions," a rare breed of people that existed before we collectively acknowledged the universal truths of international existence: that Asians make killer electronics, that Germans make face-ripping cars, and that we do best when we just sit back and kind of improv like the brilliant bullshitting nation we are.
It was huge, and made a supernatural humming noise when you turned it on. For a time as a child, i believed televisions in wooden casings made to look like distinguished furniture could only pick up three types of programming: Hee-Haw, Gunsmoke, and Barnaby Jones. My grandfather seemed to live off pork products, black coffee, and those three television shows. He got vitamins from them, and were an important part of his balanced diet.
It shocked me one day when football came on the television and shattered my beliefs about the receiving abilities of wooden-based television arrangements. Vanderbilt was playing Tennessee. I was maybe eight years old at the time. Tennessee scored off a short TD run. My grandfather made a displeased grunt from somewhere in his enormous lantern-sized head, the same one that totters on my neck like a bowling ball taped to a gameday shaker.
"What's wrong, Gran-gran?"
"I'm thinking Tennessee's a little bit more physically equipped than Vanderbilt is." *
*He really did have this Foghorn Leghorn kind of diction. I thought I was making it up for comic effect until I watched an old video of a Christmas at their house and, in receiving a coffee thermos from his daughter, said he first wanted one when "your husband opened it in the car, and things smelled good, so I had to nose around the car and investigate where the smell was coming from." If anything, it was bigger and more exaggerated in real life.
"Are we pulling for Tennessee?"
"No, Spencer. We can't do that."
"We just don't. You can't cheer for Tennessee. We don't do that in Nashville."
"Can I cheer for Vandy?"
"You can cheer for Vandy, but you can't pull for ol' Tennessee."
Cancer would eventually kill him, and not in the gradual, graceful, soft-focus way movies about people dying young always have cancer doing its work. Cancer moved in, set his lymphatic system on fire, and then set to work on his brain. Toward the end of his life, he told lies about his habits, extravagant, uncharacteristic lies about where he'd been, why he'd been saying strange things, or even where he got the Totes hat we'd given him for Christmas a month earlier. ("I got it from my friend the Jamaican sea captain!")
When he was buried, on a day in February when the rolling scroll of hills around Nashville did look like the back of an elderly hedgehog, I thought about relatively few things. I remembered that my cousin farted, and farted quite loudly on the stairs at the funeral home. The stairs acted as an amplifier, a kind of woofer for the frequency booming out his flatulence through the entire visitation. It remains one of the most spectacular bits of farting greatness I have ever seen.
I also remember thinking about what I learned from him. He sucked the marrow from chicken bones, because anything less than total consumption of the whole bird was wasteful. He laughed at himself in all situations, even when he ripped his driver's side door off backing down the driveway. He wore two pairs of pants in retirement and kept one special for holidays. And he did not, for any reason, ever root for the University of Tennessee, even dead and being lowered into the ground wearing a strange suit I had never seen before.
My son was born in February. The timing was intentional, and not just for football. Pregnant women, being literal ovens of human bakery, hum along at an even 300 degrees Fahrenheit, and my wife thought better of attempting to carry a human pizza oven through the heat of an Atlanta summer. Instead, he came in the month without football when the weather was cold enough that, on good nights, she needed a single sheet over her to stay warm while I froze under three blankets. She didn't need to have a baby in summer: she carried the season with her in bold disregard for the calendar's conventions.
She reclined on the bed and slept for a while. In terms of labor, we got off easy: a late induction, eight hours of pure, hellacious suck, and then the epidural that landed her sleeping on the bed during the break. If you've been in a hospital overnight, you know it floats in its own plane of existence. No one walks the halls. The sound of intermittent moaning and murmuring nurses break the slience. Sleep deprivation makes the sound of the ice machine spitting fresh cubes into the bin seem like a crashing omen of bad, uncontrollable things. In the room, machines beep and whirr in rhythm.
On the street outside in downtown Atlanta, I watched one guy in two hours walk down the sidewalk, a tall, wispy man dragging a ragged piece of rolling, wobbling luggage so pitiful a more loving owner would have shot it. The wife slept on. Sitting on the couch I felt like Michael Collins in the Apollo 11 command module, staring out the window at a howling nothing and time that wouldn't move fast enough for me, death, or birth. In the middle of the night in a hospital, everyone's alone no matter how many people are there.
In the morning, there was one more person in the room than there was the night before. If you drive out west for long distances, you will not see a sign for a destination until it is at least theoretically within a long day's drive, which out west can be a mind-boggling distance. When you finally see it, a veil of certainty creeps in: this is where you are going, this is where you have been, and you are progressing to this place, slowly perhaps and across long distances, but towards that place nonetheless.
Seeing your child born is the best moment in your life, but it's also a sign indicating mileage and distance. We're moving on here, and the end of this road is [X miles] ahead. You don't see the number, but you know it's there, and that without exits, stops, or pee breaks, you are running headlong toward it without stops. It doesn't change anything, but technically neither does the warning light on the gas gauge coming on in your car. Things might be the same, but you are decidedly not.
It was cold when we took him home for the first time. The wind whipped right around the side of Crawford Long Hospital. It cut right through me like it never had before.
Months later, it still does. If you're born without an emotion chip, this part can be installed at a later date. if you choose not to order this part, it will be forcibly installed upon the birth of your first child. Systems calibration will not be offered and is not available anywhere. Systems may overload unexpectedly and without warning. No recalls will be made, and no improvements made on this faulty part. No apologies, The Management.
Other parents will tell you it "makes you realize what's important." This is partially true, if only in the sense that it makes you realize everything is important. I have gone from being a casual guest at the restaurant of life to a part owner, and it all terrifies and obsesses me. The lack of salt in the shakers before the lunch rush concerns me in a way it never did before. The empty tables on a Friday night fill me with dread. The pleasure of a well-organized kitchen working in perfect sync delights me like it never could before, and so does its collapse into complete anarchy. I no longer leave the plates on the table and assume someone else will bus them away, and I will not walk into a restaurant ten minutes before closing time and order food, because the person behind the grill is me. (And this is a dick move, and the last person I want to be a dick to is me.)
It is in part because you have something depending on you, but also because this space and time just became more finite and precious. It is the first bite of fall in the air of an endless summer, the hint that you have crossed into something else, something with falling leaves, a chill in the air, and a gradual shortening of the literal and metaphorical days.
Camus makes a guest appearance here again:
In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
Summer's never been my favorite season. Fall, however, is. I don't have a clue what will happen with John Brantley, or the Florida defense, or to Alabama, or Georgia, or Michigan, or USC, or Western Kentucky, or any other team. There are depth charts, and rosters, and points spreads and buses and planes headed to various points to play on various fields. Everything but those is filling the space between diversions staged to liven up the otherwise dull expanse of a working week.
I do know, however, that, like everything else, this experience, this randomness we do each fall means so much more to me now than it did before. It is not enough to admit that your seriousness becomes that much more serious when you reproduce. Your arbitrary passions, your silliness, your distractions become that much more intense now, if only because you understand how limited a resource they are. The whistle blows. The conferences order themselves. Then you will face the winter again, holding the note and understanding the urge to write those words on a sheet of paper: "Football Season Is Over."
The experience, though, is now more than enough. The wind may cut through me now. It’s an indicator that I’m alive, completely and fully alive in the indefinite span between arrivals and departures. This all matters so much more now, all of it, football and every other absurd fixation, the time, the space, the diversion, and most of all who you share it with, because it is finite, borrowed, and ultimately reclaimed. Its scarcity is its value; its pleasure is in its ultimate end. Its consolation is its rebirth and continuation.
In the depth of winter I finally learned there was in me an eternal September. This definite, very real September I'm writing in, however, is the only place and time I want or need. Football season is over; football season has begun. The rest is life, and it can and will wait until February, the question that always answers itself by becoming March, and then April, and then back to September again, where we do not root for Tennessee, because that is simply not done here.