Are you ready for some football?

Mary Katharine Ham

9/5/2006 12:01:00 AM - Mary Katharine Ham

Where I come from, the air sweats this time of year. Sweats hard. The soft whisper that was the spring air has been hitting the weights all summer long. By late August, it’s just learned to lug its new bulk through a series of wind sprints, and it’s hurtin’ from the exertion. The result is heavy and thick. It slows the mosquitoes down, making them easily swattable out of mid-air.

That gummy, summer air is the bane of every football player who pulls on full pads and helmet for late-summer dailies or two-a-days. They stand under the sticky canopy, in line for drills, flicking mosquitoes away by the dozen, hoping the air doesn’t gum them up enough to make them similar targets for linebackers.

They ponder that thought lazily, wiping sweaty hands on slick pants until a whistle blows, and they explode off the line, grab the ball, find the hole, and beat back the air and the O-men on the strength of a summer spent on the leg press.

It’s football season, and football season requires a column on the simple greatness of football. So, without further dallying, my top football memories.

I don’t know how old I was when I learned the rules of football—my guess is just old enough to count to four downs and 10 yards. But I remember where I was. I was on the front row in the end zone of a college stadium, in the direct sun of a Georgia summer. I sat between my brothers, and all three of us sat between both of our parents, who taught us about “moving the chains,” fourth downs, and fumbles. When I sat among the sea of college students, primped and proper as Sunday morning, in strapless dresses and shirts and ties—all in school colors—I realized there was something very important about this football thing.

I remembered that stadium when I was picking colleges, and I went back to the University of Georgia because I thought four more years of SEC football would be a nice complement to my degree. One season, a lovely fall night became a whole lot lovelier when Georgia beat rival Tennessee, 21-10. It became downright legendary when half the stadium dove onto the field to celebrate the victory.

The girls hiked up skirts and dresses, leaving high-heels behind. The guys ripped slacks on the storied hedges that line the field. Only problem was, there was still 1:13 left on the clock. All right, all right, so we hadn’t beaten Tennessee in a while. Or, maybe we just wanted to rush the field twice in one game.

After college, I covered football in a very small town where I knew no one. I used to jog around the high-school football field, scouting out the local team I’d heard so much about as they slogged through evening practices. This was the kind of town where late-August evening practice draws a crowd other high schools wish for on a Friday night.

My first friends in town were the football fans I met on those summer nights. Among them was Steve Brewington, a lineman on the ’73 team who loved to tell me about the old days. He and his buddies—also class of ’73—would argue about who threw which pass and who sacked which quarterback to win which game. About a year after I met him, Steve died of heart failure just four days shy of the season opener. I sat with his family on the first Friday night game of that season. They left Steve’s seat open for him all season—end seat, top row, Section 6. There was also an empty chair by the practice field in memory of a very dedicated fan and a great friend and father.

Of course, the weather isn’t always sunny during football season. I once covered a semi-pro football game where it rained so hard that the wooden bleachers sunk noticeably into the swampy ground under just my weight, as I was the only one contractually obligated to stick around for mediocre football during a monsoon. If you’re not familiar with rural, semi-pro football, picture “The Longest Yard II: Chicken-Plant Workers vs. Cotton Mill Employees.” But they’ve got heart! A curtain of water poured over the bill of my hat, turning my notebook into yellow mush, and I left a puddle under my desk as I tried to write a football story without stats.

Then, there’s football in the snow—a phenomenon we Southern football fans don’t often get to experience. I still haven’t seen a game played live in the snow, but I did get an invitation to Pittsburgh to watch the Super Bowl this year, and I know a good football fieldtrip when I hear one. So, I went. I ended up in a Pittsburgh sports bar with a group of appropriately rowdy locals, trying to avoid decapitation-by-Terrible-Towel.

When the final whistle blew, there was about a half-inch of snow on the ground in Pittsburgh, and a light flurry falling while the whole town danced in the streets. A dozen different Steeler fight songs bounced between buildings, punctuated by car horns, all of it under an incongruously peaceful snowfall shimmering in the glow of the streetlamps. Of course, I had forgotten to take Pittsburgh’s weather into account, so I ended up dancing in my flip-flops and a long-sleeved tee-shirt. It was the coldest I’ve ever been, but I danced.

These days, I don’t get to as many football games as I used to. I don’t get the chance to travel to Georgia or spend a Friday night under the lights very often. But there is a practice field for youth football down the street from my apartment.

I walked by that field the other day and watched a tiny little linebacker—couldn’t have been more than 7—talk to his coach. All I could see of the little football player was spindly arms, legs, and torso dwarfed by a giant orange helmet. If you had set him on a desk, he could easily have been a bobble-head. The little linebacker was evidently unhappy about a sprinting drill the coach had planned.

His coach towered over him. “What’s wrong with you?”

The little linebacker was still. “What are you having an attitude about?”

The little line backer was still. “Oh, I know what you wanna do. You wanna hit somebody, don’t you? Do you wanna hit somebody!?!”

The little linebacker’s head bobbled furiously—up, down, up down, up, down—the giant helmet slipping back and forth on his toothpick neck.

Can’t wait to see that kid play someday. New memories in the making.

What are your memories? Feel free to leave them in comments or write me an e-mail and I’ll put the best ones on the Townhall Blog. Happy Football Season!