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Football and Football

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Well, the NFL finally kicked off its regular season. Thank God. I’m not that huge a fan of NFL football. I’ll watch the games, and certainly I enjoy the chilly-nights-in-fall ritual of Monday Night Football. But I don’t have a favorite team and I certainly don’t need to deal with yet another obsession, which is precisely why I decline dozens of invitations to play fantasy football.

But even though I’m just a moderate football fan, I was ecstatic for the regular season to begin this weekend simply because I was sick of training camp and pre-season. The run-up to the NFL kick-off is longer than the holiday shopping season. Good Lord, SportsCenter has been talking about pro football since May and sports fans have been subjected to daily Terrell Owens hamstring reports for about six weeks. At least now the games count. Finally.

Are there any great football books? I read Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream years ago. And I’ve read a handful of good football biographers. But what is the definitive football work of literature? There are tons of great football movies, but I can’t think of too many books. It would definitely be a challenge to write a strong football book now that the game has been completely adulterated by elementary school graphics and sound effects. Maybe it’s just a sign that I’m getting old but I kept wondering, who do they think are watching these broadcasts? Transformers fanatics? Every conceivable second, every conceivable inch of the screen is covered with annoying, moving, shifting, unwrapping graphics. But worse than that is the constant Mario Brothers cacophony of sound effects.

Shit. I sound like my father…

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At the same time that football is kicking off, soccer is also heating up. Here in America, the MLS season is almost over and the playoffs are looming. In Europe, the professional leagues have just begun. If you’re a soccer fan, I must say that I agree with my buddy who describes Fox Soccer Channel as crack. I’ve gotten completely sucked into England’s Premiere League and that obsession has fueled some of my recent reading choices.

I just started The Toon: A Complete History of Newcastle United Football Club and last week, I completed Nick Hornby’s document of obsession with the soccer club Arsenal, Fever Pitch. In this book, Hornby recounts dozens of Arsenal matches, but also sprinkles in tidbits about his own early days as a writer. You don’t have to be a soccer fanatic to enjoy this fine book. One particular passage, involving Arsenal defender Gus Caesar  is particularly relevant to all of us aspiring authors, although it’s not a terribly optimistic tale.

Soon after I had stopped teaching and begun to try to write, I read a book called The Hustler by Walter Tevis. I was much taken by Fast Eddie, the character played by Paul Newman in the film… And as the book seemed to be about anything you wanted to do that was difficult–writing, becoming a footballer, whatever–I paid it special attention. At one point (oh God oh God oh God oh God) I typed these words out on a piece of paper and pinned it above my desk:

“That’s what the whole goddamned thing is: you got to commit yourself to the life you picked. And you picked it–most people don’t even do that. You’re smart and you’re young and you’ve got, like I said before, talent.”

As the rejection slips piled up, these words comforted me; and as I began to panic about the way things that everybody else had, like careers and nice flats and a bit of cash for the weekend, seemed to be slipping out of arm’s reach, friends and family began to try to reassure me. “You know you’re good,” they said. “You’ll be OK. Just be patient.” And I did know I was good, and I had committed myself to the life I had picked, and my friends, and Fast Eddie’s friends, couldn’t all be wrong, so I sat back and waited. I know now that I was wrong, stupid, to do so, and I know because Gus Caesar told me so.

Gus is living proof that this self-belief, this driven sense of vocation (and I am not talking about arrogance here, but the simple healthy self-confidence that is absolutely necessary for survival), can be viciously misleading. Did Gus commit himself to the life he had picked? Of course he did. You don’t get anywhere near the first team of a major First Division football club without commitment. And did he know he was good? He must have done, and justifiably so. Think about it. At school he must have been much, much better than his peers, so he gets picked for the school team, and then some representative side, South London Boys or what have you’ and he’s still better than anyone else in the team, by miles, so the scouts come to watch, and he’s offered an apprenticeship not with Fulham or Brentford or even West Ham but with the mighty Arsenal. And it’s still not over, even then, because if you look at any First Division youth team of five years ago you won’t recognize most of the names, because most of them have disappeared…

But Gus survives, and goes on to play fro the reserves. And suddenly, it’s all on for him… And when Vivi Anderson is suspended over Christmas 1985 Gus makes his debut, as a right-back, at of all places Old Trafford, and we win 1-0 up there, so he’s part of back four that’s kept a clean sheet away at Manchester United…

And when the squad for the England U-21s is announced it’s full of Arsenal players, and Gus Caesar is one of them… He’s in, he’s recognized as one of the best twenty or so young players in the whole country.

[Hornby then recounts some critical mistakes Gus made in a handful of games during the 1987 season]

To get where he did, Gus Caesar clearly had more talent than nearly everyone of his generation (the rest of us can only dream about having his kind of skill) and it still wasn’t quite enough.

Sport and life, especially the arty life, are not exactly analogous. One of the great things about sport is its cruel clarity: there is no such thing, for example, as a bad one-hundred-metre runner, or hopeless centre-half who got lucky; in sport, you get found out. Nor is there such a thing as an unknown genius striker starving in a garret somewhere, because the scouting system is foolproof. (Everyone gets watched). There are, however, plenty of bad actors or musicians or writers making a decent living, people who happened to be in the right place at the right time, or knew the right people, or whose talents have been misunderstood or overestimated. Even so, I think there is a real resonance in the Gus Caesar story: it contains a terrifying lesson for any aspirants who think that their own unshakeable sense of destiny (and again, this sense of destiny is not to be confused with arrogance–Gus Caesar was not an arrogant footballer) is significant. Gus must have known he was good, just as any pop band who has ever played the Marquee know they are destined for Madison Square Garden and an NME front cover, and just as any writer who has sent off a completed manuscript to Faber and Faber knows that he is two years away from the Booker. You trust that feeling with your life, you feel the strength and determination it gives you coursing through your veins like heroin… and it doesn’t mean anything at all.

It’s a delicate balance that we must strike. We must always remain optimistic in our writing careers or else the rejection is enough to grind us down into the raw pulp of a human being. We must always remain confident in our writing abilities or the unfair, unwarranted, and uninformed criticism will reduce us to quivering jello at the sight of a blank sheet of paper. We must remain unwavering in our own feelings of literary destiny.

But, as Hornby points out, plenty of pro athletes are convinced of their own destiny as well. Every aspiring politician is convinced he’s the next Abe Lincoln or George Washington. I doubt too many of them say “you know, really, I’m just trying to emulate Dan Quayle.” And let’s not forget that all those people on American Idol really do, honestly, think they can sing. So the harsh reality is that some of us will not succeed in our endeavors.

There’s no easy answer to this conundrum. Except to keep slogging away, in spite of the odds and setbacks. I guess the sunny side to the story is that Gus Caesar, however his career might have ended, still accomplished something that the vast majority of people never achieve when he walked onto a First Division pitch.

We can only hope, dream, sweat, and bust our asses to be able to say the same thing.