Even if a man has played, he can watch what happens with amazement: How did I do the things these men do? How did I survive?
"I stood on the sidelines next to the team doctor in Cleveland watching my first game the season after I retired," says Calvin Hill, a running back with the Cowboys, the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Browns from 1969 to '81. "Someone really got hit on a particular play. I turned to the doctor and said, 'You'd better be getting out there, that guy really took a hit.' The doctor said, it's nothing. Calvin, you got hit three or four times a game like that.' Your mind just doesn't let you remember. I met a guy last year who said he met me in the nursery the day my son was born. His own son was born the same day. He said his biggest memory of the day was that I was really limping bad from some game, that I looked awful. I couldn't remember that at all. Just that my son was born. I think it's your wife who remembers better than you do, seeing you with all of the ice bags and stuff."
"I find myself watching games and saying, 'Wow, did I do that?' " Mike Singletary, linebacker for the Chicago Bears from 1981 to '92, says. "I don't like to watch games with other people. They'll say, 'How could he miss that tackle? How could he drop that ball?' They don't know all the things that are going on, whether someone is hurt or if he has emotional problems. This is a game—whether you're broke or getting divorced or if you robbed a bank or your mom is sick, whatever—where you'd better be going on all cylinders. People just don't know what's going on. Then, again, I find myself sometimes saying, 'Hey, why didn't he catch that ball?' "
The game has never flown better across the American sky than it does right now. Baseball is on strike. Basketball has lost its biggest names. Hockey is hockey. Only a year ago there were labor problems in the NFL, and there were doubts about how much money the new television contract was going to provide, and there was talk about how boring the action had become—too many field goals cluttering up the scene. All those worries seem gone. The labor agreement has created movement and change on rosters, bad teams gaining at least the appearance of improvement, while at the same time the Cowboys have a chance to become the first team to win three Super Bowls in a row. The television money from Fox is yet another record. Rule changes have made the field goal less important.
"What has really surprised me is the effect a football team can have on a community," one of the league's new owners, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, says. "There are other things I could be doing with my money, but it wouldn't be doing as much good. My wife and I could give half a million dollars a year to the community in charity and it wouldn't have the effect that buying this team and keeping it here has had. A good football team can make everyone feel just a little bit better."
Pro football as a public service! Who could have thought of that? There will be the debates about the violence and the macho pretensions and the trash talking and the officiating and the inability of certain quarterbacks making "all that money" to throw a simple pass to a fullback in the flat; talk about steroid abuse and suspicious gambling lines and cheerleaders who don't even cheer. Hut none of that will stop the show from becoming bigger and bigger. The highest level could be even higher.
"How about this?" a voice asks from that Hupmobile dealership. "If there's such a thing as television, then why don't we try instant replay? That way we can check on the calls by the officials, make sure they're right."