Remember September? Pat Summerall would say, "So long from Lambeau Field," followed—after a beat—by the tick-tick-tick of the 60 Minutes stopwatch, which itself counted down the seconds until Dad brought our discount "family steak" in from the grill.
September meant Saturday afternoons spent waiting—always an eternity into the scoreboard shows—for the oddly comforting mention of Slippery Rock, whose exotic campus was presumably perched on a sea-swept crag, like the very logo of the Prudential Halftime Report.
Even now, every September, I have an irresistible impulse to buy spiral notebooks, and to throw a small green rubber football, and to insist that my mother—when back-to-school shopping—spring for Levi's cords and Adidas Italias. She would always nod patiently, and then buy Sears Toughskins and four-striped Thorn McAns. Still I would run like Walter Payton during recess games of Smear the Queer, a name that was entirely innocent to a nine-year-old.
On Monday night, when Hank Williams Jr. asks if I'm ready for some football, I will answer, "Yes." But what I'm really ready for is the old Monday Night theme—a fanfare for Dandy, Howard and the Giffer, who appeared on the Zenith in my living room in canary-yellow blazers, like Century 21 agents. I would lie prone on the orange shag carpeting with my chin in my hand and my Thorn McAns in the air and beg my parents to let me stay up for Howard's halftime highlights. If they said yes, I crossed my fingers and hoped for footage of Billy (White Shoes) Johnson, whose full-bladder end-zone dance (during which he would mouth, "Hi, Mom") we imitated at the bus stop the next morning.
September is here, so I have a sudden urge to boil (and thus formfit) a mouth guard, whose edges I would chew like cud as it hung from my face mask when I stood on the sideline in Pee Wee football, marinating in Off! Deep Woods mosquito repellent, which is in fact an insect aphrodisiac. After practice, and after homework, I would put on my football-uniform pajamas, descend to the basement and boot epic 65-yard field goals with Super Toe, the plastic placekicker whose powerful right leg was activated by a punch on the top of the helmet. If Super Toe was broken, as he always was, I would flick field goals through index-finger uprights with a densely folded triangle of notebook paper. If that got old, as it quickly did, I'd fire up the ancient Electric Football game and watch the players jump like popcorn kernels in a Jiffy Pop pan. Because it was not possible, at that age, to get my fill of football.
On Friday nights, a mile from my home, the Lincoln High School stadium lights were visible above the trees, an oval halo on the horizon. The marching band played big brassy versions of contemporary pop hits. The bass drum echoed like a sonic boom and reached us across all that distance, as my friends and I played backyard football and hoped someday to be Lincoln Bears. So when we heard, drifting in on an autumn breeze, the Lincoln band's tuba-intensive cover of Shake Your Booty—well, a kid could scarcely tell his mosquito bites from his goose bumps.
September, and that first nippy air, has always meant more than football. There are pennant races, which used to play out in the long shadows of late afternoon. There is U.S. Open tennis, redolent of McEnroe and Connors and all the other rogues who were buzzed at Flushing Meadow by those commercial air carriers that evoke a more glamorous era: Pan Am, Eastern and Braniff. Yet, this week, I am dwelling not so much on tennis as on Tennyson.
"Tears, idle tears," wrote the poet, "I know not what they mean.... In looking on the happy autumn fields, and thinking of the days that are no more."
Ten years ago this week—on Sept. 5, 1991—my mom abruptly passed away. So, for a time, did my ardor for sports (the center of so much family life) and sportswriting (for it was she who taught me to read and write, and she whom I wanted to impress in print). A scant six weeks after her death, our hometown Twins won the World Series, and the happy event served, in some small way, as a kind of anesthetic. I eventually regained my enthusiasm for sports, and for sportswriting.
However, I will never forget sitting at the dinner table, four siblings and I, trying to make Mom laugh so hard that she'd have to spring from her chair and bolt to the bathroom, lest she pee her pants. This actually happened on a couple of occasions. Indeed it is, to this day, all that I'm trying to do as a writer. If you'll indulge me, then, this one time, I'd like to make like Billy (White Shoes) Johnson and say: "Hi, Mom."