I can't hear anything but the air going in and out of me and the dull concussion of my feet on the turf as I run. Just as the ball gets there, I put my head down and get my right shoulder into him. I wrap my arms around him, and the ball pops loose, and I hear the wind go out of him. My momentum takes us down the grass a few yards, him folded neatly over my shoulder as if I'm hauling him out of a burning house, until I finally collapse forward and plant him clean. I'd seen Nitschke do it on television, and Butkus and Huff. He goes down flat on his back, and I can feel his weight against the ground, and then mine, our pads clattering, and then the silence. It felt good to hit him. Electric. No higher consciousness, no intellect, no self--only muscle and fat and bone and an effervescent brain stem. That's what I remember: how good it felt to hit another human being as hard as I could.
It was the kind of tackle you'd roar for if you'd come to watch 12year-old boys play football, but if there was cheering I couldn't hear it. I just remember running and breathing and that impact, helmet ringing, and the weird sense it gave me of being real, of being something other than an idea I kept in my own head. It was a ferocious sensation of being actual.
DO WE ASK TOO MUCH OF SPORTS? OR DO THEY ASK TOO much of us? We ask that sports not only reveal our character but create it. We ask that athletes not just entertain us but transform us. That they make us somehow better. And not just here in Fortress America, either, as is often asserted by the critics, but on every continent. The cults of Schumacher or Beckham or Woods respect no borders, and fanaticism of every kind makes its home everywhere. Man United? If only.
Even those few of us indifferent to sports are surrounded by them, by the stunning ad campaigns and by the criminal trials, by the cult of celebrity and by our worship of the zero-sum result. We are a competitive species, sure, but sports have infected our accounting of nearly everything. Why else the presidential horse race, the weekly box score of box office "winners" and "losers"?
We swim in the language of sports, in the business-school rhetoric of up-by-the-jockstrap metaphor, in the wrongheaded militarism of the halftime pep talk; the "slam-dunk" masquerading as foreign policy, the game-as-war self-importance and the war-as-game reductionism.
It is a commonplace among the eggheads that athletes are a society's surrogates, the gladiators for our pitiless alter egos. I'm not so sure I buy that these days, or the notion that sports, contact sports especially, offer us any kind of healthy collective release of our cultural aggressions.
Look around at the parents screaming at their tiny Pee-Wee Leaguers and ask yourself this: If we had more football, would we have less war?
SPORTS BELONG ON THE NEWS CONTINUUM SOMEWHERE between the headlines 1,000 now dead in iraq and DOCTOR FINDS $650 WORTH OF COINS IN PATIENT'S BELLY.
For 50 years that's where Sports Illustrated has tried to make sense of things, making its own small place in history by sorting and cataloging the sublime and the ridiculous, by taking the work seriously but never the subject, by finding the sacred moment in the ongoing vaudeville and letting some air out of the pomp and pretension.
I'm only three years younger than this magazine, and it has been in my house from the day I was old enough to read it. I am old enough now to know that there is no making sense of sports, or society, really. There is only the endless hunt to uncover the small truths about who we think we are.