THE PLAY unfolded in our backyard, a rural patch of north Florida invaded by the occasional possum and dotted with Vesuvian anthills, which, if you used your imagination, would suffice as blockers.
My big brother, Mike, had explained all the angles to my four-year-old sensibilities, though I'm not sure how I heard him. He'd placed a helmet on my head that was so outsized, its ear holes rested atop my shoulders. Yet I was ready, a defender lined up in a three-point stance. With a shout of "Hut!" Mike, all of seven, picked up the football and churned toward me, moving with the slow, deliberate strides of a man on the moon. As my outstretched fingers brushed his belt loop, Mike collapsed in a heap of exaggeration: flat on his back, eyes closed, tongue out. I'd just made the greatest tackle in the history of Suwannee County.
I would become the best sprinter in the state when I beat Mike in races to the car door or the cookie jar. I would become the shrewdest Battleship player this side of Milton Bradley when I'd yell out B-9,099, and Mike would proclaim, "You sank my battleship!" even when there was no B-9,099. He protected me from bugs, bogeymen and disappointment.
Our moments together are spliced in my memory from jerky home movies, Polaroids and family tales. My first clear recollection of Mike is from sometime after my tackling primer, when he darted across the yard and, for no reason, tilted and fell.
I will never understand why my mind captured this instant and then held it as a lifelong keepsake. His tumble could have been just a screwy loss of balance. What I know is that my parents, Mike and I soon moved to Jacksonville in early 1971 to be near a hospital that treated children with brain tumors.
By November, Mike was gone, at age nine. Grief stretched into months of silence at our house. The only sound at dinner was that of ice cubes settling in the tea. Car rides were quiet except when my dad mindlessly tapped his wedding ring against the steering wheel. I played Battleship alone, conditioned to whisper the coordinates of aircraft carriers. My parents sat apart on our couch, looking right through Sonny and Cher, lost in separate thoughts, in separate mourning.
Sadness rarely gave way to joy until well into 1972. I remember showing my dad a Crayola creation of mine: a Miami Dolphin, with a fish on the helmet that looked more like a slug. He laughed. That was a start.
My parents adored the Dolphins. My mom was a math junkie, so she loved the precision angles of Bob Griese's pass plays and coach Don Shula's perfectly square jaw. My dad believed there was no better football name than Nick Buoniconti and taught me to spell Larry Csonka without a z.
Every Sunday that fall another Miami victory provided another dose of lightness to help offset my parents' leaden emptiness. I wouldn't dare simplify sorrow by describing the undefeated '72 Dolphins as faith healers for my family—my parents' marriage didn't survive in the end—but I can recall how the team brought relief to our home if only as conversation filler, if only as a vehicle for the return of sound.
We talked about the Dolphins on car rides in our Plymouth Fury, at dinner in our kitchen nook and between commercials on TV. And with each win in '72—can you believe that Earl Morrall? how about the moves of Mercury Morris?—the topic grew bigger, louder, more wonderful.