If you love autumn, you probably look forward to the vivid colors, the sweet evocative scent of decaying leaves, and the faraway hint of a bonfire as you stroll in the crisp, thin air.
That's all well and good, but autumn really means football. The advent of a new season is a time when hope is alive, and anticipation fills the hearts of everyone with a team and a dream. Mixed in with the organic fragrances of autumn is a keyed up, romantic sense that this could be The Season. If the autumn air doesn't take your mind down this path, it should.
Last fall, after a fourth straight narrow loss by the Buffalo Bills, my friend Todd --- also an ardent Bills fan --- called me. "Hello?" "It's only football," he said without a greeting. I already knew this. I had been pacing back and forth in front of the television the entire fourth quarter, whispering that loser's mantra as a palliative gesture to myself. It's only football. If your team loses, it has no bearing on your family's health. It won't affect your career. The loss won't steal your wallet, flood your basement, crash your car, or kill your pets. It's only football.
But it's not only football. The men who make up your team are not just playing in a game; they're performing in a traditional American drama in four acts. They are your hometown represented on a national stage; they are your guys conspiring together, giving up their bodies to try to beat their guys.
I think it was Plato who said "the games reflect what is most desired in the society." We want our team to win a championship because, whether we realize it or not, we need to feel like winners; we have a need to be a part of something heroic, something that can't be taken away once it's achieved. And let's face it, the things many of us do on a daily basis --- the paper shuffling, the phone calls, the meetings --- aren't particularly heroic. Cheering for our gladiators in the coliseum isn't a bad way to break up the tedium of our relatively tranquil lives, is it?
Football is a game in which the team concept is paramount, and individual players are mere cogs in a machine programmed specifically for its current opponent. It's a game of brute force and strategic finesse, one-on-one battles and overarching tactical concepts. In a country whose oldest motto is "don't tread on me," football is the most popular sport not because it's a metaphor for war and land acquisition, but because it's the metaphor for war and land acquisition. And no, this doesn't mean you have to be into war to be into football. It was Alan Ginsberg, of all people, who said that he watches "for the display of the human form divine." There's something for everyone in this great game.
Those who dislike or are indifferent to football tend to incorrectly assume it's a game of brawn, a game of muscled thugs imparting structured violence on other muscled thugs. Fans of the game know better. We know it's a game of brains, and it uses strength, speed, and the element of surprise to carry out its commands.
There are also great values to be found in football. Vince Lombardi, the namesake for the trophy that every NFL coach, player, and fan covets, said many things about the game that are now legendary, such as "the harder you work, the harder it is to surrender," and "the individual commitment to a group effort --- that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work." This rings true if not consciously, then subconsciously in the minds of anyone teaching, playing, covering, or merely watching the game.
Football fans take their team's status in the NFL personally. If your team is 0-7, there's a sense that the whole organization, or perhaps the entire city, is a model of incompetence. Ask fans of the Cincinnati Bengals or Arizona Cardinals how it feels to be the butt of all the jokes on ESPN, year after year. Nobody expects to win 'em all, but please, let us at least be contenders. Let us prove ourselves. It's epic stuff.
What else is in it for you? Well, if you become a passionate fan of any football team, you'll know you're alive every Sunday. Over a three-hour span you'll feel anticipation, a dash of worry, intermittent thrill and vexation, and finally, either jubilation or misery. What other television programs can penetrate on this level?
Part of the game's charm is its unpredictability. You never want to miss a single play in a good game because it might be the most amazing play you've ever seen, or the most infuriating gaffe you've ever seen. There aren't many sure things in the NFL --- no sure bets, no easy wins. Any team can beat any other team. It's simply great television.
So, if you're not a fan of football, give it a shot. You'll learn the game as you go --- it's not as complicated as it might seem. And if you're on the fence or not yet a fan of the Buffalo Bills, tune in and get acquainted. They have a first-year quarterback, but he plays an exciting brand of football, and the team genuinely believes it has a chance.
This sense of hope, even if it's naïve hope, is what makes football important. It's a unique American tradition that brings friends, family, and strangers together in celebration and commiseration. It's a point of common interest that bonds people who would otherwise be strangers. It allows us to imagine what it will be like to see the team we've followed all these years finally, at long last, win the Big One.