T.S. Eliot And The Four Mississippi Rush (Yes, I’m Ready For Some NFL Football)


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I read T.S. Eliot back in college, partly because I liked him but mostly to feign a certain bistro erudition that might impress girls. Poetry was great that way, it could mean whatever you wanted it to mean. Of course, the graduate teaching assistants in the English Department could tell instantly what a literary lightweight I was, but that was fine because they weren’t the ones I was trying to impress. As I’ve gotten older, the final stanza from “The Hollow Men” has stayed with me:

This is the way the world ends   

This is the way the world ends   

This is the way the world ends   

Not with a bang but a whimper.

I am amazed at how many childhood activities, good things, seem to have passed away not with a bang but a whimper. Quietly yet irretrievably, they simply are no more. I don’t know exactly when it happened, and I doubt anyone does. These aren’t the kinds of changes you can mark with nautical precision. As the beloved 2016 National Football League Season kicks off Thursday night, I recall with nostalgia the one childhood activity I miss most of all: backyard tackle football.

Fear of injury surely explains part of the demise. After all, concussions are serious stuff, no longer simply “getting your bell rung” as our youth-league coaches, thumbs confidently tucked in snug polyester shorts, called them. That and the modern tendency to over-plan the details of our children’s lives in all the ways our parents did not. Born of blessed circumstance in days B.I. (Before Internet) of afterschool hours spent unsupervised, the pick-up football game was the exact opposite of a play-date. With all of its glorious moving parts, it was the quintessential neighborhood activity that kids had to organize for themselves. It is sad to see this tradition fade, fierce collisions and all, this game for all seasons.

Winter football, with Dorito-breath visible in the trenches of our own frozen tundra. Gloved and scarved though we may have been, we were parka-clad warriors one and all. Warriors indeed – an 85 pounder could pass as a fullback with the right sweater under his thick down jacket. Spring football, where the hits got harder as the ground got softer. Summer football, the least desirable playing season, so hot that even well water from the hose refreshed, but we still gathered. Fall football, the ultimate proving ground for middle school heroes.

It was timeless, and mindful that sports metaphors can be overdone, it’s still worth recalling the big things we learned in these little contests:

Honor – Four Mississippi Rush, the mandatory cadence at the line of scrimmage before you could rush the quarterback. If you were quick on your count when rushing, you could bet your opponent would return the favor when you had the football.

Improvisation – One blitz per four downs, and two completions for a first down. These proxies for justice developed in the absence of flat green expanses and, of course, referees.

Perseverance – The gridiron itself, always an uneven playing surface and often dangerously so, with phantom dips and rogue trees that made routes across the middle particularly daring. But you knew the tougher it was running uphill, the easier it would be going the other way.

Self-awareness – The dreaded draft. It was never fun being picked last, but in that unvarnished wisdom of crowds was a candid assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. There certainly were no trophies for showing up.

Judgment – Knowing when to run to daylight, and when to follow your blockers.

Accountability – Losers Walk, the rule that the team scored upon had to take the long walk to the other side of the field to receive the kick. Why tax victory, for as Navy SEALs like to say, it pays to be a winner.

Creativity – Being quarterback and in the huddle, drawing up the next play on your chest. What could be better than this, the conspiratorial midriff sketching of routes, with tone hushed and back turned from the defense’s prying eyes and ears?

Joy, when the defense bit and a complex play worked exactly as drawn up. Teamwork in celebrations that included everyone who got you to the end zone. Best of all, the brotherhood of shirts-and-skins, where oneness of team transcended differences of race and creed. It wasn’t just American, it was America.

Come to think of it, we could use a little more backyard tackle football today.

Read poems by T.S. Eliot, including “The Hollow Men”