Thanksgiving day has always been a day of general malaise and sloth in my family. We wake up late, over-eat, and take an afternoon nap. So when my brother-in-law invited me to his annual Thanksgiving morning football game, I was both honored and a little uneasy. First of all, football is not a game in which I have ever been proficient. In fact, I have not played any sports in several years (aside from the occasional ping-pong match). This, combined with my brother-in-law's uber-athleticism, set the stage for an eventful and embarrassing morning.
We were awake in the gray twilight of Thanksgiving morning, donning hats, sweatshirts, and running shoes. The heater warmed our already chilled fingers. As we approached the field, we saw several men throwing a ball across the drab green and brown field. Some were friends of my wife's brother, while others were unrecognized by our party.
On the field, we stretched our muscles against the cold and made small talk among friends and new acquaintances. As I looked around at the other men on the field, I could tell that the everyone was sizing up those who they would soon be playing against. It was a nervous anticipation, attempting to determine who would be the star players in this Turkey Day match.
The dozen or more players divided into two rag-tag teams and we dropped orange cones to delineate the boundaries of the field. A brief discussion of tackle verses two-hand touch showed that even the most threatening in stature were not as bold as they appeared. I for one welcomed the idea of playing tackle football. I'm not sure why, but I felt as though a tackle game might even the playing field for those of us who are less suited to the sport. Plus, it takes a lot of force to break a bone that is reinforced by titanium, so I figured that I wouldn't be in any serious harm. We begrudgingly decided on two-hand touch, and began our own amateur grid-iron battle.
What took place over the next two hours was a systematic bludgeoning of my six-and-a-half foot frame by guys who don't understand the meaning of the words "friendly pick-up game". One bruiser in particular enjoyed the word "blitz" way too much, taking every opportunity he could to slam his two-hundred-fifty pound carcass into my chest on his way to our quarterback. I think he delighted in hearing the air escape from my lungs. I'm not sure how I ended up as an offensive lineman, but the job was harrowing.
It turned out that, upon switching to defense, my role as a lineman had its advantages. As a man who weighed in at one-hundred-sixty pounds, I was overlooked as a serious threat to their quarterback. That mentality changed when my opponents realized that, at my height, it took me a third as many steps to reach the man with the ball. After a couple of QB sacks, they stuck me with the same giant hulk who reveled in dislocating my joints, and I was back to the ineffectual performance that everyone expected from the tall, lanky guy in the Iowa State University sweatshirt.
After about two hours of throws, hits, and more turn-overs than anyone is proud to admit, it was obvious that both teams were bedraggled and exhausted. I could feel my legs stiffening from both the cold November air and the excessive exercise. Our coverage was sloppy, but so were the hands of their receivers. Our sprints were more like trots, and our quarterbacks were throwing wilder passes. Finally we all realized that we could go no more. There was no one person who had to emasculate himself by saying he wanted the game to be over. We all just collectively agreed, silently admitting our needs for warmth, turkey, and a glass of spirits.
After we collected our dignity and our belongings and drove away from the field, my joints immediately began stiffening up. Within a few short hours, I was hobbling from room to room like a cowboy who'd just come in off the trails. My body hurt in nuanced ways that I had never experienced before. It was the invigorating pain that comes from using your body to a fuller potential.
The stiffness lingers with me, even days later, but I appreciate the pain. It is a signal to my brain, reminding me that a body cannot be used purely to facilitate the mind. The mind also must push the body. Without one, the other is useless. Because of my neglect, it is going to take some time for my body to recover from that football game. Hopefully by next Thanksgiving, I'll be feeling better.