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A lot of my dreams are about sports.

This isn't odd; a lot of people who grew up doing the things I did would have the same sorts of subjective experiences while asleep. Most people think it's tedious to hear about someone else's dreams so most of us don't talk about it much, at least not until someone else brings up the nightmare of not being able to get inside the stadium as they're announcing your turn at bat.

That's not my dream, it was Mickey Mantle's. But it's easy to recognize the panic and yearning implicit in it. You wake up in a kind of comic frustration, having been prevented from getting off that last second shot by Barney the Dinosaur's tenacious D. (Cue the Jason Isbell song "Chaos and Clothes": Nobody ever wants to hear about my dreams.)

Anyway, things turned out very differently than I thought they would when I was 10 or 12 or even 13 years old. Had you asked what I was going to do when I grew up back then, I would have told you pretty confidently I intended to play either professional baseball or basketball, or maybe both if the schedules could be worked out.

But I knew my limitations. I couldn't be Willie Mays. I was probably more Nellie Fox or Glenn Beckert. I figured if I couldn't be Elgin Baylor or Jerry West, I could at least be Gail Goodrich.

For someone who was usually the second (or maybe third) best player on his teams, I held onto unrealistic expectations for a very long time, in part because I believed in some of the myths my coaches promulgated about desire--the "wanting it"--being the greater half of athletic success. I remember reading in a John R. Tunis book about an undersized shortstop who was able to will himself bigger when the occasion arose, and I thought if the boy in the story could do it, then maybe I could too.

I couldn't. You can't either. And neither can Michael Jordan or Tom Brady.

For the record, I don't think Brady is the greatest of all time. John Unitas is, realizing that's a faith-based belief. To be more analytic about it, it's Joe Montana. Or maybe it's Brady, though I'd really prefer the GOAT to be older than I am. Most of us are like that--things were never better than they were when we were 12 years old.

Which happens to be about the time I stopped being a passionate pro football fan. I stopped playing the game in ninth grade, after discovering most of the down linemen doubled my weight and some of them might be able to catch me. (If it helps, I was a mediocre flag football quarterback on a bad intramural team in college.) I haven't paid granular attention to the game since just about the time the Dolphins' "leetle keeker" Garo Yepremian threw that ill-fated pass in Super Bowl VII.

While maintaining some interest in the Terry Bradshaw-era Steelers, my interest in the NFL tapered off in the '80s and '90s. These days I can watch part of a game now and then and follow the sports pages, Deadspin and ESPN. I can hold my own in conversations with Philly cab drivers. But I don't really know football. And though, as a spectator sport, football presents as a simplistic contest over territory, you can't really know football unless you're deeply involved in it. There's a reason offensive linemen have to be intelligent, there's a reason coaches spend 80 hours a week or more trying to do their jobs. Football only looks like a simple game.

A lot of the people who comment on it don't know anything either. People like Tony Romo, Troy Aikman and Mark Schlereth know things we don't, and sometimes struggle to communicate the nuances of the game to us dunderheads. (The unwillingness to admit nuance is perhaps the biggest problem facing American society; people would rather be entertained than educated and prefer to be reassured rather than right.) The guy mansplaining "cover two" to the bored couple at your Super Bowl party likely doesn't know anything (and wouldn't it be great if they could conjure up a corrective Bill Belichick like Woody Allen did Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall?).

Football is at best a problematic and brutal game. Even before chronic traumatic encephalopathy was something to worry about, no one thought getting one's bell rung was actually good for you. Football is by its nature a gladiatorial sport. There's always been something darkly pagan about its rituals.

And pro football has always been a nakedly commercial enterprise, which makes it a bit more honest than the collegiate variety. As well paid as they may be by some standards, players have always been disposable. Every player can figure on limping--if they're lucky--away from the game.

But few of them regret having played the game, just like most old dreamers don't regret the games we played. I don't believe the lies coaches tell any more, but don't think most of them mean anything but well, and sports can provide both genuine joy and real lessons to those who play.

I think I have a little more insight on the games I used to play than the casual fan. I think I can enjoy watching a baseball or basketball game a little more because of knowing some things that might not be apparent to someone who hasn't played the game. I have an appreciation for how hard it is to hit a soft fade into an island green, for how unsteady you can feel over a two-foot putt. Sports teaches you a lot of things, and the main thing it teaches you--unless you are supremely gifted or impressively thick--is humility. Because there is no better way to discover your limitations than through athletic competition.

No matter who you are, there is always someone better. And if there isn't, just wait. There will be.

Not even Brady can keep doing it forever. Except maybe in his dreams.


Editorial on 02/04/2018

Print Headline: The stuff of dreams, desires and GOATs

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