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'Why Football Matters': Mark Edmundson plays defense

Football is a complicated American rite of passage.

Football is a complicated American rite of passage. Credit: iStock

WHY FOOTBALL MATTERS: My Education in the Game, by Mark Edmundson. Penguin Press, 229 pp., $26.95.

First, a confession: I'm a football failure.

My father and three older brothers all played high school football. Though I tried to follow their lead, I was too small and too slow. I possessed grit and courage, but they were no compensation for lack of talent. Quitting my junior high team -- giving up my uniform, slinking out of the locker room -- was the most humiliating moment of my youth.

Mark Edmundson, on the other hand, transformed himself from a large but pudgy teenager into a gamer, if not a starter, as a guard and linebacker on his suburban, working-class Boston high school team. He had been a poor student, without a vision of his future. But that experience of working tirelessly at a difficult task, he contends, made all the difference. He's now an honored teacher and distinguished professor of English at the University of Virginia.

Edmundson, whose books include "Why Teach?" and "Why Read?," wants to be a contrarian here, to establish an intellectually respectable defense of the sport, but he continually has to backtrack and admit to its dark side. For every virtue in the game, he admits, there are two vices.

Football teaches character, hard work, courage, both winning and losing with dignity -- all important life lessons. It also encourages brutality, thoughtlessness, mindless conformity and submission to authority, herd mentality, intolerance of gentleness and empathy, and a lack of imagination and inventiveness. What's more, it's often tied to blind patriotism and foolish religiosity.

For a teenager like Edmundson, the virtues worked their magic. Football was the catalyst pushing him to lift weights and lose weight, to try something hard, fail, try again, until on some level he succeeded. The feeling of accomplishment, of being a part of something larger than himself, gave him confidence and direction that he previously lacked.

For some boys, it takes a coach to cut through adolescent miseries and inspire a sense of purpose. In his senior year, Edmundson also was lucky to have a philosophy teacher who forced him to think about life's larger questions and his place in it. "Philosophy and football," he writes, "saved me."

Because football is a game of hit and be hit, analogies to war come naturally. But the author rightly argues that the game's strict rules of conduct and hand-to-hand style of combat make it an idealized version of warfare. "Football looks more heroic than it is," he writes, "and the Army looks more glamorous than it could ever be."

The game's casual absorption of religion (usually Christianity) into its rituals, Edmundson believes, amounts to idolatry and hypocrisy. Prayers before and after games only make religion seem silly: Does God really care whether the Medford Mustangs win the contest? And the disconnect between the gentle gospel of Jesus -- turn the other cheek, forgive your enemies -- and football's ferocity is startlingly obvious.

During Edmundson's adolescence, his family suffered a terrible blow, the death of his 6-year-old sister. Mark and his younger brother soldiered through in different ways. The tragedy drove his father further into drink and his mother into a wrenching period of mourning. Yet she somehow mustered the strength to hold the family together.

So Edmundson knows that football isn't for everyone, even every male. There are many ways to learn the home truth: When life knocks you down, you have to pick yourself up.

"Why Football Matters" is a nuanced defense of the game in the guise of a memoir, or vice versa. I can't decide. But I won't soon forget his father's admiration for Jim Brown's power and grace and Y.A. Tittle's willing himself to greatness, the grimy grunt work behind all the on-field heroics, the gradual awakening of this working-class youth.

And let's not forget the racist slurs, the coaches' taunting and in-your-face barking, and the night that three teammates broke the windows at the local ice-cream parlor while Edmundson looked on, too stunned to try to stop the mayhem.

He calls the game "potentially ennobling, potentially toxic." I'm just as ambivalent. Football taught me I was a failure. I had to look elsewhere to learn otherwise. Yet every September, I'm primed and HDTV-ready for a season of goal-line stands and last-minute touchdowns.

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