On Saturday afternoon, as third-ranked Georgia played top-ranked Tennessee in the game of the year so far in college football, I wasn’t watching.
In past years I would be on the couch with my brother, eating pizza and wings, listening to the TV. Instead, I piled into the minivan with my wife and kids, and we drove to Zoo Atlanta.
We arrived a few minutes before kick-off, when many people were leaving. Who goes to the zoo in the game Georgia? It appears, along with an Amish family, the women in bonnets, the men in straw hats.
It was a warm, overcast afternoon, yellow leaves falling from the pecans. A zookeeper told us that there are 100,000 muscles and tendons in an elephant’s trunk. I texted my brother to say I was sorry.
“I miss you,” I wrote. “This is one thing I’m trying to do.”
There were lions on a rock, all brothers, we were told, and two were sleeping, and the third was on the edge of the rock, and it continued to roar. It was a lonely sound. We left but continued to hear that lonely roar in the distance.
I could imagine the sound of the crowd, the marching band, the beat of the drums, the feeling that I was a part of something, a joyful participant in one of our nation’s last rites of reunification. A uniquely American and inherently violent sport.
I still remember when Tim Krumrie broke his leg. I was eight years old, watching Super Bowl XXIII at my grandparents’ house, and Krumrie, a defensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals, went the wrong way while trying to make a tackle and suffered a compound fracture. The replay was shown on TV, and we saw the broken leg again.
The game went on. The game is always on. That was the lesson I learned at 8 years old. Nothing will ever stop the game.
My brother and I were watching two years later when Bo Jackson, one of the greatest athletes of all time, dislocated and fractured his left hip in a playoff game against the Bengals. Jackson’s football career was over, but not the game. The Raiders won.
Later that year, Detroit Lions offensive lineman Mike Utley broke his neck when a Rams player fell on top of him. Although Utley gave a thumbs up as he left the field, he would be crippled for the rest of his life. The game went on. The lions won, 21-10.
We continued to look. Our teams were the Georgia Bulldogs and the Atlanta Falcons. I clenched my jaw. I clenched my teeth. I screamed. There was also that deep, guttural sound, that command that would emerge most of the time in those moments when the other team’s quarterback had the ball, and was running away from our defenders, and seemed about to throw a touchdown or run.
“COME ON!” I would scream. “TAKE ME!”
It was third and goal, the game tied, and Washington’s Robert Griffin III was running toward the end zone. But the Falcons got it. Sean Weatherspoon dropped his shoulder and smashed Griffin’s head. “Legitimate hit, good hit, great game by Sean Weatherspoon,” said one TV analyst. Griffin left the game. Hit by a punch, he was too disoriented to know the score. The game went on. The Falcons won.
By then it was 2012, and I knew what football could do to a player’s brain. Former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon was just 53 years old and already showing signs of dementia. His old bandmate Dave Duerson, suffering from blurred vision and memory loss, shot himself in the chest at the age of 50. Postmortem tests showed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which appears to be a rare brain disorder caused by blows to the head.
The NFL reached a $765 million concussion settlement with more than 4,500 former players and developed a new protocol for detecting and treating concussions. The game went on.
Year after year, I told myself I would quit. And then September rolled around, and I couldn’t stay away. “COME ON!” I grew up on the Georgia linebackers chasing Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in the 2018 national championship game. “GET ‘IM!”
They tacked on a first down, forcing a 16-yard loss, but picked it up. He threw deep on 2nd and 26 for the winning touchdown. My son cried.
In September, while playing for the Miami Dolphins, Tagovailoa was tackled by Bengals linebacker Josh Tupou. I heard about it later. It was a great show. Tagovailoa was lying on his back, his fingers stiff and crossed at odd angles, a sign of a brain injury. The game went on. The Bengals won.
This time I didn’t watch it, because I finally started to separate myself from football. I was in favor of this decision for a long time. When the Bulldogs’ Lewis Cine hit Florida’s Kyle Pitts so hard in a November 2020 game that I thought they might both be dead, I turned off the TV to protect our kids.
Even after that, I kept watching until early 2022 when I finally saw the Bulldogs win a championship. I thought it was a good time to leave.
Saturday afternoon at the zoo, as the Georgia-Tennessee game progressed, I saw a green anaconda lying motionless in some water. I learned that red cobras can deliver a stream of venom into the eyes of an enemy a few feet away. My son didn’t seem to miss football. He was fascinated by reptiles. I was there but not really there. Back outside, we heard the lion roar again.
Text messages piled up on my phone in my pocket, a commentary on the game, sharp and funny observations from people I knew and loved about events I didn’t know about. Yes, I felt regret. No, I didn’t check the score on my phone.
We left the zoo and went to Shake Shack. I walked in and looked straight ahead, avoiding the game on the suspended televisions, though I caught a flash of Tennessee orange in my peripheral vision.
By then it was clear. As much as I missed football, football didn’t miss me. In one week in October, the five highest-rated telecasts were NFL games or pregame or postgame shows. The game would go on. Old players and fans would leave, and new ones would replace them.
Somewhere, there were Tim Krumrie and Bo Jackson, Mike Utley and Robert Griffin, men off the field and men on stretchers. They sacrificed themselves for me and maybe you in this country’s most popular live entertainment.
We went home, and I went to my office to start writing. I watched from the window that it was getting dark. More yellow leaves fell from the pecans. The room was so quiet. It was almost 6:30, and I didn’t know the score, or who was winning, or who, no one was broke.