By Barbara Falconer Newhall
It’s January, 2015, and another Superbowl is coming up. Son Peter is 34 now and he lives in the faraway Midwest. But as always, whenever he and Jon get together, father and son, in person, on the phone or on Skype, sure enough, the subject turns to sports — football, baseball, basketball.
I like listening to the two of them talk. I can’t keep up with the intricacies of a sports conversation, but I like eavesdropping on the comfortable, father-son tone: My guys are talking sports and all is right with the world.
Here’s a story from 1989, back when it all started:
By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, January 22, 1989
There is something about a man that needs football. I don’t get it. I have never gotten it. But, I accept it.
I like the men in my life. And if football – along with baseball and basketball – has shaped them into the people they are, then football and its pleasures can’t be all bad.
Indeed, on a good day, I too take time out to thrill to the 61-yard, Joe Montana-Jerry Rice touchdown pass.
(A good day is the day the Christmas ornaments are put away, the dishwasher is up and running, and the leaky roof is fixed. Today is not a good day.)
Some primal need is being met in Miami today, as 75,000 spectators gather for Super Bowl XXIII.
And perhaps it’s also true that that sublimation is as essential to the survival of humanity as a man’s very willingness to stand and fight. There is little room, we keep telling ourselves in this post-Vietnam, post-Hiroshima era, for all-out war.
But there is plenty of room for the quasi-violent – for blindsiding the quarterback, for beanballs, high sticking and getting rough under the boards.
There is room in our culture for Muhammad Ali and Bill Walsh. And apparently there is also room for Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
But are war, blood lust and football really the special province of men? Are women and men all that different?
A woman is fully capable of climbing onto a stadium bench and yelling “Crush ’em!” I’ve seen it done.
So are girls.
“Kill the Bears!” the demure, 5-year-old Christina was heard to exclaim on the afternoon of Jan. 8.
And, too, we are finding out that the male and the female brain are not as different as some people used to think.
Today’s children are closing the test-score gap. Girls are getting better at math. Boys are getting better at reading, writing – and presumable talking.
But it seems whenever I am tempted to draw a tidy conclusion about the homogeneity of the human species, I am confronted by the raw maleness of my 8-year-old son
His teacher and I were trying to have a quick after-school chat last week. But Peter had a different agenda.
He lowered his flat-topped head into a battering ram and greeted me with a joyful blow to the stomach. Then, for good measure, he pressed me up against the schoolyard fence.
I staggered. I embraced and stroked his dear, bristly head and told myself that boys will be boys. I flexed my abdominals.
It’s nice for Jon that we have a son. Peter is growing up developmentally speaking, he now has what it takes to memorize his times tables and to play a game of Monopoly.
That means that Peter also has what it takes to sit in front of the TV for the better part of a quarter.
With great care, Jon has initiated our son into the mysteries of football. Peter can now sling football words with the same ease he hands off a Nerf football. Stuff like “third and three” and “quarterback sneak.”
Peter also collects football cards. He arranges and rearranges them into meaningful stacks on his bedroom floor – on the very spot where He-Man once stood off the Evil Horde.
This is nice for Jon
Now, when the baseball Giants blow it in the ninth, or the Niners collapse in the fourth, Jon can talk it over with Peter.
There are two to shout invectives at the officials. Two to wail at the unfairness of it all, the glory
of it all, the rotten disappointment of it all. They console each other in defeat, and exchange high fives in victory.
For the rest of their lives, Jon and Peter will never be at a loss for words in each other’s company. There will always be football. And baseball. And basketball.
Some things will be too personal to discuss—their marriages, their career disappointments, the existential loneliness of it all.
There will be injuries that words cannot fix.
But no matter. There will always be football.
©1989 The Oakland Tribune, Reprinted by Permission
Apparently, my Oakland Tribune colleague, Martin Snapp, got wind of my intention to rib the male half of the species with this column about father and son sports talk.
His column faced mine each week on the front page of the Trib’s Sunday Lifestyle section. Here’s what he wrote on Jan. 22, the day my riff on football ran:
“Barbara Newhall accuses us men of using sports as a male bonding ritual. And you know what? She’s right. As the Miami Herald’s Dave Barry once wrote, ‘Men can never really trust women because they know in their hearts that a woman, given the choice between hitting a home run or saving a drowing child, will choose saving the child–without even asking whether there are men on base!'”