As a young man I used to spend each day after school practicing my footwork in my backyard. 1-2-3 and stop, pivot, turn my knee and push. Again. 1-2-3 and stop, pivot, turn and push. Or perhaps I would leap backwards, and 2-3-4-5, turn, raise arms, twist and pivot shift weight, push arms forward. Over and over I would do these motions, again and again, until my muscles ached and my body did them instinctively, as my mind counted, or hummed music to keep rhythm. In bed at night my mind would repeat the steps, and my legs, arms and back would tense as though going through them.
At times I watch other men doing this dance, men who are much more accomplished than I ever was at such motions. I watch them weave back and forth in carefully choreographed movement, leave their feet, sail into the clean white air, and then collide into one another with all the violence of two great machines of war set against one another. They collide and fall, and the dust rises and they hoist themselves up, shake their heads and arms, and return to their huddles to plan their next opus.
At this point you no doubt see the joke I have attempted. Comparing the steps of a high school quarterback rehearsing his passing drop cannot possibly compare to the grace and skill required for a ballet dancer, as I have suggested. And yet, consider Barry Sanders. Sanders is widely considered one of the finest running backs to have ever played in the National Football League. He rushed for over 15,000 career yards and 99 touchdowns and was recently inducted into the pro football hall of fame. He was also a lifelong student of ballet.
Even novice football fans understand that playing running back requires speed, stamina, strength, balance, and even grace. These are simply the talents of any top athlete. But there was more to Sanders’ game than that. Watching him run with the ball elicited within in me different kind of emotion than a fan cheering for his team (I didn’t really even like the Detroit Lions). Watching him play elicited an aesthetic response, the feeling that there was gravity and beauty in the way he moved about the field. This was more than just a man trying to avoid being tackled. There was a great transcendent yearning in this man that took expression in spin moves, jukes, ducks, and leaps.
I have marveled many times as I watched a school of many thousand sardines move in perfect unison, stopping their trajectory as one coherent whole in a way that seemed impossible for so many beings, and continuing in another direction just as fast, like they are responding to some call or force or rhythm just below the surface of their being. Watching Sanders is like this at times.
Or consider Peyton Manning. Manning is like a surgeon performing a triple-bypass during a hurricane. There are grave and ruthless forces determined to thwart his every move, to crunch his bones and to foil the work of his hands. But he moves through the bedlam, he watches, steps, waits, and makes his incision.
Sometimes watching Manning reminds me of jazz guitar seminars that I used to attend. The master would teach us that practicing scales was the best method to learn how to improvise. How could this be? we asked. We had come for freedom from the restriction of practice. We wanted to be like Hendrix, to create noise that was free of troublesome scales and key signatures and finger exercises. But he corrected us. The freedom to improvise came after great patience and practice, learning the fundamentals of the theory, disciplining our hands to know when to go where.
This is how Manning plays. He has studied and mastered one of the most complex constructions in all of sports (the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive playbook) and calls his own plays from under the center. Receivers cut and move across a field littered with large men who are aching to destroy him and all he holds dear. Opposing defensive tackles come at him like large boulders down a steep hill. He relies on his steps – leap backwards, and 2-3-4-5, turn, raise arms, twist and pivot, shift weight – the same steps I practiced as a boy, the scales and modes of quarterbacking, and then he improvises. What results is as beautiful as bebop jazz – a man taking a scale and transforming it into a moment by moment experience, pure feel, shared by everyone on the field and every patron in the stands.
There is music in football; there is choreographed movement. In a single offensive play there are backfield motions, coordinated snap counts, pulling guards, gap blocking, quarterback drops, crossing patterns, button hooks routes, block and release routes, passes, catches, downfield blocks. There are spin moves, swim moves, double fakes, quick draws, pump fakes, cornerback blitzes, and fingertip grabs. For a single play to succeed, eleven very large men must each execute a nimble, powerful and precise maneuver, in unison with each other. And all of this while eleven other men are trying at all odds to destroy their plans with maneuvers of their own, equally complex, varied, precise and physically demanding. If the best quarterbacks and wideouts are dancers and jazz musicians, then the best defensive linemen and linebackers are composers of chaos, as ruthless and jarring as Penderecki’s Threnody. And even they can rise to the level of aesthetic awe, as a defensive back lifts into the air to rupture the unsteady line of a poorly thrown pass. Or the perfectly timed hit, the jarring tackle. It may not be pleasant, but it still it is capable of eliciting something akin to an aesthetic response. The physicist Robert Oppenheimer knew well that there is beauty in destruction. So did Francisco Goya. And yet in football they all get up again, they return to their huddle, they prepare again their composition.
Football, like music, like dance, like much of life, is a study of chaos and disorder that men strive and plan and work to overcome, doing so only in moments, in glimpses of something more. This is a great task, and it often fails. But I take a good measure of joy away every time I watch these men make the attempt.
There is another moment from my youth that sometimes returns. My junior year of high school I moved from quarterback to running back. The quarterback would drop, and follow many of the same steps that I had practiced in the years before, and he would hand me the ball and I would run. Before me, hulking young men did battle over a small stretch of turf, my teammates trying to protect me, and my opponents trying to destroy me. I would wait a moment, and the men doing battle would rage and push at one another and dirt would sail into the air and all was lost in a flurry of chaos before my eyes. And then something happened. A space of clear green grass would magically open before me. Through careful preparation and execution, my teammates had pushed and growled an opening in the line of defense. Moments of chaos and terror lifted before me, and all was open and clear. This was more than good blocking, it was revelation. And so I put my head down, and I trusted the ritual of my steps to guide me. All the drills, the motions, the studies, all of them carried me through that hole in the line. Now to the open field, the lights in my eyes like stained glass windows. In the open field, a composer begins to improvise. It was time to play.