Terry Manning

Clear eyes, full hearts no longer enough


By Terry Manning

At a point in my life where I am reassessing everything, football has found its way into my sights.

One of the first questions I was asked after moving to Alabama in 2004 was, “Who you pulling for?” with the assumption I would pick between rivals Alabama and Auburn. Answering “Clemson” typically earned me a scoffing “psssht” and dismissal. An employee at a Subway shop waved me off once, saying, “Oh, we beat y’all already.”

This was in the days before head coach Dabo Swinney made the Clemson Tigers football team a powerhouse that regularly factors into discussions about conference and national championships. I would love to run into the Alabama fan who, when I asked which team he thought they preferred to play in the championship, answered patronizingly, “We don’t care” (pronounced ‘kay-er’!”).

He might “kay-er” now since Clemson has laid two whippings on his beloved Tide, but I digress.

I grew up playing football. Backyard, Little League, Pop Warner, junior high and then high school. I fell in love with the Pittsburgh Steelers because they wore black and gold (same as our high school) and because they had a quarterback named Terry. Some of the earliest books I got from the Bookmobile and Scholastic Book Club were biographies of football players, including O.J. Simpson before his fall from grace.

I had a dream before my senior year that I would hurt my leg playing and told my parents I wanted to quit. They insisted I finish out a career I – and they – had put so much effort into already. Plus, we were favored to win the state after losing in the title game the year before. 

Around the middle of the season, I broke my ankle. Injuries to other players made us the first team from my hometown to lose a home game in the opening round of the playoffs.

There wouldn’t be another to do that for 40 years.

My ankle injury scuttled a potential scholarship offer from Furman, but I didn’t want to play anyway. I was tired of the work it took every offseason to get in shape only to spend four months getting yelled at by coaches and beat up by guys bigger and stronger than I was.

When I worked in Florida, I had to suffer watching the Dolphins and Saints every Sunday before better teams played in the afternoon and evening games. Monday night games were still a treat then, including the halftime showcase of results and highlights from the weekend’s action. Football still felt like something special.

And then … it seemed like there was football on TV every other night: high school, small-college, big-college, NFL, European, USFL, XFL, Arena, a 24-hour network. Tuesday night, Thursday night, Friday night, games all day Saturday, all day Sunday. The Monday night game turned into an afterthought. Between all those games, the airwaves were filled with people talking about the game and its players, their heroics, misdeeds and high salaries.

College football feels like little more than a feeder system for the professional level, with players sitting out bowl games to protect their draft stock. High school players dance and preen after touchdowns like their favorite pros or their favorite musicians.

Add in the misguided reaction to Colin Kaepernick; the league’s obfuscation of information on the damage repeated hits have on players’ brains; the owners’ collusion to take control of star players; the league’s insistence on aligning itself with performative patriotism to appeal to conservative fans.

It’s a lot, but maybe the clincher came just last week.

I met with some high school classmates over dinner, and as we were leaving, we ran into an old teammate who graduated a year before us. I turned to our all-star quarterback and said, “With him, you now have a guard (me), a tackle and one tight end. You’re halfway to having your old line back.”

He laughed and said, “And none of us can do a damn thing now.” We laughed and left the restaurant. As I backed my car out, I saw the old tackle slowly making his way to his pickup truck. “Good Lord,” I asked myself, “is that how I walk?” But I knew the answer.

There are lessons to be learned playing football about sportsmanship, being a team player and rallying behind a common cause. There is also a heavy price paid in terms of the game’s physicality.

Maybe football is a childhood crush I’m outgrowing. Wouldn’t be the first, and won’t be the last.

Terry E. Manning is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at teemanning@gmail.com.

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