In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
The Super Bowl and Working Class Heroes
I cannot say that football was the vehicle of my escape from the depleting social environment where I grew up, which still simmers as a love-hate relationship. I probably could've left faster and gone further by remaining a bookworm. As a bookworm, though, it was easy enough to observe what people liked on a Friday night. And I know well the truths in the poem above, and when I heard it for the first time a few years ago on ESPN, it stopped me in my tracks.
Football was more a pursuit for normality and respect, and while it richly afforded those to me, it proved also to be a release. People cheered when I hit other young men hard, logically because they were opposing players from opposing towns out to steal glory. But there's something far more atavistic going on in both the players and the audience. Between a snap and the whistle, there is no need for moral delay, and what genuinely surprised me is that most players, even in the NFL, mentally hesitate.
It is the mind which leads the body, and one good lesson I took from football is the mind can compensate for average athletic ability. Football rewards organized mental savagery. Also, by the way, when linebackers or safeties say they never intended to hurt anyone, most of them are lying; what they mean is, they almost never intend to hurt anyone in a specific way. It is a sweet feeling to turn your whole body into a lever, and to knock someone else back and out. It always has been, and there should be no shame in saying so.
Good fathers teach their sons there's no easy way out, everything has to be worked for and sacrificed for. The Martin's Ferry of the poem above is where many poor sons of Polacks with their long beers went to colleges, and sometimes to professional teams, by either path to join the ranks of the wealthy. The ritualized violence of football is a perfect emblem of American capitalism's philosophical darwinism, and the fathers and sons were right enough to dream of heroes. In Martin's Ferry and the mill towns like it, though, it's important to recognize that form of capitalism produced far more losers than it did winners. I don't consider myself to be either, just lucky, but I'm from a town just like Martin's Ferry, where the blast furnaces no longer run. Unlike the Super Bowl, life is best in systems which don't believe in winner-take-all propositions.
Here is James Wright reading his famous poem.