On Saturday afternoon, as third-ranked Georgia played top-ranked Tennessee in the game of the year so far in college football, I was not watching.
In past years I would’ve been on the couch with my brother, eating pizza and wings, bellowing at the television. Instead I got in the minivan with my wife and kids, and we drove to Zoo Atlanta.
We got there a few minutes before kickoff, when a lot of people were leaving. Who goes to the zoo during the Georgia game? We do, as it turns out, along with an Amish family, the women in bonnets, the men in straw hats.
It was a warm and cloudy afternoon, with yellow leaves falling from the pecan trees. A zookeeper told us 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 just a thing I’m trying.”
There were lions on a rock, all brothers, we were told, and two were asleep, and the third stood at the edge of the rock, and he kept roaring. It was a lonely sound. We walked away but kept hearing that distant, lonely roar.
I could imagine the sound of the crowd, the brass of the band, the beat of the drums, the feeling that I was a part of something, a joyous participant in one of our nation’s last unifying rituals. A sport both uniquely American and intrinsically violent.
I still remember when Tim Krumrie’s leg shattered. I was eight years old, watching Super Bowl XXIII at my grandparents’ house, and Krumrie, a defensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals, stepped the wrong way while trying to make a tackle and suffered a compound fracture. They showed the replay on TV, and we saw the leg shatter again.
The game went on. The game always goes on. That was the lesson I learned as an 8-year-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, had his left hip dislocated and fractured during a playoff game against the Bengals. Jackson’s football career was over, but the game was not. The Raiders won.
Later that year, Detroit Lions offensive lineman Mike Utley broke his neck when a Rams player fell on him. Although Utley gave a thumbs-up as he left the field, he would be paralyzed for the rest of his life. The game went on. The Lions won, 21-10.
We kept watching. Our teams were the Georgia Bulldogs and the Atlanta Falcons. I clenched my jaw. I ground my teeth. I screamed. There was this deep, guttural sound, too, this command that would emerge most often in those moments when the other team’s quarterback had the ball, and he was eluding our defenders, and he seemed on the verge of throwing or running for a touchdown.
“EAT ON!” I would growl. “GET ‘IM!”
It was third and goal, the game was tied, and Washington’s Robert Griffin III was running toward the end zone. But the Falcons got him. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon lowered his shoulder and smashed Griffin’s head. “Cool hit, good hit, great play by Sean Weatherspoon,” TV analyst said. Griffin left the game. Suffering from a concussion, 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 only 53 and already showing signs of dementia. His old teammate Dave Duerson, suffering from blurred vision and memory loss, fatally shot himself in the chest at age 50. Postmortem tests showed he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a rare brain disorder that appears to be 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 to detect and treat concussions. The game went on.
Year after year, I told myself I was going to quit. And then September rolled around, and I couldn’t stay away. “EAT ON!” I growled at the Georgia defenders chasing Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa during the national championship game in 2018. “GET ‘IM!”
They got him on first down, forcing a 16-yard loss, but he got up. On 2nd-and-26 he threw deep for the winning touchdown. My son cried.
In September, playing for the Miami Dolphins, Tagovailoa was slammed to the ground by Bengals lineman Josh Tupou. I heard about it afterwards. It was a horrible sight. Tagovailoa lay on his back, his fingers stiff and crossed at odd angles, an apparent sign of a brain injury. The game went on. The Bengals won.
This time I was not watching, because I’d finally begun my trial separation from football. I’d been inching toward 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 one or both of them might be dead, I turned off the TV to protect our children.
Even after that, I kept watching until early 2022, when I finally saw the Bulldogs win the championship. It seemed like a good time to walk away.
On Saturday afternoon at the zoo, as the Georgia-Tennessee game went on, I saw a green anaconda lying motionless in shallow water. I learned that red spitting cobras can deliver a stream of venom into the eyes of an enemy several feet away. My son didn’t seem to miss football. He was enthralled with the reptiles. I was there but not really there. Back outside, we heard the lion roar again.
Text messages accumulated on the phone in my pocket, a running commentary on the game, keen and amusing observations from people I knew and loved regarding events of which I was unaware. Yes, I felt regret. No, I did not check the score on my phone.
We left the zoo and drove 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 now it was clear. No matter how much I missed football, football did not miss me. One week in October, all five of the top-rated broadcasts on TV were either 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 out there were Tim Krumrie and Bo Jackson, Mike Utley and Robert Griffin, men who walked off the field and men who were rolled off on stretchers. They were sacrificed for me, and perhaps for you, in this country’s most popular form of live entertainment.
We drove home, and I went to my office to start writing. Through the window I could see it was getting dark. More yellow leaves fell from the pecan trees. The room was so quiet. It was almost 6:30, and I didn’t know the score, or who was winning, or who, if anyone, was broken.