Football is one of the really valid and deep American rituals. It ha a religious seriousness which American religion can never achieve. A comic, contimplative dynamism, a gratuity, a movement from play to play, a definitiveness that responds to some deep need, a religious need, a sense of meaning that is at once final and provisional: a substratum of dependable regularity, continuity, new chances. It happens. It is done. It is possible again. It happens. Another play is decided, played out, "done" (replay for the good ones so you can really see how it happened) and that's enough, on to the next one--until the final gun blows them out of the huddle and the last play never happens. They disperse. Cosmic breakup. Final score, 31-27, is now football history. This will last forever. It is secure in its having happened. And we saw it happen. We existed.--Thomas Merton, 1968
The day has finally arrived.
The hype continues, of course, but only for a few more hours now. Across the nation red-blooded Americans wake up to put the finishing touches on grocery shopping, to check the levels on their propane tanks, to begin the marination--of chicken wings in barbecue sauce, and of themselves, in beer. Men, women and children pull jerseys--the armor of their idols, complete with their crests and coats of arms--over their heads.
And then the TV comes on.
At 6:25 this evening, an entire country, from 1600 Pennysylvania Avenue to Lansdowne Street in Boston to the back roads of Idaho, will tune in to the only true, sincerely celebrated, American Holiday.
Think about it. Let's go through the holidays, one by one, to see if there's another that compares to Super Bowl Sunday.
First we have to discount any holiday celebrated outside America, as well. So that means Christmas, New Years' Eve, Valentine's Day and Halloween are out. Also discount any holiday that is exclusive to any one religion, and that disqualifies Christmas and Halloween twice, and goes once for Hanukkah, Ramadan, the Chinese New Year, etc. So what are we left with? Thanksgiving. The only other truly American holiday not particular to any religious or ethnic group.
But we all know what Thanksgiving has become. An extension of Christmas, which, for all our egalitarian ideals, is pretty much forced on everybody. It's a time when everyone, without exception, must process a heaping helping of their most irritating family members. It's a time when women are made to feel as if at least for one day they must get back in the kitchen and fix the menfolk some pie. A time each year, which Thanksgiving kicks off, when suicide rates jump as the increasingly better-documented holiday depression lays its heavy hand on the shoulders of many.
A time for rampant consumerism, even as the culture refuses to acknowledge its corrupting effect on the stated ideals of The Holidays, which are peace, love and happiness, not necessarily in that order. The day of Thanksgiving gives way to the day after Thanksgiving, in which bloated people, feeling guilty about the previous day's gluttony, crowd shopping malls in an attempt to prove to the irritating family members they must continue to deal with throughout the holiday season that they really do love them.
So, with Thanksgiving out as well, that leaves Super Bowl Sunday. Now, it's easy to argue with a football game constituting a national holiday, and a number of intellectual elitists across the country decry this very fact every year, as a matter of fact. But that's the beauty of it. While Thanksgiving and Christmas struggle in vain to live up to their own ideals, the Super Bowl doesn't put on airs. It's just a football game-- let's just say we don't have to worry about Peace on Earth.
And, really, it gets tough to downplay the importance of professional football in this country's consciousness when you look at the cathedrals we have built to it.
Oh, and Great Aunt Gertie who cleans her dentures at the table and regularly inquires of you whether or not you ever intend on getting married / shedding those excess pounds / renouncing your homosexuality? She probably won't care if you don't invite her to your Super Bowl party.
Yes, if Thanksgiving and Christmas are about family obligation, the Super Bowl is when you get to just deal with the people you really like. And while the womenfolk slave over pumpkin pie in the return to the 1950's that are the canonized holidays, on Super Bowl Sundays the men will do the cooking themselves--especially if it involves charcoal.
Super Bowl Sunday also serves a logistical purpose--it breaks up the monotony of post-Christmas wintertime. Without Super Bowl Sunday placed squarely--and, I believe, purposely--between January and February, the monotony of those gray, hopeless winter months would be enough to kill most people. This is what the pagan festival of Yule was meant to do--to warm the hearts of people struggling through winter. Super Bowl Sunday is its modern day equivalent.
Because, really, not everyone is interested in the birth of Jesus Christ, or the teachings of Muhammad. Not everyone believes Halloween is harmless fun. Not everyone's heart is warmed by Valentine's Day. Not everybody, certainly, supports the shameless jingoism of the Fourth of July (although it gets points for involving outdoor grilling, as well). But everyone, when you get right down to it, loves football. Even if it's only for today.
Football is non-stop. It's action-packed. Try saying that about the third helping of mashed potatoes.
Today, America will gather around the TV, the one invention of the last hundred years that truly unites us all. In this day and age, you may not have access to a computer, you may not have access to education, you may not have access to food, but you have access to a television--I guarantee it. After all, there's always the nearest sports bar. Or storefront.
After all, athletic ability is not unique to any race, class, or ethnic group. Today Muhsin Muhammad will go up against Joe Andruzzi. Tom Brady will play with Tully Banta-Cain. Snoop Dogg and President Bush, Bob Kraft and Nelly, hell, even Janet and Michael Jackson will watch the Super Bowl. Together.
Even people who don't follow football will watch today, if on no other day.
Even people who don't follow or like the sport of football will watch today for the pageantry and the short film festival that is the commercials. Even today's TV commercials are at a higher level! What more could you want?
But seriously. The most important thing about the Super Bowl as an American holiday is that it brings people together. It helps people learn about one another. Each year two separate and distinct areas of the country are showcased. Each year, win or lose, two teams give an entire region of people a reason to be fiercely proud of where they're from. And that is so valuable.
Equally valuable is the fact that it simultaneously allows people to forget about where they're from. In his superb book, Bloody Sundays, Mike Freeman, notes that the NFL is the only sports league--in fact, the only form of entertainment, period--enjoyed equally by the black and white communities in America.
Enjoy today--whether you're young or old, rich or poor, black or white, from Carolina or from New England. Revel in all the riches being an American has to offer--whether you're Republican or Democrat, a tree-hugging vegan or a gung-ho military jarhead; today it doesn't matter who you are or where you're from, or what team you root for, or if you root for no team at all. Today America comes together to enjoy a game we love--and to celebrate our only true holiday.
At the same time, I can't ignore that out of all the regions with their eyes glued to Houston today, the one nearest and dearest to my heart is, of course, New England. As a local songwriter has written in a parody of a Toby Keith song--We Love this Team. Call us crazy, but it is true, pure love between this proud region and this group of men.
And between this place and this magnificent, beautiful game that combines the passion and brutality of Roman gladiatorial contest with the refinement of a chess match. We love it. And we love so much that, in small but important ways, it makes us better people.
I want this team to win and put the crowning glory on an already spectacular season as bad as anybody--so bad I wish I could fly down there and suit up myself--but the one thing that's helped me keep my wits about me in the drama and anxiety that has been this postseason is the quote by Woody Hayes I heard repeated by an ESPN sportscaster: "Nothing cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."
What that means, New England, what that means, America, is that win or lose, this game is one of the things that makes life worthwhile. So when I say this, it's less of a cheer and more of a prayer: Let's go, Patriots.