Hating On Kickers: One Fan - Two Sports
The TIAS Diary Project returns with an essay that hits close to home for me. Home–I should say head, as it was my head and long hair the American football coaches at my high school would grab during gym class when they called me a pussy, called me a commie, tempted me to switch to a real sport. Thing is, if Dan Perez, Alan Chadwick, and Coach Franks weren’t so arrogant, if they didn’t produce a frat boy/hazing culture within their little prep school kingdoms, I probably would have played their brand of football. I did and do love it. But yanking on my hair, making fun of me, and then asking me to join the team, because, “You’re a tall boy. Could make you big. You should play a real sport,” just wasn’t the best way into my heart.
Casey Wiley won’t name names, but he wasn’t just walking past the locker room and getting some irresponsibly pointed testosterone from the high school coach/P.E. teacher. He was sitting, working in the office of the Miami Dolphins of the NFL. A soccer fan in a football office. A soccer fan who is a football fan. Can you imagine? In a world where too many want to frame it as us versus them, Wiley tries to figure out his (and their) fandom.
by Casey Wiley
In 2003, the year I graduated college, I worked as an Intern for the Miami Dolphins, the team I grew up idolizing from my home in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. (When I was eight my mother bought me a Dan Marino jersey; she liked the color. There ya’ go.) My official title was Football and Facility Operations Intern, which basically meant that I was to perform a number of inglorious tasks day and night: endlessly filling water coolers; helping to line the practice fields; driving from school to school in a lumbering mover’s-sized-truck filled with “Junior Dolphins Training Camp” equipment; running screaming, sweaty kids through said equipment; even filling in for the night watchman every few weeks, then doing it all again the next day. I was happy to do this.
But I was living a secret life amongst blood, sweat and football: I was a closet soccer fan.
While I never played organized football growing up, my soccer playing career could be summed up like this: I was a rail-thin outside halfback on mediocre JV and Varsity teams. I played hard, rarely scored. Nothing more. It was great seeing a good deal of playing time on a semi-serious team with most of my friends and having something other than school (or girls) to focus on, but probably like a lot of American kids, I never cared about soccer enough to sit down and watch it on TV; my walls were covered with posters of NFL players, mostly those of the Miami Dolphins: Marino, of course, and the Marks brothers, but also John Offerdahl, fiery Bryan Cox, wacky Louis Oliver. These guys were everything I was not: strong, fast, athletic. They were not my backyard teams—the Giants, Jets, Bills, Patriots, which everyone around me supported. The Dolphins were exotic.They were mine.
Somewhere during college, probably in the build-up to World Cup 2002, I started following the U.S. men’s team. Probably like many other on-the-fence-eh-whatever American soccer fans, I was drawn to this upstart, balls-out group that scrounged to an eventual controversial quarterfinal loss to favored Germany. I latched onto Brian McBride, John O’Brien, the tougher players, the guys I had always envisioned myself being on the field, but knew I was not. These were also the players who possessed skills beyond anything I had experienced in soccer up to that point. They were tough but smooth; they could tackle hard but (sometimes) dribbled past you.
As college neared an end, while I still listened to Dolphins games on the internet and read team reports daily in the Miami Herald, I felt a pull towards the USMNT. I had played (bad) soccer, yes, and that certainly was a good deal of the reason I began to feel connected to this scrappy team, but might I again have been seeking the exotic, something no one else seemingly cared about? Or could this have been a sort of existential return to childhood, a turn from the looming Real World of job and money and all that? Was I just pining for something I could touch?
Working for the Dolphins, one didn’t go around saying they followed other teams—NFL teams, obviously, but really any sports teams. It’d be like working at Dell while flashing your MacBook. So I secretly followed, as silly as this sounds, the U.S. National team’s 2003 Gold Cup run. I’d track games on the internet, then confer quietly with the one guy I worked with who also liked soccer. Carlos and I would meet in the equipment room where he worked surrounded by helmets and shoulder pads organized neat and high on shelves and talk soccer. We were drawn to Beasley and Donovan, young guys, like us.
In that testosterone-fueled environment, where my cubicle was a few paces from the head coach’s office and one floor above the team’s practice locker room, I could not talk about movies that were not comedies or action-based; any sort of books (I attended the Miami Book Fair without telling a soul); anything close to how I was feeling post-college and a long way from home. Self-expression other than anger or rag-on-joking was not masculine and so no good. Football was good, and that was about it. So I kept my trap shut.
Until I didn’t keep my trap shut. “Soccer,” my boss offered, “is for pussies.” Mr. Bossman, a tiny guy, somehow skinnier than me, who had probably never stepped foot on a football field in his life, or maybe any sports field, had overheard me telling another intern I was planning on going with Carlos to the USMNT’s Gold Cup match versus Brazil (the U23 squad) in Miami.
Mr. Bossman tapped his finger on the top of my cubicle wall. “NFL, Case… this is the NFL,” he reminded me as if I were a little lost child. Remember where you are was the jist of it.
“But what about Kaka’s playing?” I retorted, probably sounding exceptionally whiny. What an athlete, right? He shook his head. Soccer to Mr. Bossman was a cluster of ballerinas, a bunch of middle school girls at gym class. I didn’t say this, but I liked to think the game was too intellectual, too artistic—whatever that meant—for him and maybe many of the other Dolphins employees (hard working, blue collar guys) to handle: the possession game, patience, little contact. And yes, the flopping. As much as I liked football, at times like these, I loathed football people.
“First of all,” Mr. Bossman added, “no one scores in soccer.” He was getting into this. “Just look at last week; we put up [some number in the high-twenties] on [some opponent I no longer remember].”
While a low-scoring football game will be lauded as a “Defensive struggle,” a 1-0 soccer game was just, well, gay. But as my good buddy, Matt P., pointed out recently, if touchdowns were worth one point instead of seven (or six, if you don’t count the near-gimme extra point), NFL people might view soccer differently (but probably not). According to my calculations, the average points scored per team in a NFL game in the 2009 regular season was 21.4. So roughly three touchdowns or something close to two touchdowns, two field goals and a safety, etc.—or in soccer terms, three goals.
While three “goals” doesn’t sound like much it still represents roughly twice as many points scored on average by the USMNT and opponents in 2009. The U.S. averaged 1.8 goals per game (although many of these games were essentially exhibitions and/or played by a B-squad) and opponents averaged 1.5 goals per game against the U.S. If one goal equals one touchdown, the average USMNT soccer game equated to 12.6 (U.S.) points to 10.5 (opponents), or, say, Oakland (12.3) vs. St. Louis (10.9). Yikes.
Bossman wins this one. On average, the NFL outscored the USMNT by one and a quarter goals (or 70%) in 2009, which makes sense as the NFL is certainly going more offensive, playing an aggressive, wide-open passing game (even my beloved Dolphins, grudgingly), and with the stricter rules on defensive backs further freeing receivers, one would assume that this league was all fireworks and sweet explosion and would score far beyond the plodding, amateurish USMNT.
Flat out, goals are all that matters in soccer, but would it be absurd to say that the style in which the soccer game is played, something like possession or ball movement or game flow or—oigh, here we go—patience or fluidity or flair or grace or beauty are nearly as important as scoring to the game? The look and feeling and culture of the game matter, just as punishing blocks, monster hits and general masculinity are vital to the long-term tough guy image of the NFL.
In 2003 I could not argue for this sort of Higher Soccer for my team; this U.S. group was all scrap and hustle. But today? Eh, still clearly lacking grace or flair, but one could argue that this team certainly has its own distinct identity: Relentlessness? Dash? Guts? Think: Tim Howard versus England; our guys second half versus Slovenia. Most of the terms that could be used to describe our play are sort of pedestrian, perfect. And is this maybe-yet-to-be-defined form of play distinctly American? As in, do our guys play the way they/we live, play the way our country operates, a la Brazil’s (once) open game or the Netherlands’ position-swapping, or Germany’s set-piece efficiency? This is all hypothetical artsy babble, and I wouldn’t have dared propose any of it to my boss—gay! he’d say—for, yes, we lust after goals and wins, but as fans, what else do we latch on to?
Ohio State kicker Devin Barclay is a former MLS Project-40 player and youth national team soccer player.
While Mr. Bossman didn’t say this, American football fans have argued with me that soccer games are defined by lots of guys defending their eighteen yard box like a bunch of frantic chickens and then at the blink of rare opportunity, frenetically counter-attacking; or in other words, soccer games contain little flowing offensive action, which is a pretty accurate depiction of U.S. soccer at this moment in time, while the NFL, these people claim, is brimming with electric runs, major hits, wild pass plays. Fine; lots of great stuff happens in a NFL game (other than three-and-outs and punting), but a recent Wall Street Journal study of four telecasts of late December 2009 NFL games (played on Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN), showed that on average there was only eleven minutes of game action in the entire broadcast. That is, out of 185 minutes of broadcast, on average, the ball is only in play for eleven minutes, or 6% of the time. Sixty minutes of these broadcasts was devoted to commercials; 75 minutes to players huddling, standing around the line of scrimmage, milling about on the sidelines; even 7% of the broadcast focused on shots of the referees and head coaches.
As an NFL fan, I’m okay with such little game action; I actually enjoy the extremely high ratio of coach worry and fret and prep and planning to actual game play (think chess match), while a soccer manager’s job, Bob Bradley’s for example, is essentially to step back like a parent releasing a child. Altidore sprains an ankle so Bradley starts Buddle against Australia, sees what he does. (Two goals!) Sure, Bradley and his staff work tirelessly—scouting in Europe and studying film and running the players and finagling lineup scenarios and developing fairly diverse strategies for England and Slovenia and, I’m assuming, Algeria, but when the whistle blows he lets the players play for a nearly-continuous 45+ minutes. What choice does he have? It’s all very school yard, beautiful and youthful.
But the NFL head coach is Patton and President and Bossman. One morning arriving at the Dolphins facility at 4:30am for some reason, I trudged upstairs to make coffee and passed the head coach, Dave Wannstedt’s office. He was standing behind his desk, tall—an athlete grown old—hands on hips, just staring out the huge hurricane-wind-reinforced window at the two practice fields below.
He sort of squawked. “Huh?”
He turned. He appeared worn out, even before any part of the day had started. He just looked at me, probably sort of annoyed that I was breaking the silence; one could believe there was no pressure at these moments. The team was not performing up to expectations, which meant that pressure hung thick, even when everyone else slept. Wanny would be gone by season’s end. Finally, he said, simply, “What else would I be doing?”
While I grew up idolizing the humongo athletes of this league, I’ve since come to appreciate this insane, assiduous work ethic that coats the NFL but hides behind the gameday curtain. These coaches, many of whom had relatively unsuccessful playing careers, work for the sake of working and/or because they know the guy at the next team is pulling longer hours. Efficient or not, coaches toil away 12, 14, 16-hour days, playing, rewinding game film in small offices looking for that slight indication from, say, the opposing team’s running back that if he lines up just so—maybe a slight alteration of the positioning of his feet—he’s surely going to take a hand off into the three hole, or stay in and block, or whatever.
And all these hours in all those offices, all these weeks—really not much of an off-season—times twenty-something coaches equals a whole hell of a lot of preparation for eleven minutes of game action for sixteen games. It’s freaking absurd, but I love the futility, the work, work, workworkwork. During games the play stops and starts and coaches fret and scan play charts and formation charts and pour over snapshots of their opponents’ lines and look for a leak. Look for anything. Any. Friggin’. Thing. The Man wants to do it all, but he has to do it from the sidelines, pulling the strings, as they say, while the games really come down to who can hit who the hardest, or most probably, who can withstand the beating.
I have to give my former boss credit, though, as he ended this impromptu why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along debate in only a few words:
“Case,” he said, “NFL people hate kickers.”
Boom. That’s it.
Kickers are first and foremost skinny, at least by NFL standards; they don’t “pump iron” and hit, well, anything; they rarely watch film. During games they mainly stand around behind the “real” players, “play” maybe ten snaps, and when they are most needed—a game-winning kick—they often mess up (which is not, in fact, statistically true).
And this USMNT team, my now out-of-the-closet team, was composed solely of kickers.
I told Mr. Bossman I wasn’t going to the match and walked off to fill another stinkin’ cooler. But I went anyway. The USMNT fought hard and lost 4-3, or 28-21, depending on how you want to look at it. (Sigh. But not really. The U.S. lost 2-1 in a typical, predictable low-scoring soccer game. And there was little style, no flair, except, of course, from the other guys.)
I’m getting flustered here. I’m not trying to say that the U.S. men’s play, or the package they represent, is far superior to that of the NFL—which is weird and sort of incomparable—and I’m not claiming that my fandom to the USMNT is far superior to that of the Miami Dolphins; or that American football or that American soccer is far-and-away a greater sport. In my own mad way I’m making an attempt to comprehend my fandom, or to compartmentalize my fandom, which is something most USMNT fans have probably done—consciously or not—or will do, because most of us have grown up looking to another: the Yankees or 49ers or Bulls etc, etc, etc. Maybe I’m (you’re?) just not a rabid enough fan, as my allegiance goes two ways. (Should I load all my interest in the Phins? The USMNT? Raise my cheers to hooligan-esque levels?) Maybe I’m too much of a fan already.
Maybe I don’t know what I want.
But are these two games so diametrically opposed? There is nothing beautiful about American football. Even a Devin Hester explosive 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown is often accompanied by a punishing crack-back block that leaves some reserve cornerback smeared on the field. (Equal and opposite?) But U.S. soccer is also not beautiful. Maybe Torres, Holden, Feil, Donovan and Dempsey, at the apex of their games, resemble something of beauty, but the grunt of the minutes of USMNT play are dominated just as much by this speed and (soccer) muscle and defensive-relentlessness, as they are by a lack of foot skill or grace. These guys, not exactly the stars of gym class, are about hustle, or whatever, which is at least something I can relate to.
I duck as I say this, but does this team—the individual guys like Gooch, Jozy, DeMerit, Howard, or the collective—more closely resemble these NFL players, American capital-A Athletes—minus the bulk—than they do these other beautiful teams: Spain, Netherlands, Brazil, Argentina? Ronaldo’s scissoring runs, his power, his tumbling to the ground, his pouting?
I have since left football for other jobs, but I remain a rabid fan of both the Dolphins and the USMNT—reading team updates online, e-mailing post-games with a friend or two, attending games when I can. I still despise the Jets as I do Mexico and Italy. I don’t expect to talk to a soccer fan at the next game I attend about the NFL’s salary cap nor to a Cowboy’s fan concerning which midfield combo affords us the greatest chance versus our Group C opponents. I guess I don’t even want to. I like my separate sports worlds. Working for the Dolphins, I’d transform to a tougher me; during the days I’d walk in step by ripping on the next guy, play a game of pick-up football with the other interns in the evening, then cover the front desk and write for most of the night (realizing, finally, I was learning to enjoy solitude). At the crack of work I’d tuck my notebook away—God forbid someone catch me scrawling and accuse me of writing poetry.
But maybe it’s the World Cup excitement brewing in me (and the NFL off-season slogging by), but today, at this very moment, I pledge a sort of schoolyard connection the USMNT. In another life, I write about comedians; I love certain Stand-ups’ mindsets, say, Rock and Brian Regan and a few of the Big Dead Guys; I’m drawn to the way these guys see the world, but these guys, on stage, are just bigger than me. Their personas are intended to act that way. These NFL players—Brandon Marshall, Jake Long, Ricky Williams, the Dolphins of today—are simply much more than I am. And some days I want to look far beyond myself, view the Bigger, Stronger, Faster, the guy on a billboard, mainly because he isn’t me. So I can forget me. But right now I can at least believe that the guys on this U.S. squad aren’t yet untouchable. And from my couch, this Wednesday, and hopefully beyond, no matter how beautiful, how knockabout their game, I’ll stand and sit, stand and sit and hold my head, but I’ll squint and make myself believe that I’m out there too.