My parents’ seventeen year marriage was a bitter battleground and their children its victims. I do not remember the source of their constant arguments, but shouting in my home was as familiar as the feel of my fingers through my hair. My sister, eight years older than me, dealt with the violent verbal duel by disappearing into her high school theater group. My brother, sought my father’s approval, a futile struggle, as dad saw second best as first loser, and John wasn’t the best at anything. His frustrations led to violent outbursts at school, and my parents sent him to military school at fourteen when his behavior finally fell beyond the public school’s system to control it. I was the youngest and sought refuge in football cards. The men in my family were all professional football fans, and what began as a handoff from one generation to the next became an obsession for me. And, although I loved playing the game, I understood I would always be a fan, because I was too small to play anywhere beyond the sandlot.
In 1980, at age seven, I began obsessively collecting football cards, and continued to so until 1987, when my parents, in grand coup de grace to rid their home of their children, sent me to military school as well, ending my love affair with the cards, which I was not allowed to take with me. My sister had left for college the year before my brother left home, so in three years my parents found themselves alone. The fighting must have been even worse in a childless home because the marriage would not last another year.
During the seven years before my parents sent me away, I accompanied my mother at least once a week to Safeway or Giant, hoping to wrangle a dollar from her to buy a pack of cards, which were housed in the candy aisles. I may have been the only child to stand so obsessively in those aisles and ignore the treats. The cards were packaged in clear cellophane, divided into three stacks. I scanned both sides of each pack, trying to avoid doubles, a strange habit considering they were inevitable once all the cards were sorted through. Unable to contain my enthusiasm, I opened each pack on the ride home, then made my way to the basement, where the cards sat in a blue and white Minolta copy paper box. I never kept the cards in any kind of album; cards were made to be handled. Because I sorted them so frequently, my cards had frayed edges, were often bent in the middle, or simply wrinkled. Despite appearance, I treated them with care. I never ate or drank anything while handling them, and each card was placed back in the box at the end of the day.
The fun was in the sorting. As my parents voices echoed throughout the house, I sat in the basement pouring over the cards. I sorted by year and position. On Saturday night I sorted the cards into five rows by team, then thumbed through them while watching the games on Sunday afternoon. Although baseball is usually the game in which players are judged by their statistics, I obsessively ranked my cards based on such data. Unconsciously, I memorized these numbers, as if the more I could delve into the information, the more I could escape the constant screaming. With each packet I checked which quarterback threw for the most yards his rookie season (Jim Zorn of Seattle), which wide receiver scored the most touchdowns in any given season (John Jefferson of San Diego), or which running back had gained the most yards in his career (Walter Payton of Chicago). I began spouting the data to anyone within earshot, diverting all talk to football.
“Tony Dorsett’s best season was in 1981, when he gained more than 1,600 yards rushing, but the only year he led the league in rushing was the strike-shortened year of 1982. Both years the Cowboys lost in the NFC Championship Game, first to the Niners, then the Redskins.”
My seemingly photographic recall of such data became a parlor trick between my father and me, who would pepper me with questions at family functions as my aunts and uncles looked on in awe. And I happily answered the questions because the routine masked the fact that my father didn’t talk to me much and made me think my relatives might be unaware that my parents tore each to pieces almost ritualistically. Dad would pull out a handful cards and make everyone gather around for the show.
“Chris, who led the league in rushing in 1979?”
“Otis Anderson. O.J. That was his rookie year with the Cardinals.”
“What college did Jim Plunkett attend?”
“Who drafted him?”
“New England. Then he played with San Francisco. Then Oakland.”
“Ken Anderson is the quarterback for the Bengals. Who did Cincinnati draft in 1979 anyway?
“Jack Thompson. The ‘Throwin’ Samoan.’ He hasn’t done anything.”
The call from Johnny Carson never came, but I was proud nonetheless.
As I learned about the game through my cards, I discovered football at that time was a game dominated by running backs. Today, football is a passing game. But in the late seventies and through the eighties, runners ruled. So many teams had thousand yard per year rushers back then, the benchmark for success. Tony Dorsett, Otis Anderson, Walter Payton, Billy Sims, Freeman McNeil, John Riggins, George Roberts, William Andrews, Chuck Muncie, Wilbert Montgomery, James Brooks, Joe Cribbs, Franco Harris, and Marcus Allen were among the great cast of running backs whose cards I owned and whose skill I admired, not just for the statistical achievement, but for their toughness. Running backs face the defense in ways others do not. When a quarterback drops to back to pass, part of the defense must stay back to cover whomever he might throw to. Wide receivers catch the ball with some defenders behind them. But when a running back receives a handoff, the entire defense faces him. Yes, he has blockers, but the back must face eleven men who function as a collective wall, bent on punishing his desire to move the ball forward. No player is hit, scratched, and abused more than a running back, who takes the pain, rises off the ground, and returns to do it again. And no one carries the ball more often. And, except for cornerbacks, running backs are collectively the smallest men on the field. I marveled at the refusal to quit, no matter how much determination there was to stop his desire to reach the end zone. To achieve that happiness. My favorite card was one of Walter Payton leaping over the Tampa Bay Buccaneer defenses, perfectly horizontal, the ball just past the goal line, forever out of the reach of his abusers.
Time wore on and I became more aware of my parents’ fighting. I dove deeper into my obsession with football. Soon the cards weren’t enough. With a small group of friends, I played pick-up games daily, pretending to be the heroes of the day in the parking lot in front of the neighborhood pool we rarely swam in.
“I’m Tony D,” Mike always claimed.
“I’m Wilbert Montgomery,” I returned, hiding my disappointment at having to choose my second favorite player.
“I’m Kenny Stabler,” said Tre.
“He quarterbacked the Raiders to the Super Bowl over the Vikings in 1977,” I chanted. “Then the Raiders traded him for Dan Pastorini, who couldn’t get on the field. Lost that job to Jim Plunkett.”
“I’m Wes Chandler,” said Michael.
“He took over for John Jefferson after the Chargers traded him to the Packers” I informed the group.
And we waged on our war on a concrete gridiron.
At home, my parents continued to fight. I added books to my curriculum. If I wasn’t sorting my cards or playing football, I was reading about it. I checked out any book I could get my hands on from my elementary school library, devoured them, and moved on to the public library. My discovery of these books was particularly useful the summer my family went on a cross country vacation in a Ford LTD. No longer could I venture down to the basement or run outside with a football in my hand to escape my parents’ arguing, nor could I carry a large amount of cards in the car. Still, I lay on the floorboard in the backseat and recited data I collected from the books, trying to quell the rage my parents hurled at each other, or simply kept quiet, absorbed in the books themselves, tuning out the tumult and learning along the way that there is no such thing as useless information.
“In 1984 Eric Dickerson entered the league and set the rookie rushing record with 1,808 yards. Then in 1985 he set the regular season rushing record with 2,105 yards.”
Twenty-five years later, little has changed. My sister still hangs out in the theater. John strives to be the best. I watch football. And dad’s still mad. I talk to him infrequently. The conversation is always the same.
“Heard from your sister.”
“What’s she doing.”
“She’s in a play right now.”
“Jesus Christ. Still wearing costumes.”
“He’s back in school. Hopefully he’ll finish this time.”
“Goddamn. Forty years old and still sitting in a classroom.”
The distance between where we are and where I want us to be seems immeasurable. I wonder if our failures can be overcome. I feel too little to be the one to carry it all. But then I see a tiny hole. I take a deep breath, shrug off the blows, and move forward the only way I know how.
“Hey, Dad. Did you hear Chris Johnson gained 2,000 yards for the Titans a couple years ago. Yeah. Only O.J. Simpson, Eric Dickerson, Terrell Davis, and Jamal Lewis ever did that.”