Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Play Until The Whistle Blows

Legend has it that at the age of four my father observed me intently watching a college football game in our basement. “Who do you want to win, Ducky?” (Yep, it was Ducky then, it’s Ducky now, let’s just move on.) Without hesitation I answered, “The guys in the stripes.” I wanted the officials to win. It would be nice to believe there was a deeper meaning in my response, like I was on the side of fair play or something, but I think I was just dumb.

I loved watching football with my dad even when I had no idea what was going on. Typical Saturdays and Sundays often went something like this.

Ducky: Who’s that guy who always wears a fancy hat and looks mad?

Daddy: That’s Tom Landry. And they all look mad.

Ducky: Who’s the guy with red face?
Daddy: Woody Hayes.
Ducky: Why is his face always so red?
Daddy: Because he’s Woody Hayes.

Ducky: Is Notre Dame in Montana?
Daddy: No, JOE Montana PLAYS for Notre Dame in South Bend.
Ducky: South Bend is kind of a dumb name for a town. South of what? Bend around what?
Daddy: (Sigh)

Ducky: So we don’t like Michigan?
Daddy: Hell no.
Ducky: But we like Michigan State?
Daddy: Right.
Ducky: I don’t get it.
Daddy: You will.

In my defense, please remember, I’m told these conversations took place before I was even ten years old. I’m sure my parents wondered what kind of ruffian pixie was in their midst when a player on the opposing team took a hit, and while he lay on the field I would yell, “Stay down!” Now that I’m older I always think of the poor kid’s parents first, and then I yell, “Stay down!” I’m sorry people. This is football, not a tea party.

I love the game for the game. I love the wildcat (when it works), the faked punt (when it works), a successful onside kick (for my team, when it works), a competent Tampa 2 coverage (Thanks Tony Dungy), a well executed trick play: maybe a little flea flicker or a Statue of Liberty. I love a good sack, when it’s not my guy and a game winning field goal when it’s my team winning. It’s all beautiful to me.

Lately though, I’ve turned from fan to apostle. My spirit has taken many sacks. I’m bloodied, and inside I hear someone screaming “Stay Down!” Then there’s the unmistakable voice of Woody Hayes, “There is nothing that cleanses the soul like getting the hell kicked out of you.” Lombardi stands over me and says, “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up.” And if that weren’t enough, there’s Shug Jordan in my ear whispering, “Always remember…Goliath was a 40 point favorite over David.”

I find great power in the words of legendary coaches and players. Because Notre Dame is my team, I hope I’ll get a special dispensation for the following blaspheme: when I need guidance I go to the Bible, but when I need somebody to give me a kick in the pants, I go to Rockne, Lombardi, Holtz, Devine, Hayes, Schembechler, Bryant, Parcells, Madden, Heisman, and on and on and on. Their words inspire me to lift my head, struggle to put a knee on the turf, pull myself up and rip off my lid so my enemy can see my face as I yell Dan Devine’s immortal words: “No one comes into our house and pushes us around!”

The first day we sat in the office of the IVF clinic, hoping to meet a doctor with a magic wand who could pull a baby out of a hat, Graham and I looked at each other. Knowing we were about to embark on a journey that was not for the faint of heart, I said to him, “Well, welcome to the NFL.” That’s the attitude we’ve tried to hold onto loss after loss after loss. We listened for a long time to statistics, probabilities (or more aptly improbabilities). So much information flying by like uncatchable passes when really all I needed to hear was that this process was so complex and serious you had to fully commit, leave nothing on the field. “You have to play this game like somebody just hit your mother with a two-by-four.” What I think you suggest by that Dan Birdwell, is that you better get mean or the mean will get you.

As the nurse explained all the drugs, shots, ultrasounds, risks, and expense I barely listened. I’d read it all already. I’d read it all months ago, so I smiled and looked over at my friend John Madden who succinctly summed up the situation with: “The road to easy street goes through the sewer.” Coach, you should get out of the video game racket. You sir, are a philosopher.

I remember the first night I had to give myself a shot. I fear only a few things in this life: rodents, heights, those mermaid gowns that poof out at the bottom, and needles. Oh God, I prayed, please dress me in a mermaid gown and throw me out of a plane with a rat in each hand, but don’t make me stick this needle in my stomach. I worried the point would not hit the right spot because my hands were so slippery with sweat, and then there was Lou Holtz, “It’s not the load that breaks you down – it’s the way you carry it. No one has ever drowned in sweat.” Ok Coach. You better not be full of… Well how about that? In it went and I didn’t even flinch.

Good news. After two miscarriages, three turned out to be the charm. We would NOT go three and out. Not this team, not this time. Our baby’s heart beat registered 123. Very average. For the first time in my life I thought average sounded gorgeous. Joe Namath knew of what he spoke when said, “When you win, nothing hurts.” What he didn’t say, is when you think you’ve won and you haven’t, everything hurts. A week later the heartbeat was 91. It was going to be over in a couple days. “I don’t think there’s a punch line scheduled, is there?” No Coach Lombardi, not this time.

Well, “when in doubt punt," says Heisman. So a few months later without the help of needles, machines, or thousands of dollars worth of drugs there we were again, pregnant. We were going to go for it on fourth down and make it this time. “You can learn more character on the two-yard line than anywhere else in life.” Right Coach Dietzel? And that’s where we were. I’d even accept that rotten Bush Push to get me into the end zone this time, but just don’t talk to me about that 2005 USC/ND game (Come on, Reader, I’m trying real hard for levity here.)

I was scared the whole time, but Bear Bryant taught me “there’s no substitution for guts.” So the day we went in for our first OB appointment I made sure to bring all my guts with me. Everybody was there to congratulate us like we had already won. That made me a little nervous because you never assume the W before it’s on the board. I lay down on the table and all I can tell you is that Coach Rockne was right, “You don’t need to see a good tackle. You can hear it.” And it sounds like this: “I’m really very sorry.”

A couple days later I was back on the operating table for the second time in six months. Thank you Knute, may I call you Knute? Ok. Coach Rockne, thank you for what you said to me those moments before they brought the blitz of some very potent drugs, “Yes, I know that you feel you’re not strong enough. That’s what the enemy thinks too. But we’re going to fool them.”

In March we’ll try for our fifth pregnancy and our first live birth. Most of the time we’re scared, but then I think about those needles, drugs, and blood draws every day, and ultrasounds every other day and I think, Screw ‘em. I can do this better than anyone else because like Rockne says, “This is my show.”

Maybe we’ll sit in that office someday and everything will be wonderful, but if it isn’t I swear to myself and to Graham what will happen: I will lift up my head, struggle to put one knee on the turf, raise myself up and rip off my lid so my enemy can see my face when I say, like Parcells, “There is winning and there is misery.” And I'm done with the latter.

Now...get out of my way. We're gonna play until the whistle blows.


  1. From what I understand, there's no crying in baseball. But the same is not true regarding blog posts about football. There are plenty of sissy tears in this locker room where I sit all damp-faced, staring at my laptop.

  2. Absorbed in the emotions. Thrilled with the fortitude.

    And football, too?

    Oh, man...
    Oh, woman...

    Gale Sayers' 2-cents: "I've learned that if you want to make it bad enough, no matter how bad it is, you can make it."

    Make it, girl...make it.

  3. That's my girl, Ali! And I'm cheering for your team! With all that I am...with all that I have to give...Get your ass out on that field and win this game!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I love, you sweet, friend! Vicky