Op Ed

On Football and Calculus

Learning about football is like learning about anything else ““ you watch it and read about it and before you know it, facts have burrowed into your brain like so many ground-dwelling owls burrowing into the ground. Players’ names, and not just the ones you’re cheering for or even like, get shoved in there.  Those (usually) dudes who’d show off their football prowess at dingy old sports bars make more sense: you can’t help picking up this information, and damn if it isn’t better to try and make some use of it.

When I was six years old, I would spend an hour or two after school with a babysitter before my mother and father could get home after work. I would work on my homework, or write in a little notebook in truly illegible scrawl. I’ve found the notebooks; I can attest to the poor quality of my penmanship. My babysitter was a high school student who took photography classes and calculus. I posed for a picture for her once: I was sitting on an old swing-set in a striped turtleneck that I am pretty sure was pink. It is still hanging on the wall in my childhood bedroom.

But I was mostly fascinated with calculus. I had recently started learning about math, and to me at age six, math meant numbers. I could not believe that the neat lines of letters and numbers and strange symbols that seemed to fit neither category were math.  I could not imagine a time where I would ever be able to know math at that level. My mind was thoroughly blown.

I don’t know which is the superior game, college or NFL, but where I grew up, college was king and I’ve found that to be a particularly hard bias to shed. Coming from a strong college background, everything about the NFL feels just a little bit off. For instance, the NFL plays with slightly different rules than college. That seems obvious, but the first time the clock didn’t stop when I thought it would was a shocking and learning experience.  The NFL is calculus, and college is basic math.

The first year I watched the NFL, I was almost overwhelmed by the newness of it. It was surprising to me how something so similar to something I was already familiar with and loved could be so incredibly different. The rules were different. The players were mostly unrecognizable, except for the few who did shampoo commercials or were Subway spokesmen.  The stadiums were on a completely different scale. I was this close to giving up on the whole thing. And then the next season happened.

Over the summer, players I had grown familiar with through their college play were training for their rookie years. The NFL teams now had obvious to me connections to my beloved college football. Some of the players from last year, who were seeing their NFL stocks rise and fall based on their previous year’s performance, were etched in my mind. The rules had somehow gotten stuck in my mind, too, and that whole year, the professional football game felt more familiar. I wasn’t entirely in my comfort zone, but I wasn’t entirely out of it either. I saw why people loved the sport and I saw how I could grow to love it, too.

I should have expected that. After all, by the time I reached high school, I was prepared for calculus. Each class I took moved me one step closer to derivatives and integrals – algebra threw me some letters, geometry taught me to think about tangible ideas in an abstract manner – and by the time I got there, I was ready. Why would I have expected football to be any different?

It takes time for things to make sense. It takes time for connections to form between new activities, hobbies, ideas, and thoughts, and the ones that have been nourished and cared for and loved and nurtured for years. It takes time for things to fall into place, and that’s the weird thing: they really do fall. My control seems to begin and end with effort – I put in hard work and hope something substantial comes out – and anything beyond that is luck or happenstance or whatever else you want to call it juggling the pieces into some sort of coherent form.

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