A Football Carolposted by Scott Engler
A cold November wind blew across the Northern Indiana landscape as Jack Swarbrick settled into his bedroom for the night. He had been looking forward to this respite for the better part of the afternoon; a chance to escape the pressure, the speculation, the inquiring stares that had filled his days for the past few weeks. He felt he was up to the task, but nonetheless found the rituals of a disintegrating football season fatiguing. He thought about a nightcap, but upon considering the matter, (for he prided himself on his consideration of matters) he felt that a night of uninterrupted sleep would better prepare him for the messy, competetive and occasionally duplicitous interactions which necessarily follow a failed coaching tenure at the highest level of college football. Jack glanced at the bottle or TUMS on the bedside table, drew up the covers and closed his eyes in anticipation of a peaceful night's sleep.
Somewhere in that twilight between slumber and groggy consciousness, Jack was startled by the appearance of a large human form at the foot of his bed. He bolted upright with a start.
"Who are you? How did you get in? What do you want?" Jack demanded.
The form stepped into the pale lunar illumination, allowing Jack to make out his features. It was a man, rather large, wearing a dusty business suit and wrapped about with a chain of paper clips.
"Hi Jack. Don't be afraid. I have been sent here to help you."
The faint glimmer of recognition flickered in Jack's mind. "Hey, aren't you Mike Wadsworth?"
"You recognized me!" the apparition gushed with apparent delight. "Well, sort of, but I am here tonight to warn you, that you may have yet a chance and hope of escaping the, um, less noted parts of my legacy."
"What do you want from me?" Jack asked suspiciously.
"You will be visited tonight by three spirits. Heed them."
"Three spirits. Right." Jack peered closely at the aparition. "Hey, what's the deal with the chain?"
"Oh, that. That's just something I made to pass the time waiting for you to fall asleep. When you are an athletic director who carries water on the business side of college athletics, well your legacy tends to involve a lot of office supplies. Well, I must be going. There is a mixer in minor ambassador's heaven, and they always run out of food early." And just like that, the phantom was gone.
Jack settled back onto his pillow. He was a little unnerved by his recent experience, but thought if he closed his eyes, that would prove that he was really just asleep and having a weird dream. So he closed his eyes. To prove his theory he popped open one eye expecting simply to see the nocturnal forms of his bedroom furniture, but was disappointed, and a little unnerved to find a stocky, intense looking man at the foot of the bed, just where the image of Mike Wadsworth had been.
"I am the spirit of football past" the spirit announced.
"No you're not. You're Joe Yonto!" Swarbrick gasped.
"Grab my sweatshirt. NOW!" was the reply. Jack complied and with a whoosh, Jack and the spirit flew past autumn fields where the great Notre Dame teams of the past had earned their glory. Jack recognized (from pictures of course, since he had not been there): Gus Dorais, the Four Horsemen, The "Gipper" speech, the 1938 Ohio State game, Leahy, Bertelli, Motts Tonelli, Ara, Lou. The images zoomed past, and Jack was stricken by how the triumphs seemed endless. Joe Montana, 38-10, Rocket.
Jack watched in wonder for a few minutes, then slowly shook his head. "Okay, I get it. But you have to understand; things have changed. The world is different. We're different..."
"Nonsense!" answered the spirit. "If that were true, I wouldn't need to be here. Did you see all that tradition, all that success? Do you know why Notre Dame is different, why it means something?" Jack cleared his throat to reply, hoping to end the conversation with the practiced answers he had given to the press the past few days, but the spirit continued.
"People look to Notre Dame because it stands for somethng, and as your president may have found out, standing for something is hard. People want to believe that there is a point to doing things the right way. That you can not only succeed but excel without becoming cynical and cutting corners, and taking the cheap and easy. People want to believe that excellence is something more than finding the right combination of compromises. And you are at Notre Dame. You have almost a century of accomplishment, of pride, of tradition. That tradition matters. Tradition reminds people that there were triumphs, that they did overcome the odds, that what they did and how they did it matter. It would take most of the teams in the country half a century to catch up with where Notre Dame used to be. You can't let that just fade away because you mistakenly think that just because the landscape changes, the values have too."
The image of the great coach was becoming more animated, the baritone voice reverberrating in Jack's ears. Then there was silence. Jack saw the intense glare that must have quickened the effort of many a lineman during some of Notre Dame's glory years. "Grab my sleeve," the great coach ordered. Jack complied, and in a moment were back in Jack's darkened bedroom.
The spirit deposited Jack back in his bed with a flick of his arm, sending Jack's skull uncomfortably into the headboard. As Jack looked back, rubbing his bruised scalp, he saw a faint hint of a smile on the spirit's lips, again just as many players had seen when they finally grasped a point the coach was drilling. The spirit then departed with the admonition "Don't ruin it."
Jack was reluctant to close his eyes again, dreading another uninvited visitor when he again had to opened them. Nonetheless he let his eyelids drift down and lifted them again to find an apparition bearing a strong resemblance to Lou Holtz. The sprit introduced himself. "I am the spirit of football present." Jack got a queasy feeling in his gut."Oh, no" he moaned. The present state of Notre Dame football was mostly the cause of his nighttime anxieties.
"Look, I know all about the state of football present," Jack suggested. "Can't you just hash this out with Mark May or something and let me do my job. I did manage to get the NCAA to come to Indianapolis you know?" Jack thought that the last bit of information might buy him credit to allow him to finally get to sleep, but this spirit ignored him. "Grab my sweatshirt." With an exasperated sigh, Jack grabbed hold and in an instant the pair was at a medium sized stadium that Jack did not recognize.
"Where are we?" Jack wondered aloud.
"It doesn't matter. I want to show you something." Jack and the spirit settled into a pair of empty seats and turned their attention to the "bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below." After a few unremarkable plays, with the offensive team on about its own thirty yard-line, the apparition poked Jack in the ribs and advised "Okay, now here is the good part. I want you to watch those cheerleaders down by the goal line and that group of middle aged men a few rows below."
Just then, the running back broke through the line, shook a tackler and sprinted down the sideline toward the endzone. As he had been instructed, Jack focused on the cheerleaders for the offensive team. They were jumping wildly, screaming, waving their arms, embracing each other, Jack observed the group of men that the sprit identified doing the same thing. When the runner reached the end zone, there were back slaps, high fives, and loud, uninhibited cheers. Jack was bemused. "Okay" he allowed "they scored. What was I supposed to notice?" The spirit looked at Jack impatiently. "Come, on!" the spirit exclaimed. "When do people behave like that? Think about this, do people show that kind of joy when they get good news? When a stock in their portfolio splits? When the biopsy results come back negative? When a beloved daughter dumps the bum before the wedding? Now understand this: all those things are important, they involve life and death, important influences on the future, et cet'ra, et cet'ra" Jack noted the distinctive midwestern elision in the latter two words, and the spirit continued "When you get good news like that in life, you feel grateful and humbled and fortunate. Most of the great moments in life are tempered by perspective and we should never lose sight of that." Then the spirit became upbeat, animated, just like the other Lou Holtz. "But that's what's so great about football. You see people experience joy like they did when they were kids. That joy is a precious thing that you shouldn't take for granted. Now consider this: nine of the fifteen largest sports stadiums in the world are american college football stadiums. Do you wonder why that is? And if your first though was about revenue opportunities then you just don't get it. People believe that all this is important, not in the financial sense, but in the emotional sense. The University of Penn State and the University of the University of Tennessee build those large stadiums because it is important, it's necessary to be enthusiastic about things beyond everyday struggles. The Greeks understood this. That's why they had the Olympics. Football excellence is not life or death, but it is still important to people. What would life be like if you never had the chance to cheer like that after junior high?" Jack didn't say anything. He was still baffled a little by the paradox. Without another word, the spirit grabbed jacks pajama shirt and in a flash, Jack was alone again in his darkened room.
He really didn't like the confusion he was feeling, but he had no time to dwell on it. Without Jack even having time to close his eyes the third spirit barged into the room and announced himself. "I am the spirit of football future, Mr. Swabstick, and I wanna tell ya, it's great to see ya. You're a real Notre Dame man."
"My God!" exclaimed Jack, with his heart in his throat. "You're...Gerry Faust! You're the spirit of football future?" Jack looked desperately around the room, ironically hoping to find another spirit.
"Scary huh? Hey listen, it's really great to be here but I gotta show you some things, Jeff, so grab on and let's get going." Jack swallowed hard, closed his eyes and took hold. When he opened his eyes he was in a half-empty Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish had the ball late in the third quarter, but Jack didn't recognize the opponent. He glanced around to see a large electronic billboard flashing ads for assisted living centers, nursing homes and home oxygen companies. Signs above the entryways asked fans to turn off pagers and cellphones. The stadium from the pressbox down to the field level between the forties was planted with peonies, azaleas and marigolds. An inflatable bouncing castle stood unused behind the south endzone. The sight made Jack uneasy and he directed his attention back to the action on the field.
The Irish had the ball third and twenty one from their own nine yard line. As they broke the huddle, Jack asked the spirit "Who are we playing anyway?"
"DeVry," the affable phantasm replied. "Oh, say a Hail Mary, Jim" Just then, the Irish snapped the ball and with a sense of futility all to familiar to Jack, he watched as the snap sailed out of the endzone.
"Ahhh, doggone it," his guide said, to no one in particular. Jack felt the customary sinking feeling as time expired in the third quarter. The stadium announcer prattled on about this group of employees and that, gave a PSA for energy efficient lightbulbs and reminded those present to get a flu shot. Jack shifted in his seat uncomfortably, turning his attention to the band preparing what he expected would be another rendition of the 1812 Overture. When the band started playing however, it was not the Tchaikovsky's opus but the Disney standard "It's a Small World." After about six notes Jack leapt from his seat and bolted for the exit. He felt a hand on his shoulder as he passed from the sunlight, and once again was back in his room. His heart was pounding and his palms were sweaty.
"Before you leave,spirit, answer me one question. Was that the vision of the things that will be, or are they the vision of things that May be, only?"
The spirit drew a deep thoughtful breath, then putting his hand on Jack's shoulder, looked him squarely in the eye and said:
"Well Jack, that's what a lot of people are watching you to find out."