The Boys of Fall
The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote in The Cure at Troy of a belief that “hope and history rhyme.” For every time that immortal line has been used in relation to Northern Ireland’s peace process or Nelson Mandela - who inspired the poem, it has also found meaning in America. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden cited Heaney’s poem during his nomination acceptance speech. Two days out from the start of an unlikely NFL season, I find myself increasingly drawn to Heaney's hope and history line as an allegory to describe the 2020 football season. Football, like other sports, is not a life or death issue. Too often, it can be trivial in comparison with a major global pandemic, racial injustices and civil unrest. But through careful stewardship of players during return to play practices during COVID-19 and the NFL listening to its Black players, football is getting its chance to roll the dice on starting a season.
Football for Morale, Football for Life Whether you are a fan, or football it is your business, getting to see football this upcoming Thursday night and over the weekend is going to feel like an achievement. For me, it’s very personal.
I’m excited to cover an NFL season for the first time as a writer. A blog that began as a pandemic project has turned into more of a life calling. Opening weekend in my household will see the NFL vying for attention, with my wife, Jen and I potty training our son, Leo. It wasn’t scheduled this way, but perhaps it will work out, especially staying indoors all day on Sunday.
For my family, a feature of the pandemic has been regular trips to our great friends in Seattle for dinner. Back in May, my friend Steve Carver, captured the mood by saying, “we need football for morale.” Sports everywhere are learning to live with the virus. Football has the capacity to connect people - faraway and so close. The NFL’s international audience in Dusseldorf, Germany and Galway, Ireland are gunning for this as much as the locals in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and Boston. You need football for morale. But it is also an invaluable life boost right now. The precarious nature of football’s return should not be lost on anyone. The NFL is likely to be a week to week commodity as we enter flu season and go deeper into fall. We all know this. Just because week one of the regular season is about to start, the virus will call the shots, not us. One indiscretion and a team loses its best players. If one player on each team does that, the season could be cancelled. Looking back, it's been an extraordinary off-season. COVID-19 shook everything to the core. In the U.S., it has been followed by the most appalling instances of police killings of Black people and social unrest. Throughout, the NFL and each franchise is battling fires on different fronts and at the time of its greatest need, its players are emerging to find their voice, taking the right stance and proving to be the league’s greatest asset. Between the league organization, the franchises and perhaps most importantly, the players, there is a profound move to right the injustices, sincerely acknowledge systemic police brutality and racial profiling of Black people. Each NFL week will bring ample demonstration of this. Football has its naysayers, who say it's reckless to play now. I think Dr. Allen Sills, the NFL’s chief medical officer, said it best that we need to live with the virus, just like the schools, health systems and infrastructure adapting. The NFL and its teams deserve a lot of credit for paving the way to a return to football. Dynasty in Salary Cap Era While COVID-19 and protest at social injustices will underpin the season, there’s another big consideration as we focus on football matters. Are the Kansas City Chiefs building a dynasty? Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have proven it is possible in the salary cap era. The Super Bowl winners are bringing back almost their entire playing, coaching and personnel cast. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes signed a contract that effectively makes him a Chief for life. Head coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach agreed terms for the next six seasons. Star defender Chris Jones reached a deal in the off-season. Damien Williams, who played a starring role in the Super Bowl victory, has opted out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic. No panic. The Chiefs drafted Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round and, according to reports, they are giving him the kind of reps in practice to suggest he’s going to be a major part of their offense in 2020. A strange quirk of this season is that, depending on the state they’re in, some teams will have a percentage of fans at home games. Kansas City is allowed 17,000 fans or 22% of normal capacity at Thursday night's season opener against the Houston Texans. We’ll all be paying attention to how the atmosphere comes across on broadcast this week.
Hope and History For almost two thousand players to follow all the rules, continue to travel and have endless contact with each other is a tall order. Clusters of positive cases and disruptions to the National Football League schedule seem inevitable. When we see Patrick Mahomes pull off a dazzling throw on Thursday night it will make us smile. A never seen before season is upon us. I’m reminded of something Tom Silverstein, who covers the Green Bay Packers at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said about teams grasping the opportunity. Silverstein argued that the teams that go into this season battle hardened and brought together by COVID-19 and social injustices will be the most successful. He’s absolutely right.
Against the odds, America’s favorite pastime is banking on Heaney’s words, that the resilience and camaraderie built this season will be the hope that makes history rhyme.