There was a time in my life when the memories were fresh, but eventually they began to fade and almost completely disappeared into the subconscious recesses of my mind. It took my father’s passing almost three decades later to bring them back, in an effort to make sense of all those things that I had left behind. After all, it’s undeniably part of the fabric of what I became. To deny it would be a lie. But in confronting the past, I have also been forced to confront the hazardous and ever-changing nature of memory itself.
Colossus of steel and stone
Stands quiet and aloof;
A gray monolith in the dwindling light.
When I walk alone down the ramp into its
Cavernous field of play
It’s like going back in time -
Traveling back into the closed off
Regions and recesses of my mind.
This privilege given the former gladiators,
To come and go -
Somehow the security guards always know.
“Take as much time as you want,” they say.
Like I’m a veteran at a memorial.
Or a victim to a crash site.
A special pass to gain entry to a controlled area
Where only a few have gone and known.
Emerging from the darkness of the tunnel,
Into the bright shining light,
Standing now under the north goalpost
I take in the scene, the only person there -
Along with 75,000 vacant chairs.
And I close my eyes.
This is my moment.
No one can interrupt it.
There’s nobody here.
And the old feelings start to come back
Ever so slightly, slowly but surely
An energy pulsing through limbs
Heartbeat now firm, blatant and palpable
Pulsating in my neck.
But I’m not here to relive past “glories;”
I am here on a search, a quest,
An investigation of past events
That impacted our lives.
I open my eyes to see.
I look over to where my father made that block
I’ve seen so many times on old grainy films,
Opening up the lane for the winning score
That brought bedlam down in the northwest corner -
That was the flashpoint;
That started there and spread like wildfire up through
The rest of the stadium
And then out across the hills and forests to the west
And eastward across the campus and into town,
And then across the entire state.
I walk out onto the field -
Open, crowned, beautiful expanse of green,
Cut in brilliant white lines, geometric, ordered.
That’s something about the game -
It’s structure, it’s rules, it’s lines,
That appeals to the innate need for clear structure
In all of us.
If you do this, a certain thing results;
If you fail to do this, another thing results.
If you violate this rule, you and your team are penalized.
And so on and so forth.
Players get addicted, at least accustomed, to this structure.
And when the game is over for them, they miss it.
And I have missed that structure in the civilian world,
That clear, defined goal;
Clearly articulated missions;
Immediate favor or accountability when successful or not;
A meritocracy where performance mattered more
Than family name, genes, lineage or connections.
But at what cost?
The thought fades.
I see the spot where twenty-five years later
About sixty yards across the field from where
Dad made his play — one of so many,
I made a touchdown-saving tackle
That helped preserve a win and a championship season
But knocked me unconscious for a moment.
Sending me into a week of dazed and uncertain days -
Voices ringing, lights garish and bright, sounds too loud.
Senses seeming to short-circuit, surge and wane
Until it all resolved.
Thirty years later now -
A faded memory of a time I can barely recall.
And I keep walking.
The wins and the losses cross my mind.
The hits that left me staggered.
And the sound of the crowd as it roared.
The ’89 game against Houston
With our backs to the wall.
We’d lost to Texas the week before
And a team that had scored 95 points was coming in.
And we beat them.
It was the loudest place I’ve ever witnessed.
This is something fans do not know.
The sound in a stadium all gathers on the surface
And dwarfs what you hear in the stands.
I had to scream at teammates standing next to me
And they still couldn’t hear what I was saying
Nor could I hear them.
From a foot away.
But the scoreboard said we won.
And the cacophony continued after the game was over.
We could hear it in the locker room.
We could hear it an hour later
As we prepared to board the buses.
The fans never left.
They stayed back to see us get on the buses.
It was unbelievable.
We went out and boarded and the buses pulled away.
And there were throngs of people standing in what seemed
Five or six-deep behind the security ropes.
The police holding them back.
Yelling, cheering, screaming as we pulled away.
I will never forget it.
But why was it so important?
The question never entered my mind until years later.
And I never got a good answer.
What did it cost in the end?
Events compressed into a short span of years,
Ephemeral, fleeting victories the price of which
We found out was not brief and immediately paid,
Nor neatly wrapped up and securely ensconced in that time;
But would lie concealed and hidden, like a patient demon,
Waiting to unleash its insidious wrath on the unwary.
Oh, we would learn.
And our education in the costs plays out over years,
Across decades and even generations.
And even though they now know about the price paid,
The throngs still line up to wait for a brief glimpse
Of the heroes that come so easily these days.
Our gods come cheap in America;
You can become one just by scoring a touchdown,
Or putting a basketball through a hoop,
Or hitting a home run.
But when you no longer do those things
You’re not only no longer a god
You are forgotten.
It’s an indictment of American culture.
We make various excuses for behaving like this.
We legitimize our attitudes by saying the man
Makes a lot of money and is set for life,
As if this gives sanction to the mindset.
My answer is I made more money as a lawyer
In my first job out of law school — $35,000,
Than my father ever did in any of his nine years in the NFL.
I’ve little time or tolerance for your sentiments.
I sincerely hope you never have to see the look in your
Father’s eyes when he doesn’t recognize you anymore.
I genuinely wish you never have to sit in a hospice room
With him for eight long and excruciating days
After they’ve turned off all his life support,
When the doctors told you it would only take 48 hours.
I wouldn’t want this for even my worst enemy if I had one.
But as for your “opinion,” keep clinging to it,
Like a life preserver.
It’s called an enabling mechanism.
No, it was never worth the costs.
None of it.
But I already know this.
And I find myself looking up at everything new.
The colossus is twice the size of what it was in my day,
Yet the “program” wins as many games as we used to lose.
No matter. I chuckle at the irony of it all.
The building and adding on continues, unabated.
More and more seats are empty.
The glory days are gone, I think forever.
Maybe they will downsize.
Not a chance.
I’ve had my fill. It doesn’t take much.
I walk back the way I came
Toward the north end zone.
I do not look back.
I’m now moving quicker than I did when I started.
It’s time to get out of here.
When I get to the tunnel, I do not pause;
I do not stop, turn around, and take one last look.
I don’t even slow my pace.
I walk straight up the tunnel, briefly into the darkness.
I see the light at the top of the ramp beckoning me onward.
And it grows brighter and brighter with each step.
Copyright© 2020, Glen Hines, from the new book Cathedrals in the Twilight.
Glen Hines is the author of the Anthology Trilogy of books — Document, Cloudbreak, and Crossroads — and the recently released Cathedrals in the Twilight, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.