‘Why Football Matters’: a life shaped by sports

footballPenguin Press is publishing a wonderful coming of age memoir on Thursday, “Why Football Matters,” by Mark Edmundson.

The author, who teachers English at the University of Virginia, makes a strong, lucid case for the way that his connection to football — both as a very young spectator and later as a high school player — prepared him for life in ways that he didn’t understand at the time.

It’s a “sports book” for people, like me, who have never cared much about football or any other game.

Edmundson makes such a tight connection with the reader, and tells his own story so well, that the nuts-and-bolts of playing football becomes secondary to the personal journey underneath the sport. It’s a book about finding a youthful connection with something we love that challenges us to grow.

The writer had a big wake-up call when he shifted from bonding with his dad while watching football on TV as a child to struggling to carve out a place on his high school team. It was painfully hard for Edmundson to play football but the rewards were worth the struggle:

“The game has a wake-up effect. You find out fast that no matter who you are, you get rewarded for hard work. It may not make you a star, but it will definitely increase your chances of starting or playing, or at least not getting your head knocked off. If you slack on conditioning, if you don’t eat right, if you drink too much, smoke too much tobacco or weed, your body will sag, your mind will go dim, and you’ll get hurt. Football is God in its own way. It’s uncertain whether the God above is just, but the God of football tends to be. You get out what you put in; all drops of legitimate sweat become negotiable tender.”

Edmundson is not naive about the downside of organized sports — “Its potential benefits are vast; its dangers are too” — but playing football taught the writer as much as the academic classes he attended.

“I can’t tell you where my undergrad diploma is, and my grad diploma, which was pretty grand-looking, got lost in a move. But in the bottom drawer of my dresser, there’s my football jersey, Medford Mustangs, number 66, white and rich royal blue…I get a look at that jersey nearly every day.”

In a time when criticism of football seems to increase with each new fall season, Edmundson makes a strong and passionate case for the sport’s rightful place in American society.

Joe Meyers