I did not think about football much – my heart was with basketball, even though I hadn't made our high school team – but once in a while I would wonder if there might be a place for me down there on the field that was lit up at night, and where I thought that place migt be was standing far back on the field by myself, waiting for a kick, and then running upfield past everybody, dancing past them by virtue of an understanding and appreciation of beauty and grace.
I was a poet, and I was a revolutionary like my father. I was not accomplished in either field but I knew that that was what I was. I felt like I could do a lot with that as a starting point. It opened things up to understanding, to view the world with an appreciation for the depth of feeling in it and with a compassion that extended over all of it.
What that meant for football was a belief that I could see the path a guy could take from where he caught the ball to the end zone or at least very close to it. Realistically I knew I could not score a touchdown each time but I felt like I could have an awareness of the path each time. There might be times when my speed wouldn't be enough, but at the heart of it was understanding and not speed.
The whole thing had more to do with beauty than with anything else. One night when I felt it very cleanly and easily, I went to my father and I asked him what he would say if I were to say that I wanted to play American football. I knew that he wouldn't be happy. When I was a boy, he had disallowed me to watch football on television because of its violence. I had had to sneak brief glimspes on Sunday afternoons when he wasn't in the room. He was washing dishes in the kitchen and he was quiet for a moment. “It is a brutal sport,” he said.
My father did not like brutality. He did not like it in life or in a sport or in anything. He had not liked the brutality that had existed in our country when he had lived there. He had not liked it to the point that he was put in prison and he had seen the brutality there.
I tried to become upset. I tried to think of what beautiful runs he was keeping the world from seeing, the kind where a guy was showing the world that there was much more right in front of its face than it had thought. I tried to think of how he was interrupting nature, how a guy who could move like that between everyone, a guy like that shouldn't be kept from doing so.
But I didn't feel it that way. I didn't feel kept from something as much as I felt allowed to see something else. I felt allowed to see the kind of gentleness that a man could have who had seen the worst kind of brutality. A man like that had no use for a sport in which the players were trying to do what the players did in football. There was enough brutality in the world as it was, and there was only one place for violence, in a last resort of self-defense against it.
“Stay with the basketball,” my father said. “That is a good enough sport.” He said it in the tone of a man who saw sports as a great luxury, which is what they had been to him at my age, when he had worked two jobs to support his family after his father had died. I knew that this was a different thing from most boys when they asked their fathers about playing football, and I felt like laughing about it. I felt like laughing a the seriousness the subject had at our house, its brutality having importance not in terms of whether I got hurt or not, but in whether or not it was for the good of humanity.
My father did not see much value in basketball in that regard, but at least it was not trying to hurt anybody. And I felt like laughing at the thought of taking up the cause of my right to play football, and of wanting him to be supportive of it the way other fathers were, because when I thought of his cause, mine seemed very small in comparison.
But behind the laughter was something beautiful. A man having been put in prison and having been tortured and having been freed and then put back in prison for having done the same things, and then coming out of the whole thing with a greater love for man than before, with an even greater belief in his ability to be good and kind.
I left the kitchen and looked back at my father returning to washing the dishes, and I knew that there was something stronger in gentleness than in anything else. I knew that what I was being allowed to see was bigger than what I was kept from. There was still a lot of beauty in a kick return, and my father was making a decision without an appreciation for any of it, but I was a poet, and I had to admit that there was more beauty in heeding the request of a man like him.