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A Magazine of Ideas

Reflections of a Casual Fan

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

I have but one love in sports and it is an unfortunate one. I love Northwestern football.

Joe Epstein wrote earlier this month of his life as a couch potato. His essay was, as all of his are, lucid and amusing and illuminative of a little explored aspect of life in these uncertain times. There are magazines and websites devoted to almost every sport you can think of (yes, the North American Tiddlywinks Association is online). My daily paper has an entire section devoted to the major American ones, wherein I can learn not only who won last night’s game but how a cover-2 defense works and which high school athletes from Texas and Florida are being most heavily recruited.

I’ve always considered that the numerous large TVs loudly displaying various sporting events required my putting quotation marks around the word “Irish” when describing the tavern nearest my home. A recent visit to the land of 40 shades of green put me right. The Irish are just as nuts as Americans; only the games have been changed to confound the visitor.

But who, besides Joe, speaks for the casual fan? Or rather, for the casual and merely occasional glancer-at? There must be lots of us. I’d suppose upward of several dozen, scattered across the U.S. of A.

Let’s first address this “couch potato” label. It’s a metaphor, I recognize. Just how much so, you may not. Here is the fact: Joe is a slim fellow and not at all lumpy. “Not an ounce of fat on him,” we might once have described him. Nowadays, of course, that would be expressed as a precise percentage rather than in crudely avoirdupois terms. I have no way of knowing for certain, but I suspect Joe could drop and give the sergeant twenty. If the botanic element is mandatory here, we’d more aptly think of him as a couch carrot stick.

For me that would not be so apt. At a guess, he gives away about 40 pounds to me (as Don King might put it). I’m not globoid, I hasten to add; beanish, maybe. A fairly fit bean.

Also unlike Joe, I do not know George Will. But like George, I have but one love in sports and it is an unfortunate one. I love Northwestern football. I became addicted in the Ara Parseghian era, lived head down and collar up through the years of Alex Agase, John Pont, Rick Venturi, and the rest — when the Wildcats set the NCAA record for consecutive losses — and only came out into the light again in 1995. I proudly display my Wheaties Big Ten Championship box in my home.

The sanity of our civilization may well depend one day on we few who are well rested, and have intact ACLs.

That same home lacks a couch and a TV. I do have a nice rocking chair, though, made by a couple of the lesser-known Stickley brothers, and I have a radio. That is how I keep track of the Wildcats and how I sometimes, rarely, and only in pretty fair weather, check in on, say, a Bears game. So I’m a rocker bean, I guess, though I doubt that’s a phrase destined for meme-dom.

Joe had unkind words for two icons of Chicago sports, Jack “Hey Hey” Brickhouse and Harry “They’re here from Kankakee” Caray, both baseball chaps. He should only try the Bears on radio. The other week the “color man,” as I believe the role is known, offered this bit of hard-won football wisdom:

“The one thing you don’t want to do in the red zone is throw a pick.”

For those fellow couch- or rocker-types unversed in this particular line of jargon, I translate:

“The one thing you don’t want to do when between the opponents’ 20-yard line and the goal is throw the ball to an opposing player.”

Let’s agree that you don’t want to do this. Is it truly the only thing you don’t want to do? And are you entirely comfortable, then, with tossing an interception in other areas of the field?

How many times have I heard one of these guys illuminate the subtle strategy of football, the inner game that we casual spectators hardly appreciate, by opining along these lines:

“You know, Frank, with halftime coming up in just about 14 minutes, this is a crucial possession for the Carpenter Ants. They’re going to want to score on this one.”

Suddenly you understand that their failure to score on any of their previous possessions was all part of the “game plan,” that mystic path to victory that the coaches have devised over a quart of Old Overcoat. Indiscriminate scoring is for amateurs.

(The great comment on sportscasters of this kind was made by Bob and Ray so many years ago in a skit in which the video portion of a football broadcast is lost and the color man goes on obliviously, not quite describing the halftime show.)

Again unlike Joe, I could not play basketball. My vertical leap was on the order of an inch and a quarter, and my eyesight was such that I could seldom distinguish the basket in the gym from the climbing rope. An injury put an abrupt end to my very brief career in high school football but, in a twist that Emerson might have celebrated in “Compensation,” it also kept me out of Vietnam. The Universe taketh and then it lendeth back, at interest.

Whatever sort of Furniture-Vegetable-American you may be, be of good cheer. Despite what you will be feeling in a few weeks’ time, the bowl season does not last forever. And who can say? The sanity of our civilization may well depend one day on we few who are well rested, and have intact ACLs.

Robert McHenry is former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica and is a contributing writer to He is the author of How to Know.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also writes “On the Origins of Bunk,” “‘Despair, Destitution, and Undiluted Evil,’” and “Science vs. PR.” Joseph Epstein contributes “The Complex Life of the Couch Potato,” “A Couch Potato at a Time of Transition,” and “Football’s Head Games: The Concussion Question.” Daniel Hanson discusses “A Strike To End NFL's Official Nonsense.”

Feature image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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