I have a shameful secret to confess: I don't love the NFL. In a country in which "Are you ready for some football?" is presumed to be a rhetorical question, I'm coming out of the closet--I'm flushing myself out of the pocket--as the last American male who has never bet on a game, joined the office pool, belonged to a fantasy league, played the Madden video game or owned a TV larger than my garage door.
Jevon Kearse isn't the Freak; I am, because loving the NFL is now a compulsory American activity, like jury duty. When the name of a Detroit defensive back was announced last Friday night during the Jets-Lions preseason game, a woman in my row at Giants Stadium said, "Is his name really R.W. McQuarters? I thought that was a McDonald's character."
Why would someone who can't tell an eight-year NFL veteran from the Hamburglar's accountant want to pay $70 to attend an exhibition game? Yet there we all were, chanting "J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets" and giddily sliding into D-E-B-T Debt Debt Debt.
Consider that more than 10,000 fans pay $50 a year, every year, for the privilege of keeping their names on the Jets' season-ticket waiting list. But the in-stadium experience, during five-minute television timeouts, is even less exciting than watching grass grow. (It's FieldTurf.)
Don't get me wrong: I do follow the NFL. Or more accurately, it follows me, like a missionary through an airport. So I can't help but know Drew Brees's quarterback rating and how to pronounce Laveranues and a whole glossary of NFL terminology.
Hash marks: What you might find on Ricky Williams's couch.
Dime package: What you might find under Ricky Williams's couch.
Quarterback: What you get after forking over $7 for a beer at Giants Stadium. (Yes, they're $6.75 a bottle.)
Encroachment is what the league keeps doing on our summers. The Hall of Fame game seems to sneak into our homes earlier every year. "Like a burglar climbing through the window," as a startled colleague put it. "I turned around, and it was there." If I have to watch the Cardinals and the Giants play in August, Albert Pujols better be batting third.
And please don't talk about the "preseason." Preseason is what you do to a steak before grilling it. George Carlin points out that you can't really "preheat" an oven or "preboard" an airplane: You can only heat an oven or board an airplane. Likewise, you're in season or you're not. So I paid $85 (with parking) to see the Jets and the Lions combine for 13 points in a scrimmage. It was a facsimile of fun. It was pre-fun.
I prefer college football. But that's just me, more Rose Bowl than Pro Bowl, more 'Noles-Gators than Whizzinators. Golden Dome? Love it. Edward Jones Dome? Not so much.
But evidently I'm a minority of one. The Cowboys are America's Team. The NFL is America's Game. The league's logo--in essence, a football on a flag on a shield--is an American holy trinity, its appeal universal. On Friday, I watched a man alight from a helicopter outside Giants Stadium, then board a limousine for the final 200 yards to the gate. And I watched another man alight from a van, with flames climbing up from his rear end. (I pray to God that was a tattoo.)
As for that vast America in between these two men: Where do I fit into it? We NFL agnostics have become the sports equivalent of blue staters, made to feel vaguely un-American for not sufficiently loving America's Game.
If only that game weren't quite so self-important, so humorless, so needlessly complicated. Quarterbacks wear tiny speakers in their helmets, have the Dead Sea Scrolls laminated to their wristbands and study more film (to less purpose) than Ebert & Roeper.
Owners wear French cuffs and starched collars on Sundays. Coaches, fearing lip readers, cover their mouths with manila folders, so that they all appear to suffer, self-consciously, from chronic halitosis (when surely only some of them do). Commissioner Paul Tagliabue recently asked those coaches, in a leaguewide memo, to loosen up. The Giants' Tom Coughlin tried to smile. But his face cracked and fell away like wall plaster.
Exiting the Jets game on Friday night, amid a smattering of fans in Joe Namath jerseys, I began to compose a series of cheap and uncharitable Carnac the Magnificent jokes:
A: Throwback jersey.
Q: What would a fisherman do after catching the Garden State?
But I quickly realized that resistance is futile. Calling, as it does, every Monday night (and thrice on Sundays), the NFL will inevitably wear me down, like the diabolical telemarketer that it is, and I'll one day switch my official allegiance from NCAA to NFL.
Until that day, however, I have but one thing to say to Hank Williams Jr. and Mel Kiper Jr. and Kellen Winslow Jr.: No. I'm not quite ready for some football.
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