On my first day of college, my first professor began class with a word I had never heard before: syllabus. I looked around and noticed that everybody seemed to be nodding as if they understood perfectly well what that meant. Syllabus? Syllabi? The second professor said it too. And the third. And I soon realized that syllabus—a word that had no meaning for the first 17 years of my life—was suddenly crucial.
This is an article from the Sept. 12, 2011 issue
College ended for me, and I probably have not thought of the word syllabus since. But it keeps coming back with every new class of college students. Syllabus renews itself each fall.
So, too, do football words and phrases. And I have missed that distinctive language during its seven-month hibernation. People often say that baseball is the most literary of sports—it's that game in which balls carom off walls, pitchers flirt with no-hitters and batters spit on outside sliders—and that may be true. But football has an argot all its own. There are so many words you only hear during the football months. And they're once again part of our lives.
Words such as ensuing. I don't think I've heard the word ensuing used even one time since last winter, but football is back and that promises an autumn filled with "ensuing kickoffs."
Unmolested is a great football word. We walk around in our daily life never thinking it remarkable that people can do what they need to do—go to the bank, fix their kitchen sink, buy coffee at Starbucks—without molestation. But in football, on those rare occasions when a player gets into the end zone unmolested, announcers make sure to point it out.
Penalties will offset. Overeager defensive players who jump the snap will find their path unabated to the quarterback, at which point the referee will stop play. You can't let those players rage unabated. Passes are not good or bad, they are catchable or uncatchable. Left tackles—or sometimes right—once more protect the blind side. Players will try to get the football inside the pylon because that means touchdown. And before it's all over, some teams will try to stave off elimination. That is to say, they will be playing for their playoff lives.
Pooch might be my favorite football word. Only during football season do we see grown men try to pooch something. Then again, encroachment might be my favorite football word. Defensive players don't just innocently or accidentally move before the snap. They encroach into the neutral zone. George Carlin was right—baseball's verbs seem so much more benign. Home run hitters trot around the bases. Pitchers toe the rubber. Football players encroach.
North-south becomes one direction during football season. No matter which way the stadium may be facing, that's the direction you want your running back looking for daylight. East-west becomes one direction too, and that's the wrong direction, no matter what the signs might tell you.
Football brings back words that have mostly died out in the American language. Has anyone but a quarterback bootlegged since the days of moonshine runners? Has anything but an offensive line run roughshod since, say, Teddy Roosevelt? Receivers are still making circus catches, which in today's era of Cirque du Soleil, should mean they wear face paint and jump over each other while holding various kinds of swords. And the word nifty—a word from the days of surreys with fringe on top—perfectly describes running backs' moves, especially when Brent Musburger says it.
Even familiar words take on new meaning for football. Physical is no longer that yearly exam where the doctor makes you cough. It's the kind of football you want your team to play. Physical is so important to football that it has cousins—physicality and out-physical being the most famous. Shy is no longer the girl standing in the corner at the party; it means you didn't get the first down. Upright is no longer the position you need to bring your tray table to as the plane begins its final descent, it's the post your kicker just hit with his field goal attempt. Hash is not a meat-and-potato dish but the little mark on the field that tells you what yard line you're on.
The box is back. I have desperately missed the box. I cannot wait until it has eight or nine men in it—that means they are daring you to throw. Defensive ends stunt. Receivers clear. Zones are flooded. Linebackers stay at home. Quarterbacks change their cadence and, on occasion, run naked.
Already, during the first weekend of the college football season, I heard of receivers with alligator arms, quarterbacks as that old favorite, gunslingers—Brett Favre's trademark on the term apparently having expired—and a certain running back who all year will need to not only score touchdowns but also carry the mail.
It's wonderful. Football is back. And once more there are clocks to be controlled, forward progress to be stopped. Certain formations and motions become illegal, certain shifts and quite a few procedures too. You can once again ground the ball, but don't do it intentionally. Football is a rough game, yes, but officials will remind us of a simple fact of football and life: Some roughness is unnecessary.