After months of laborious waiting, NFL kicks off tonight
Eli Manning was talking about pestilence and locusts and all the other plagues that have befallen the Giants across the past few weeks. He was talking about putting his forgettable preseason in his rearview mirror, even as the buzzards swirl about, waiting to pounce, waiting to pound.
He was talking about the fact that by the end of the day Sunday, he likely will be the quarterback with the longest streak of consecutive games played in the NFL, a designation he probably would enjoy more if it didn’t arrive at the expense of his brother’s tricky neck injury.
Then someone asked the quarterback of the Giants about the inviting, glowing beacon waiting for him and for every other fan of professional football tonight, in the football-mad town of Green Bay, Wis., inside a football palace so perfect, Lambeau Field, that it has to make the baseball poets purple with jealousy.
“Yeah,” Manning said, with a smile that tried to rise above the chronic buzzkill simmering inside the Giants’ locker room. “It’s time. It’s been almost nine months for a lot of us since we last played a real football game. I think we’re all ready for that.”
He spoke for the fraternity of professional football players, and so Manning really was only speaking for a small fraction of the population that feels precisely the same way, that has pointed toward tonight for weeks, for months, that fretted as recently as a month and a half ago that tonight would be spent either watching buzz-free baseball games, the weekly “Man vs. Food” marathon or reruns of “Bones,” “Big Brother” and “Big Bang Theory.”
It tells you a little about the place football holds in our collective soul as a nation that there doesn’t seem to be even a trickle of residual resentment awaiting the start of the season tonight, Saints vs. Packers at Lambeau, the start of a 17-week, 16-game sprint that always seems here and gone in about 15 minutes.
Whenever baseball has been vapor-locked by labor strife, there always are casualties strewn along the side of the negotiations, anger so pure, vitriol so intense that it takes months, sometimes years, to heal the damage. Basketball? If and when the NBA ever solves its labor mess, let’s see how many half-filled arenas there are.
But this is different. This is football. This is the NFL.
Yes, part of the fury may have been scrubbed away by the fact that the only game that was lost was the Hall of Fame Game, an exhibition whose elimination was lamented by exactly nobody beyond the borders of Canton, Ohio. Yes, outside of DeMaurice Smith’s early declaration that “we are at war,” this seemed as collegial as any disagreement of any sort has ever been. Yes, there is more sympathy for the players’ side in football thanks to the non-guaranteed nature of their hyper-dangerous livelihoods than in other sports, eating into the common-man dirge of greed, greed, greed.
All of that makes sense.
But this makes more sense: “Football is part of our fabric. It helps make us who we are.”
That was Boomer Esiason, talking on the radio not long ago. Twenty-four years ago, Esiason took part in an NFL season that really did rip at the heart of our Sunday-morning routines, really did shatter the soul of our Sunday afternoons. Even then, as a player, Esiason’s was a voice that seemed to understand how much the sport meant to us.
And that was before fantasy football exploded.
Before Sunday Ticket.
Before the Red Zone Channel.
Before the Internet — which is to say, before just about everything, from gambling to cooking the perfect tailgate gumbo — was a click away. This was what we were on the verge of having taken from us.
And this is why tonight is so meaningful. Sure, we are a nation of skeptics and cynics, and the NFL is a skeptical, cynical business, and maybe we shouldn’t be quite so open about letting our guard down and embracing this violent, virulent game.
But we can’t help ourselves. It’s been almost nine months.