By Jason Keidel
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The endless genius of the NFL can’t be completely quantified. But part of pro football’s popularity is burning its image in our culture and our consciousness. While baseball and basketball have their July 4 and Christmas brands, they are afterthoughts, or leftovers, compared to the NFL’s hallmark roll call.
No sport in America is more intertwined with tradition than the NFL. And it starts with our national holiday, Thanksgiving. Football has become as much a part of our yearly feast as the meal itself, as constant as cranberry sauce.
And every frothing football fan can think of a game, on TV or in the backyard or on the sandlot or Central Park, that makes them smile or smirk or squirm. If your team didn’t win on television, perhaps your house beat the house across the street, or, in big city parlance, one block or building stampeded another.
Here, in New York City, many of us scrambled outside at the first snow and picked sides, made a fence a sideline, a tree the goal line, while we threw a frozen pigskin on the concrete until the “Rawlings” label was scraped off the leather, swathed in Stabler, Bradshaw, or Montana jerseys.
But it all starts with what we saw on the screen. Football always had a hypnotic hold on me, even early in childhood, more than Bert or Ernie or even Daisy Duke. There is something about football, so seamless and symmetrical on any glowing device, that has us spellbound.
One of the more morbid memories was of my beloved black & gold getting the short end of a referee’s call – on the coin flip. It was the infamous Jerome Bettis game, in 1998.
A Detroit native, Bettis got no home cooking in overtime as the ref misheard his call on the coin toss, giving the ball to the Lions, who promptly received the ball and kicked a field goal to win the game. Later that afternoon, Randy Moss made Cowboys Stadium his personal playground, torching the Cowboys and blazing his name across the country.
Some of you may remember the iconic, snowy Dallas afternoon in 1993, when the Dolphins had their game-winning field goal blocked, only to have Leon Lett rumble toward the ball and boot it to a Dolphin, giving them another (and closer) kick, which they converted to win the game.
We all remember the campy postgame protocol, with some sweaty jock squatting at a table, as John Madden awarded the Player of the Game with some greasy, poultry appendage. Whether it’s Barry Sanders or Billy Simms or Emmitt Smith, the names are interchangeable because the NFL wrapped the shield and the football field around America’s singular holiday.
And it does, or it should, remind us of how lucky we are, and why we are. The gratitude, beyond brothers and sisters and parents and children, should go to those ensconced in some desert thousands of miles away, defending our right to joust over the stuffing.
Football is in a bit of a bind, between concussions and bullying and abandoning the pioneers who made the sport so essential. And while it’s important to remember those who sacrificed their limbs and brains to play our favorite sport, most of them were worshiped and very well remunerated. The soldier is neither.
So let’s raise a glass to the man or woman who can’t do the very things we have done every year since birth. While we worry about a game, they worry about us. That is more giving than any Thanksgiving I can recall.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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