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Philosophy and football

| Thursday, October 8, 2015

“Courage is not defined by those who fought and did not fall, but by those who fought, fell and rose again.” — Anonymous.

When I first came to America two years ago, there were a couple of things about this culture I did not understand, chief among them football. After my “pitiful absence” from the first Notre Dame home game, my friends started to tirelessly persuade me to go to the second one. They told me it would be one of the best college experiences, I must go to at least one football game as a Notre Dame student, they would even buy me a ticket. I was very firm in my decision until one of them was out of persuasive reasons and threw out the most random line: “April, you must go. Football is a great Catholic tradition.” Either because of the bizarreness of that reason, or because of my weird passion of elevating trivial things to the philosophical level, I found his argument surprisingly persuasive.

One week after, I found myself standing with 80,000 people in the stadium, watching a football game for the first time in my life. I was focusing on the player (whom my friends later told me was the quarterback) behind a line of other players. He got the ball. He took a few steps back, looked around the field, raised his arm, he was ready to pass the ball and — all of sudden he was hit very hard by a player from the other team. The quarterback almost fell to the ground. When he looked up again, his teammates were already out of reach, so he dragged himself up, held the ball close to his chest and ran forward, by himself. Another opponent rushed to him, but he dodged them. Three opponents tried to encircle him, but again missed him. He then lost his balance. Every inch forward became a struggle. Finally, he was brought down by five opponents. He fumbled and all of a sudden, the ball was in the hands of the opponents. There were boos in the crowd. The quarterback lowered his head and lay on the ground, and after five seconds, he stood up and continued fighting. Surprisingly, tears rushed to my eyes. I cried, uncontrollably.

From that moment on, football had a mysterious power over me. I went to every single game and stayed from the beginning until the end. Every time I came back from the stadium, I felt empowered by what I saw.

During Christmas break, I went back to China. I shared with my grandma a video that I had taken during a football game. “Why are these young people fighting with each other all the time?,” my grandma asked me. “And whoever gets the ball will be smashed to the ground! Look,” she pointed at the quarterback, “he gets the ball and people start to attack him, and … Ah! That must hurt!” After watching the video, my grandma asked me a serious question. “If you will definitely fall if you get the ball, then why do you still try to get it? I would stay away from it.” Why do you still go for something when you know it will make you fall hard? That’s a good question. I did not know the answer at that time. I just felt there was something tragically beautiful in football. Maybe that is why I cried during my first game.

In my sophomore year, I continued to go to every football game, tearing up when I saw players being tackled and rising from the ground, again, again and again. Then one night I had a conversation with my friend Max, the safety on the team.

“When you get the football, do you know that you will soon be smashed to the ground,” I asked.

“Do you mean if we are prepared to be brought down if we have the ball? Of course,” he said.

“Forgive my ignorance, but … aren’t you afraid to fall down? Doesn’t that hurt?”

“Afraid? That’s not what matters.”

“Why do you still get the ball?”

He laughed and thought for a while.

“Because you want it.”

“But you basically fall down right after you get it!”

“Yes that is true, but you want it.”

For some reasons, those words stayed in my mind for a long time. Because you want it.

Pondering on Max’s words, I was reminded of the many heartbreaking trials I had encountered in my life. In China, a country with 1.3 billion people, even if you are the top 0.1 percent in the entire country, there are still more than one million people better than you are. That is a terrifying thought. Failure is omnipresent in Chinese culture. There were many occasions when I had tried with all that I had, as hard as I could, and still failed. I remembered my mom would tell me it was not my fault; it was simply the reality of China, a place where people are reminded of the unforgiving realities of individual limitations every single day. I would cry and unwillingly give up the fight, trying to persuade myself that maybe surrendering to the reality was the right thing to do. Maybe avoiding falling down is smart. Then, in the dimly-lighted basement of LaFun, the quarterback from my freshman year, who also tried as hard as he could but was sacked in front of a crowd of 80,000 and yet chose to rise up again, came back to me. There was something strangely empowering about that.

Last Saturday night, I watched the 30th football game in my life. The game once reached a point where our team was so behind that many people lost hope, and some audience members started to complain about specific players: “Seriously, he was not good at all. He gets tackled every single time right when he gets the ball!” Somehow, their frivolous comments offended me enormously. I wanted to ask them if they had been “sacked” before, if they had had the experience of trying as hard as they possibly could, and still not making it. Strangely enough, I had the feeling that they were blaspheming something extremely beautiful. Five minutes until the end, my friend whispered to me, “April, do you think they will give up? Victory is out of reach.” Suddenly, Max’s word started to echo in my head. You want it. “No, they won’t.” That moment, I thought I finally understood football.

We ended up losing the game. The Fighting Irish fought as hard as they could, and still lost the battle. Yet, I still felt strangely empowered. It was in this moment I realized it is not winning, but the courage and faith humans still possess when confronted with failure that is empowering. Whenever we see players on the football field, falling down and courageously standing up again and again, we are reassured that there is something worth rising up for, even in the darkest times. In watching football games, I can sense that there is something so valuable that it can overcome fear and reveal beauty even in the face of self-destruction. Maybe my friend was right when he told me that football was a Catholic tradition.

Thank you Notre Dame football, for giving me the courage to fail. You are invincible.

Author’s Note: Thanks to Max Redfield for giving me the inspiration. 

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