What you are about to read is my surrender.
For many years, I have wanted to write the definitive cultural analysis of major college football in the South — our benighted region’s most socially and historically consequential institution that doesn’t involve prison or bondage.
Doubt me? Look at the aftermath of the Iron Bowl. Anything else have this kind of community power? Anything else give classes and races the chance to celebrate something joyful together?
Anyway, I’ve long wanted to explore this through the lens of my love-hate relationship with football. And this particular season all but demanded it. I’m a virtually lifelong FSU football fan, who never really thought about attending FSU. And I’ve just decided to spend quite a bit of money on 4 season tickets for next year. This can seem a morally crazy act if one thinks about it at all. Football exacts great physical harm for its joys. And its fan culture encourages mass public analysis of the sexual habits of teenagers none of us know.
Other than saying, “it’s a lot of fun,” how exactly do I justify/rationalize participating pretty enthusiastically? Why can’t I stop? How might we make it less indefensible? I thought that might make a readable and thought-provoking piece. And I wanted to work it out for myself, anyway. I meant to have this done by the Championship game. Then I meant to have it done by Super Bowl Sunday. But it’s already massive, and I’ve barely gotten myself out of high school. I haven’t really analyzed anything yet, just written history.
So, I’m just giving up and going, “Part 1.” Can’t tell you when or if there will be a Part 2 or 3 or 4. Just understand this was written with a longer, larger purpose in mind. But if you’re a long-term Florida college and high school football fan, you might enjoy this. And if you’re not, well, I still think it’s pretty entertaining. One day, maybe, I’ll turn it into a book. But I’m tired of waiting to put it out. Here you go.
At 6-and-a-half-years-old, I was a chubby, stuttering nerd. (I know the temptation is to say, “What’s changed?”, but bear with me, please.) My dad had just spent a year reading the Lord of the Rings, which I loved, to me each night on the couch. But my ever practical mother saw that I had more immediate needs. “Go throw a ball with that boy.”
And so he did.
To everyone’s surprise, I showed some ability to throw and catch a football. Before you could say Lynn Swann, I was lighting people up in kids pick-up games. I became a Redskins fan and would wear a Skins jersey when I played. The older kids called me “Chief Broken Record.” Really. But they threw me the ball — because I could catch it. I remember one of them saying, “You better not underestimate him,” as clearly as I remember Christmas mornings. That taste of athletic success led to baseball, which I played at the varsity level in high school, and eventually to basketball, which I still play today wherever and whenever I can. But my first love was football. In many ways, it still is.
In 1979, when I was 8, my family moved briefly from my ancestral home of Palatka to Tallahassee, where my dad got a government job. I was crushed. To bribe my happiness, he bought us season tickets to FSU football games.
The first game I attended was FSU-Southern Miss, the opener of the 1979 season. FSU had just started to get good under this swashbuckling, aw-shucksing coach named Bobby Bowden. Tallahassee had high expectations. A sell-out crowd of 49,000 people turned out. And the Noles promptly got behind 14-3 well into the second half. After they cut the lead to a field goal, late in the 4th quarter, a defensive back named Gary Henry, who had fair caught punts all night to groans from the crowd, finally decided to return one. He took it to the house, and the place went bonkers. Ballgame. The Noles went 11-0 that year and then lost to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
I was hooked. The next year, 1980, I crawled on the floor of my house trying to recover a Nebraska quarterback’s fumble in Lincoln. The ball sat there on my TV for like an hour before a Nole recovered it, sealing the 18-14 win. It’s still the biggest win in FSU history. It always will be. For long-term Nole fans, it’s always gonna be that 1980 team and Nebraska and the very next week — when the Noles thrashed a Pitt team that had Dan Marino, Hugh Green, and Mark May. I was in Doak for the 1980 Pitt game.
And I was in Doak when Marino came back in 1982–the night of the Great Flood. It was Biblical, mythological. Again, for long-term Nole fans, all you have to say is “the Pitt game.” Everything else falls away but rain. Only one other time have I seen rain like that — in the 1995 floods of New Orleans. Today they would have stopped the game. I seem to remember a lot of lightning, and Doak was an erector set in 1982. But the game went on without pause. You couldn’t see the field. Water cascaded down the aisles and carried away small children. You could have held Roman-style mock naval battles on the turf. We were tied at 17 at the half, before the rains came. After the rain started, survival became all that mattered — except to Marino. He kept playing. And every now and then, from beneath your poncho or the shelter of an aisle, you would see a tight spiral tear through the curtains of rain and then disappear again into some receiver’s arms. The game ended 37-17. But I’m not sure anyone cared about that. We all shared the bond of experiencing history together.
My dad quit his job in a moral huff in 1981, and we returned to Palatka–just in time to watch the legendary 1981 Palatka High School football team.
That team ran the old school wishbone. This was the backfield: quarterback Clifton Reynolds (played tight end at UF); fullback Joe Brinson (became the all-time leading rusher in NAIA football); tailback Daryl Oliver (became starting tailback for the University of Miami); tailback John L. Williams (perhaps mostly highly recruited player in the country, who became a star fullback at UF, first-round draft pick, and played for more than a decade in the NFL).
That ’81 team’s corners were Jarvis Williams and Ricky Mulberry, who both played at UF. Jarvis played a long time in the NFL. He died in 2010 of a heart attack.
The ’81 Panthers went 14-0 and won the 3A state title, back when there were only 4 As. In the final game, they played Riviera Suncoast, who had a highly regarded receiver/tight end named Richard Rellford. I was standing just beyond the end zone (8,000 people had crammed into Palatka’s lovely old stone stadium that could seat 4,500).
On the first play from scrimmage, right in front of me, Rellford caught a seam route about 15 yards down field and took two steps before Jarvis annihilated him. Rellford fumbled (you would have, too), and Palatka recovered. On the very next play, I believe, Clifton Reynolds took an option keeper 40 yards to the end zone where I was standing. Good night. Thanks for playing. The final ended up 42-2.
A few years later, at UF, Jarvis would go Rellford on Miami’s Melvin Bratton in perhaps the nastiest single hit ever delivered in a college football game. He hit Bratton so hard I could feel it through the radio.
It’s funny, while looking for video of this hit, I came across Gator reporter Larry Vittel’s very similar recollections of both moment. Vittel and I both eulogized Jarvis by marveling at the beautiful, legal violence he leveled on other people. A thing to ponder.
Anyway, you could argue that the talent on that ’81 Palatka team became the core of UF’s first SEC championship a few years later. You could also argue that recruiting them — among others — got Charlie Pell fired and landed Florida on major probation. That, in turn, led to FSU erasing the talent gap with Florida by recruiting guys like Deion Sanders and Sammie Smith and rising as a consistent dominant power. All things are related.
It’s hard to overstate how we Palatka kids — and adults — revered these teenagers. We pretended to be them when we played games in our yards. For years, the landmark East Palatka Fruit Market was painted with vertical orange and blue stripes and a big sign that read, “Give ’em hell, John L.” Anybody driving to the beach from Gainesville saw it.
So you can imagine my reaction when my dear Aunt Sophie, a career long English-teacher and librarian at Palatka High, arranged for a Fighting Panther birthday party for me in December 1981, I think. It was headlined by Ricky Mulberry, with whom she was tight. There were other players there, but I really only remember Ricky. He showered me and my little friends and my sister with attention.
John Updike once wrote about Ted Williams that “gods don’t answer letters.” But here was a god — just hanging out with me for hours. He was a teenager. He was kind. He was muscular. And he was black.
Depending on the setting, he would have looked a lot Trayvon Martin or Jameis Winston.
The city of Palatka did not have a tackle football program when I grew up there. Instead, we had an amazingly competitive and fun citywide flag football league. It’s where all the gods of 1981 came of age, too. Everybody who wanted to play for PHS played in this city league.
It was very rough, especially at the line of scrimmage. I once accidentally knocked a guy silly with my head when he tried to block me on a blitz. But playing without pads and with some restrictions on roughness gave us enough space to throw. And we played a style of game that more closely resembled college and pro teams than what I understand most heavily run-based youth tackle programs do.
My last year, 8th grade, I finally got to play quarterback. And it’s most fun I’ve ever had in sports. We threw it all over the field, and I started the conference vs. conference All-Star game. On one play in the second quarter, the center snapped the ball over my head in the shotgun. I chased down the ball, which popped right up into my hands, and pump faked a rusher, who jumped over me as I ducked. Deep down field, I saw Ricky Mulberry’s younger brother or cousin (not sure which) Spencer streaking behind his defender. I did a little Tom Brady slidestep to the left and cut loose a 40-yard rocket that I knew was a touchdown the second I let it go. Spencer caught it in perfect stride and cruised into the end zone. The guy he beat, who I’m not going to name, was the best athlete on the field and the best player on our freshman high school team the next year. Just a stud. Those were two elite athletes who gave a schlubby 14-year-old kid who could throw a lifelong memory. I owe them.
My generation of football players was never quite as good as the championship one. Nobody else’s was either. But PHS did go 10-0 in my senior year (1989-90) before losing a thrilling playoff game. My longtime friend Terrill Hill quarterbacked that team far better than I would have. Terrill, a very bright and interesting guy, had a solid college career as a quarterback for Howard. He’s now a lawyer based in Palatka.
By 1989, my football career had long since ended on the field at Lake Weir High School in remote Marion County — on this field right here.
I was the third team quarterback — both because I sprained my ankle in pre-season practice and because I was a throwing quarterback running the option. The injury happened on an option play late in the 4th quarter. We were getting killed and couldn’t move the ball. So I got a chance to play. And things went pretty well. I even read a blitz and ran a impromptu quarterback draw for 10 yards and a first down.
Then came “speed option left”. I wasn’t fast, but I did understand how the option worked and had good feel for it. And in some ways, that was my downfall. We blocked this play better than any play we’d blocked all game. There wasn’t even an end or a corner to option — just open field. We were at about the 40. Suddenly I thought, you’re slow, and this will be a touchdown if you just get the ball to the back, and you’ll get to start next game. So I turned the corner and stupidly pitched and looked toward my back at the same time. The ball was out of my hand before I realized he was five yards behind where he was supposed to be. The ball tumbled toward nothing, and I went to chase it. A Lake Weir player, my running back, and I all came together going after the ball. I remember going over the top, hitting the ground, and saying, “Ouch” out loud. Then I remember paralysis. My body from the waste down went dead.
I had just broken my femur. That’s your thigh bone. That’s a very big bone.
Today, when an a college or NFL player breaks his femur, they stop the game for half an hour, drive an ambulance on the field, and show solemn images of players on both sides kneeling in prayer.
I don’t remember what my coaches said when they came on the field to check on me. But there was no trainer. And no prayers. I couldn’t move, but I didn’t seem to be in much pain. So when they snatched me up and put my arms over their shoulders — like I’d twisted an ankle — I didn’t protest. They carried me off the field like that, legs hanging, with the jagged edges of my snapped thigh bone flopping around amongst some of the body’s most vital arteries. And then they plopped me down with some ice on the bench and went back to coaching. There was no ambulance at the game, no paramedics. Nothing. So I waited with an ice pack and a 1000-yard-stare. Yes. No. I think I’m OK. That’s how I communicated. I remember weakly raising an arm and cheering when we actually scored a few plays later. It got back to me somehow that I must have a hip pointer, a bruise. (That’s what they told Bo Jackson, too, after he dislocated his hip on the field.) I guess I was going to take the bus home with everybody else.
My family and I have told this story to each other often — trying to emphasize the black humor. But it’s pretty damn painful to think about even now, honestly.
And over the years, I think I’ve come to realize that only blind luck and Betty Krause kept me from dying on that field in front of my parents and sister and friends and teammates. Betty is a nurse and mom to my dear, lifelong friend, Candace Krause Kollas, who was a freshman cheerleader. I’ve never talked to Betty about what happened, but she apparently knew something was wrong when I lay motionless on the field. And eventually she started to insist that I needed care, immediately. She may have even figured out that I’d broken my femur. Of course, there was no ambulance, so my parents decided they would drive me in our van the 90 minutes back to Palatka. And so my dad and somebody else picked me up with a hand under each thigh. I seem to remember that Betty blew a gasket over that idea, but it didn’t really matter because my dad put his hand right underneath my broken bone. I can’t imagine what that felt like to him. They put me back down and called the paramedics.
So let me say it now, on behalf of my wife and kids: thanks Betty.
It seems like it took another half hour for an ambulance to arrive. When the paramedic finally cut off the pants and thigh pad from my right leg, my entire thigh rolled over, like there was an alien inside it. You don’t ever want to see that. Trust me. And then they put on a splint the wrong way somehow. Never before and never since have I felt pain like that. I punched the guy until he took it off, which is pretty impressive violence for a kid in shock who hates real violence.
Finally, they got me in the ambulance and properly secured and stabilized. At the Ocala hospital, they pumped me full of morphine, which made me understand why people get addicted to heroin. Morphine is good.
I spent two pretty awful weeks in the hospital in Palatka — which included a traction set-up resting on a bolt drilled through my knee, major surgery, three giant rods in my bone, an enema (that was fun), and quite a bit of terror. It’s strange. I was too shocked on the field to be scared of what was happening to me. The terror didn’t come until I was comparatively safe. I feared rolling over on my leg as I slept. I feared the giant anti-biotic shots that had to jab into me before my surgery. I feared trying to use the bathroom. (Hence the enema.) And I feared my daily crutch walk with my newly repaired, but still largely dead-weight leg.
I have a long-standing joke with some college buddies that if only I was 6-4, I would’ve started for FSU and won the Heisman or something. But after snapping a femur in the wilderness near Weirsdale and Candler, FL, I did the cost-benefit analysis. And I decided that tackle football was not for me — at any height.
I reassessed playing football from a place of privilege — as a smart little lawyer’s kid to whom the whole world lay open. About the same time, another another class of kids did their own cost benefit analysis. It was driven by the American Drug War’s unfailing ability to both take away poor — and disproportionately black — boys’ fathers and wave cash in their orphaned faces as they walk down the streets right outside their doors.
I grew up and played football in Palatka during the heart of the crack era, when drug dealing acquired its modern monstrous moral connotations. It’s one of the those words, like terrorist, designed to reduce the morally complex to the morally useful for people of power. Note how the Bacardi family celebrates its years of drug dealing during alcohol Prohibition as a positive moral good the next time that ad comes on the football game you’re watching.
Many kids with whom I played and went to school with struck their own blows against Prohibition, with predictable results. Among them, or so he told us, was the guy that Spencer Mulberry and I burnt on the 8th grade bomb.
That kid and I had a PE class together when I was a senior in high school. We both quit playing football after our freshman year, and I’d lost track of him. I didn’t know him very well beyond athletics growing up. He was quiet. In middle school, we all respected him as an athlete, but we didn’t fear him as a kid, as we did other kids. But by 1989, he had cultivated an aura of hardness. He was scary, a dude to give a wide berth. So naturally, we didn’t. Holding court one time, he told me and some others a story about shooting another guy in the foot for not paying a drug debt. I have no idea if he was telling the truth. But I was struck by the business-like proportionality of it. Sort of like a credit card company raising your interest rate for missing a payment. And I put that anecdote into the collection of short stories I wrote for my senior honors thesis at Amherst College in Massachusetts.
And there you have it, as far as I’ve gotten. But rest assured, I’ve got ideas and riffs planned. I’ll try to understand why powerful young black men, who are feared and reviled and labeled as culturally deficient problems in virtually ever other aspect of American life, are worshiped and celebrated by and receive benefit-of-the-doubt from the same people who thought Trayvon Martin had it coming. I’ll write about the hundreds and hundreds of 18-year-old young women who spend their first moments as free adults swarming sororities in matching sun dresses and heels in an astonishing forced march of commoditization and judgement. I’ll write about how easy it is to confuse a person with their uniform. So I suspect, I’ll also write about the often transactional nature and power-imbalanced nature of sex — and how luxury goods and commodities interact. I’ll probably write about all that in connection with a radical emerging Catholic doctrine of sexual ethics focused on “vulnerability without violation”. I’ll most likely quote the Drive-By Truckers and Kendrick Lamar — because I always do and because they always have something useful to say. And I’ll suggest a way to save football from itself over the long-term.
I just ain’t gonna do any of that today. So enjoy the game. I will. It doesn’t make us bad people, does it?