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My earliest memory of life occurred on December 31, 1967. I was four years old. A football game was on TV. I remember seeing Donnie Anderson, number 44 for the Green Bay Packers, running for four or five yard gains against the Dallas Cowboys. Packer quarterback Bart Starr (what a cool name I remembering thinking then) completed passes to Boyd Dowler. But what I remember most was not the game itself. It was the light gray clouds escaping from the mouths of the people on TV.  I was mesmerized by the clouds billowing horizontally and then upward out of the mouth of Packer coach Vince Lombardi. Every player on the field seemed to be breathing heavy. You could measure the pace of their breathing, how tired they were, by the clouds being formed every three or four seconds. It was out of their control.

This was the Ice Bowl, the 1967 NFC championship game. This wasn't a game; it was a survival test. The test was who could withstand the suffering in the frigid weather the longest. This was scary, almost like watching people die slowly on TV. I remember the announcer saying it was thirteen degrees below zero with a wind chill of minus forty five. Who won the game wasn't as riveting as wondering to myself how those players--and those tens of thousands of fans--could endure the pain of being outside.

Those were crazy people in attendance, in retrospect like those Americans who walked over those behemoth Colorado mountains when this country was founded to see what was out West. I wouldn't have gone to that game even to see my favorite NFL team in a title game. Being really cold defines misery. As the game went on, with shadows covering the field after the sun drifted away insensitively, conditions worsened. The shadows darkened the field area and the temperature dropped some more, cruelly.

I remember imagining myself on that field. I thought I could never do what those guys were doing. It wasn't worth it, being a star on TV, a famous football player, if I had to be outside on that day. I was inside my house over a thousand miles away, in Maryland, warm. Green Bay seemed to me like the Arctic Circle, not anything American I knew or imagined, not a place I ever wanted to go. Too cold. Too cold. Too frighteningly cold. People went there to die frozen. Forty-five years later I still haven't been there. Watching that ominous event probably has something to do with it.

I reminisce today about this first memory of life because the game is linked to my lifelong tracking ever since of NFL football and the sad death yesterday of Steve Sabol, who along with his father created countless NFL films since the 1960s.

Steve and his father understood that football touched the soul of players, coaches, and viewers. It's primal, scary, like bungee jumping or going airborne out of an airplane from 20,000 feet, or attempting to jump a motorcycle over 48 school buses. It's dangerous, even life-threatening. You can't get that in most aspects of life. But in football it's all there, almost too much so.

There is quite a bit of talk these days about the dangers of football, the rampant number of life-shortening concussions. As Steve passes, I am left to wonder whether what he did has been good or bad for me. I certainly enjoyed his films, especially the incomparable voice of John Facenda. No voice in the history of the world reached into my soul the way John's did. As I listened to him, I would think he was describing the first war of the world when everybody tried to kill each other in order to survive.  Described by him, football wasn't a game. It was everything, the meaning of life, the reason for being. In colorful, poetic language using his incomparably magnetic voice, he said things along these lines. I drank it up from the start.

Football scared me a little but it entertained and inspired me more. Sadly, we like to watch scary things happen to other people that put them in jeopardy of dying or getting seriously hurt. Think car accidents. We watch. We know we shouldn't but get fixated anyway. So it is with football especially the way Facenda and the Sabolsl depicted this. I re-watched highlights of the Ice Bowl today. Death now permeates that scene and blows from it like those cloud breaths. Both coaches are dead. Several of the players are dead. Football is about a whole lot of things and one is certainly death. But today football lives on, well beyond the death of those who were once a part of it, who lived for it. Football will live long after Steve's passing and my passing and the death of future generations.

My son plays high school football. It sure is riveting for a father to watch his son indulge in this theatre. It's proof the kid has guts, more than his old man, I believe. I can't wait to watch him play tomorrow night. It will be the highlight of my week. But I am every bit as sure that I'm scared he might get hurt. This is highly likely at some point in the season. This is my only son, my main guy, the best boy I've ever known. Don't get hurt, son, Please don't get hurt.

 

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