My interest in football is two-fold. I’m interested because my husband’s interested, though thankfully not obsessively so. He’s just interested enough for me to have learned, over the past few years, something I hadn’t noticed before: that football — and sport in general — has a narrative power and force to rival the Iliad and the Odyssey.
To be sure, football is the prose-light version of these grand narratives, but the big themes, which might be compressed and summed up with a single moniker, “the agony and the ecstasy,” are everywhere to be found in the sporting life. Steal a look at the ESPN documentary series 30 for 30 if you have any doubt. There you’ll see lives splayed open like a corpse on autopsy day. It’s a lovelier thing than this metaphor makes it seem. A great story, after all — and 30 for 30 features some of the best, from filmmakers like Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights), Steve James (Hoop Dreams), Brett Morgan (The Kid Stays In The Picture) and rapper/actor/producer Ice Cube — allows us to dissect a life and find lessons that illumine our own.
My other interest in football has to do with my childhood friend, Martin Mayhew, who played football for the Washington Redksins for a bit. Years ago, when I was still living in New York and Martin was still playing ball, we whiled away an afternoon discussing our hopes and dreams for the future. He had set his sights on law school by then and had big plans for playing the other side of the game. In the years since, he’s scaled the heights of the NFL, and now sits at the helm of the Detroit Lions, where he’s been General Manager for the past few years.
Because of Martin — and because of the interest in football narrative that I gained from my husband, I paid a bit of attention to the NFL draft this year. It took place this past Thursday through Saturday at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. It was a confluence of worlds for me: football, New York City (that great land of possibility) and, believe it or not, fashion, as the New York Times pinpointed so perfectly in yesterday’s Style section.
The Style piece summed up the draft in narrative terms, which is always where my interests lie. In a piece ostensibly about the stylist-aided sartorial choices of the draft hopefuls, I learned so much more about these newest members of the NFL, all of whom have come of age in an era when most of them know that you’re never just a football player — you’re never just anything, in fact — you’re always also a brand.
Exhibit A: Ezekiel Ansah, known as Ziggy, the Ghanaian defensive end chosen in the first round by the Detroit Lions on Thursday night (go Lions). He played his first football game just five years ago. Now there’s an origin story for you, the kind from which legends are made. We’ll be looking for Ansah to play great football, but also to wrap it in a story that delivers the twists and turns and triumphant end from which great stories are made.
Then there’s the narrative of Eric Fisher, “the handsome, deeply dimpled offensive lineman” from Central Michigan, the first pick by the Kansas City Chiefs, who “already showed signs of athletic potential in infancy, walking at 9 months and riding his sister’s 12-inch Huffy Strawberry Shortcake bike at age 2” also spoke volumes about the power of narrative to shape our lives. It’s a Greek God of a tale that we’ll be rooting for him to live up to.
Of course, great narratives can come from anywhere. Tom Brady, after all, was pick #199 in the 6th round of the 2000 NFL Draft, and he’s gone on to lead his team to three Super Bowl titles. He’s also become quite a brand. He’s mastered the peacock’s art of putting his beauty on display, both the beauty within and the beauty without, and he hasn’t forgotten that, if you want to play in the big leagues, in your career, your community, your world, you need to tend to the story you tell. Whether we realize it or not (and those who thrive in the spotlight certainly do), we are always projecting who we are onto the world — and in an increasingly socially-connected world, the real us will eventually shine through. It’s a beautiful thing, even if the real us sometimes stumbles and falls.
Tellingly, Brady’s narrative has had its share of ups and downs. His life is not without its blemishes, leaving his then pregnant girlfriend for the woman who would be his wife among them. But then, isn’t that just like life? We stumble, we fall, we find our way on, and if we’re smart, we control the narrative so that we are in control of the narrative that is our lives. First round draft picks Ezekial Ansah and Eric Fisher already have a good handle on the narratives of their lives. I’m looking forward to watching as they continue to tell us their tale.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SUZY ALLMAN via The New York Times
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.