Female Bonding: Football, Fumbles, and Forgiveness

This article originally appeared on the Makes You Mom blog.

I am driving north on US-131 too early on a Saturday morning, guzzling a Super Big Gulp when I would rather be sleeping or, more practically, unpacking the boxes cluttering the living room. It’s only been two weeks since I accepted a new teaching job and moved — again — so there is really no good reason to make a trip home so soon. Well, except for the fact that Michigan State is playing Oregon tonight and at the last second I feel the need to drive the four hours so I can the watch the game with my 84-year-old mother. Her latest ailments — a hip replacement as well as surgery on her hand — had brought a series of fresh wounds to the Grey Gardens nature of our relationship. 

I know you are in pain. I am just trying to help. 

You don’t understand anything. Someday you’ll be old, too. Too bad I won’t be around to see it. 

I am so tired of you saying that.   

But tonight, by wearing our matching Rose Bowl sweatshirts, eating pizza, and gushing about Coach Dantonio like two tweens, there will be a moment of healing for us. That’s how it is with football. For my mother and me, football fills in the gaps, eases the losses, and covers a multitude of sins.

Football first started filling in the empty spaces for me when I was a tween spending much of my time in and out of the hospital with a congenital knee condition. Numerous surgeries thwarted all dreams of becoming a cheerleader or an Olympic figure skater. So with the help of two distant cousins who visited our house often during their college breaks, I learned about the wisdom of Bo Schembechler and the Power I formation.

From there it was not a far leap to becoming a Steelers fan with the help of my high school guidance counselor, who had played with Joe Namath in a Super Bowl and had the ring to prove it. Whenever possible, I would discuss the week’s upcoming games instead of attending math class. Forget algebra; football had plenty of math. There were angles and lines, measurements and statistics that made more sense to me than solving for X or resolving my adolescent angst.

It’s more difficult for me to chart my mother’s history with the game. If I had to guess, it stemmed from her steadfast belief that her father wished she had been born a boy, so she acquired an interest in all things traditionally masculine: climbing trees, shooting guns, playing sports. The interest gained yardage when I went to college, the first in our immediate family to do so. Football became her connection to me, even as I pushed her away, desperate for some distance from Someday you’ll appreciate everything I do for you, but too bad I won’t be around to see it.

It introduced her to the world of Parent Weekends at Spartan Stadium and Parent of a Spartan T-shirts. It was, in fact, one of those Parent Weekends when I told my mother I wanted to become a theater major. After several rounds of my mom telling me How disappointed I am in you; I didn’t teach you to be so foolish and impractical, I responded with something mature like I don’t care what you think, you can’t tell me what to do anymore. My father called a time-out and we ignored each other during the entire game.

True mother-daughter bonding over a pigskin didn’t really happen until decades later, during my father’s crippling descent into Alzheimer’s disease. Not that in the midst of dressing and feeding my father, taking him to doctors’ appointments, or rushing him to the ER, there was a specific moment when we decided it would be a great idea to spend Saturday afternoons together discussing the Spartan’s No Fly Zone or their Steel Curtain-like defense.

I had moved home after living for several years in Los Angeles, proving to my mother she was right again and I shouldn’t have been a theater major or even a person with dreams of any kind. What’s wrong with you that you can’t realize you need to grow up like everyone else? So I took on graduate school, freelance journalism, and caring for Dad. 

In those early months of tag-team caretaking, by Saturday afternoon my mother and I would often hit complete argument exhaustion. We had survived yet another week of I thought you were picking up the medicine

No, you said you already picked it up. 

Well, I didn’t. You should have told me your father hid my purse. I had no money. 

Why would I know where he hid your purse? Why did you leave it out to begin with? You knew this would happen. 

Then hit the replay button. Same song, different verse.

While Dad napped, we slumped in front of the TV and watched a football game. Any game. Didn’t have to be Michigan State. Didn’t have to be the Big Ten. We would watch Miami of Ohio against Appalachian State if we had no other options. For two women who had plenty to be angry about, nothing was more cathartic than jumping up and down over a ninety-yard punt return. For a woman filled with rage over the slow disintegration of her husband, screaming at the ref for missing another obvious face mask was therapeutic. There had to be justice and fair play somewhere. Couldn’t it at least be found on the gridiron if nowhere else in our lives?

Even after Dad died, football remained our link as we faced new obstacles and found new arguments. Mom struggled through shoulder and knee replacements and trigeminal neuralgia. Macular degeneration forced her to buy a 52-inch plasma television and sit five inches from it to see the game. I decided that even after I moved for teaching job number three, I would join her in person for as many games as I could. I would drive up for the University of Michigan–Michigan State game, of course. The Big Ten Championship, obviously. The Super Bowl, usually. I even taught my mom to text so we could communicate during the games. (She actually got pretty good at it.)

Now with my having relocated for teaching job number 4, we cling to our mutual love of the game now more than ever because we both know time is running out. Because what we wish for in our scarred relationship is to know exactly how much time is left on the clock. We each worry as she declines that we don’t have a strong two-minute offense to fight whatever the next disease or injury will be. We want a clear playbook, we want to practice our signals, and most of all, we need some guy dressed like a zebra to referee our moments when we hurt each other the most. We both wish we would simply commit fewer penalties to begin with.

It seems far too much to expect from a game. Of course it is. Yet this evening, as the Spartans trounce the Ducks, the gridiron gives us a safe space to step back from old habits of dysfunction and dissent. It creates a sanctuary for us to talk about the scary future even if only it is only in sound bites the size of a Geico commercial.

Kris Rasmussen is an adjunct professor at Cornerstone University and an instructor at Ellington Academy, both located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has worked as a columnist for CCM Magazine and as a featured blogger at Beliefnet. Her essays have been published in University of Michigan's Bear River Review. When not watching football or playing with her cats, she also loves to write plays and perform at story slams like The Moth.

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