The Super Bowl is this weekend, and I’m pretty excited. I know a lot of my readers aren’t into sports–I’ve spent my life in the theatre, and a Venn diagram of ‘theatre people’ and ‘football fans’ wouldn’t necessarily show much overlap. And of the major North American team sports, football is my least favorite. It’s violent. It hurts people, sometimes permanently. But the guys who play it tend to love it, and tend as well to be thoroughly aware of the risks. I played a lot of football growing up, though never in any formal organized way–just playing in our back yard, otherwise known as our dog’s favorite bathroom. Dodging dog poo–ah, the memories.
Plus, it can be beautiful, it really can. A perfectly thrown pass, a beautifully executed play. Wonderful athletes, leaping and running. So: torn. But still planning a Super Bowl party.
And this year, my favorite team’s in it. I became a San Francisco 49ers fan because, heck, growing up in Indiana, why wouldn’t I? And I thought maybe I’d see if I could humanize the sport a little: tell some stories about the guys who play it.
So: Alex Boone.
The 49ers right guard. He played college football at Ohio State, where he won the kinds of awards you win as one of the best linemen in football. He showed up at the NFL combine in 2009, 6’8″, 340 pounds, chiseled, a terrific athlete. Strong, quick, powerful. And a drunk.
Boone say he started drinking in junior high, would sit with his Dad and drink beer and watch football together. He would pound forty beers a night as a fifteen year old. He was arrested for drunk driving as a high school kid. He finished his college eligibility without a degree, and went to the NFL combine (a big pre-draft workout, basically, attended by scouts from every NFL team), and the buzz was that he would be a first-round draft pick–ten million dollar signing bonus territory. It didn’t happen. He wasn’t drafted at all. No one wanted him. No one wanted to gamble 10 million dollars, or even one million dollars, on an alcoholic.
He was out of control. He head-butted people. He went to a frat party and beat a guy up. He went to a party in California, went to a mall parking lot, and got it into his head to jump on the roofs of parked cars until the roofs collapsed. For fun. He was arrested for trying to destroy a tow truck. He was drinking every day, completely out of control. And nobody in the NFL was interested.
Except the 49ers. They interviewed him, said they would draft him as a free agent (for miniscule money), but with two requirements. His technique sucked, because he’d never had to listen to coaches. He had to work with La Charles Bentley, a former NFL lineman who had a camp for budding linemen. And Mike Singletary, the coach, told him he had to stop drinking.
Boone went to AA. He’s been clean and sober for three years. He’s married, and a Dad. He’s very heavily involved in charity work. And he’s the starting right guard for the Super Bowl Niners. He’s turned his life around. And is today one of the most intelligent and thoughtful guys on the team, bright and quotable.
Every year, college football players await the NFL draft, which will determine their futures. The worst team in football gets to pick first–getting a first shot at the best college player in the country. The best team picks 32nd, and so on, for seven rounds. There are always all kinds of speculation about who will be the number one pick, and if you’re a fan, you have strong opinions over who your team should use its precious picks on. And teams can trade picks, and do. In the 2011 draft, due to trades, the Niners had three seventh round picks. At that point in the draft, you’re not going to get a superstar, but as a fan you hope your team at least can get a useful player. And with the last of those three picks, the Niners drafted Bruce Miller.
Miller played his college ball at Central Florida, not a powerhouse school. But he was a good player there, a defensive end, probably the best defensive player in the school’s history. Problem is, he was 6’2″, 245. And at the professional level, that’s just too small. So he waited, desperate to fulfill his lifetime goal of playing football professionally, hoping someone would take a chance on him, hoping they’d want him for special teams or something. Anything.
So he got the phone call; the Niners welcomed him to the team. And told him they wanted him as a fullback.
If you don’t know anything about football, that won’t mean much, but you can hardly find two positions with less in common than fullback and defensive end. For one thing, fullbacks block–that’s their main job. Defensive players tackle. All his instincts would be off. It’s like, I don’t know, getting cast as Mercutio and then you show up for your first rehearsal and they say, sorry, we want you to play Juliet. Here’s your script. Good luck.
Plus, when they drafted Miller, the Niners already had a fullback, a good one, Moran Norris.
So Bruce Miller shows up to Niners camp, ready to start practice, ready to learn a brand new position. But the NFL was in the middle of an incredibly nasty labor negotiation, and players weren’t allowed to practice as a team. Alex Smith, the Niners quarterback, was organizing some informal practices, so Miller went to California from Florida, crashed on Smith’s sofa, and asked the other guys to show him how to be a fullback. And, by all accounts, completely worked his butt off.
It wasn’t going to matter, that first season. Norris was the starter, and Miller, as he’d hoped, was going to play on special teams. When the labor problems ended, and the coaches finally showed up, Miller got some more instruction, and was making good progress. Turns out, his size wasn’t good for a defensive end, but it was pretty well perfect for a fullback. And Miller had played football all his life. A season spent sitting on the bench, learning from a respected veteran like Norris would be good for him.
On the third play of the season, Moran Norris blew out his knee. And his career was over. And Bruce Miller had to step up and play.
And he’s been great. If you watch the Super Bowl, watch Miller. Miller’s easy to spot–he’s number 49, on the 49ers. Often you can learn more watching him play than you can from watching the quarterback. If the Niners make a big play, a long run or a long pass, Bruce Miller’s blocking will have had a lot to do with it–he’s a perfect fullback for the Pistol offense, which the Niners use a lot of the time. If he’s really lucky, he might even catch a pass. Turns out, he’s great at that too.
It’s hardly news to say that national attitudes towards our LGBT friends have changed tremendously. Marriage equality now enjoys majority support, and laws forbidding discrimination on housing or employment have been enacted in Salt Lake City, with LDS Church support. One barrier that has remained unchanged, however, is professional sports. Olympic athletes, tennis players–wonderful, brave Martina Navratilova– even soccer players have come out in recent years. But so far, at least, no major team sport athlete has come out as gay. The old Dodgers’ outfielder, Billy Bean, came out after his retirement from baseball. But football has remained, at least publicly, entirely straight.
Which is actually hilarious, given the many many homo-erotic overtones of basically everything about the sport. Still, there has never been an active, out player.
The Forty-Niners play in San Francisco, and are generally reckoned the most gay-friendly team in the NFL. In August, they became the first NFL team (and remain the only NFL team) to produce an “It gets better” video aimed at LGBT youth. I love the video, in part because who appears in it–there isn’t a tougher football player alive than Donte Whitner, other than perhaps Ricky Jean Francois.
The Niners now have their first out player. It’s a sad story, really: Kwame Harris, who played right tackle for the team from 2003-2007 was arrested on domestic violence charges after a fight with a former domestic partner turned ugly. Harris is, by all accounts, a very quiet and reserved guy. Because they were fighting about what seem like trivial issues–soy sauce on rice, and underwear–the story seems comical. But a man was badly injured, and another may serve jail time for it–that’s not funny. No, what’s great about the story isn’t Kwame Harris’ sad legal difficulties, or a relationship turned sour–what’s great has been the response of the Niners’ players.
There are guys on the team at the Super Bowl who played with Kwame Harris. There are 4000 reporters covering the Super Bowl–Harris has come up. And they couldn’t care less. Delanie Walker, Brian Jennings–they’ve been asked about Harris, and they say ‘he was a great football player, and a teammate and friend. His sexual orientation’s irrelevant.’
So remember all that talk about ‘guys in a locker room, they’re not going to put up with a gay teammate?’ Based on the 49ers response, I don’t think it’s going to be an issue. Obviously, some guys might–the thought that some professional football players may be homophobic is hardly startling. But for the most part, as Brian Jennings put it: “we’re here to win football games.” And every day that passes, some progress is made. . . .
And then, right after I wrote this, Chris Culliver made some astonishingly homophobic comments, and was promptly blasted for it by Mike Wilbon. So maybe not that much progress. . . .
Every guy on a football team has a story, and the stories can be fascinating. Another reason why, despite my very real reservations about it, I remain a football fan. And go Forty-niners.