Roger Marolt: Ten yards and a cloud of smoke over the mirror
The only organizations in Aspen where positions can’t be bought are ski gangs and the chain gang. Of these, only the latter can’t be replicated. Legend says death is the only chance for an aspiring member, although we haven’t tested this.
On Friday nights in football season, these game officials in orange vests occupy prime real estate that cannot be had for any price. I am proud to be member of Aspen’s most exclusive club.
Yet, even before I gained confidence in the honor, during dull moments in lopsided games I couldn’t shake the overarching question above the truths we hold dearly as sentinels of fair play in the great community event of high school football. From where it came I do not know and so it was impossible to push back to its origin. It came and I swatted as if shooing a fly driven wild by the bright lights. It would flitter off, then reappear when I needed to concentrate most.
It eventually caught me distracted, after a punt, moving to spot the ball 40 yards downfield. The chain, the standard measure on which the game is based, lay coiled. Accelerating deftly, as I had thousands of times before, I set a toe in the center of the loop just as my chain-mate took off at the other end. The chain tightened around one foot rising which in turn ensnared the other on the way down. My legs thus bound, I was catapulted by my own momentum, a projectile of skin and bone. I landed and was dragged away for evaluation. The game went on, as it must.
When I came to, things had changed. I didn’t know which ones, but was certain I would never look at this the same. I wondered if the chain gang was necessary. I mean it — the day-glow vests, tossing the pig skin before the game, the pre-game hot wings, and the booster club hamburger at halftime — all of it! Did we serve any purpose?
The hard truth was, of course, a resounding “no.” We know this. Recall the greatest football game ever. It’s easy, because you played in it … as a kid, long before high school, back when we were only as good as our greatest heroes. It may not even have been football. It was any game. You made the rules as you went. The last thing on anyone’s mind was to put them all down in a book.
As for the chain gang, we were replaced with a ball cap thrown down on the grass, a distance away that might pose a challenge for the offense to reach in three plays. You called your own penalties and, if you couldn’t agree, you’d pull the same stunt on the guy who just pulled it on you to see if that changed his mind. Someone’s mother unwittingly kept the clock in her kitchen and the game didn’t end until the dinner bell rang. … Or maybe not until dark, if the contest was good enough to ignore hunger.
I sat there stunned, icing ribs and the knot on my forehead. Every adult around, on the field and off, was superfluous to the game. Kids don’t need coaches, trainers or fans, much less scorekeepers, announcers or a chain gang. They don’t need a concession stand or a booster club. They don’t need uniforms or locker rooms. They don’t need so little as the lines painted on the turf. I won’t suggest kids don’t like all that, only that they don’t need any of it.
When I felt steady enough to grab my down-marker again, I knew the pomp I was part of was mostly for we who made it up. We are not powerful enough to make the game more fun. Our presence doesn’t create importance. Even our own failures in youth cannot be corrected in what happens on the field today.
We are there as homesick voyeurs, having invited ourselves, holding onto something we are losing our grip on — our kids, our youth, or the sense of purpose we once took for granted. We don a cloak of necessity to enter the gate, our motives hidden beneath. And, that’s OK. What we can never lose sight of, though, is that this truly is just a game, no matter how much that hurts to say. We must be humbled to be here. And, yes, it is our duty to stay out of the way, so fun can find its footing.
Roger Marolt often wonders what it would take to be the chain gang for an NFL game, because it doesn’t seem like much. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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