Teethed on frozen kidney? Wow, that is stunning, and it makes my hair stand on end. In my friend Margaret Talbot’s great story about prodigy athletes, she concludes it’s mostly cold corporate sponsors piling on the pressure. And one imagines the old Soviet Olympic mill (and now the Chinese one) would eat kids alive. But there’s a particular pathos when it’s the parents doing the pushing. The stories about those young Chinese gymnasts who didn’t make the cut were heartbreaking. But at least they had parents to go home to. In J.D.’s case, the parental love is entirely contingent on his performance, or at least he perceives it that way. “He’s not mad at me?” J.D. anxiously asks his mother, because her smiling face is no comfort if he can’t answer that question.
One reader suggested that Riggins may be jealous of J.D.’s relationship with his dad. And there may be a hint of that in his disdain. But it’s hard for me to imagine. In answer to my husband’s question of last week: Yes, I would absolutely rather raise a son like Riggins than one like J.D. It’s just too painful to watch that empty performance machine of a boy, one who’s afraid of his own shadow. And as Meghan points out, those boys with no center spin out of control eventually. David, remember who else in our life used to endlessly ask a version of that question: “Are you mad at me?” (Answer: Stephen Glass.)
So, yes, football can destroy men. But this episode also ran in the opposite direction, reminding us of the many ways in which football can make heroes of losers. Fullback Jamarcus never told his parents he plays football, because he knows they won’t let him. Then he gets into trouble at school and, in speaking to his parents, Tami lets it slip. Until this point Tami has been telling Coach to butt out, this is the principal’s prerogative. But finally she realizes how her husband can impose the discipline better in this case. She explains to Jamarcus’ parents how she’s seen her husband “empower” and “inspire” boys through football. And also how her husband will make Jamarcus “regret the day” he ever set another kid’s hair on fire or misbehaved in school. The parents had been thinking of football as a frivolous distraction, and Tami successfully reframes it as Jamarcus’ salvation.
Then there’s the moving scene with Riggins that you mentioned, Meghan. Riggins’ life, which always seems so chaotic, turns into one of those Olympic athlete fables on screen. Billy is so articulate in praising his brother, and Coach uses that word I love hearing him say—”fortitude.” We are reminded that football can make these boys into their best selves. In Riggins’ case, it’s his ticket out, but not in a crass way. He’s using it reluctantly, so he won’t get burned the way Smash did. Football even works magic on those bratty Garrity kids, who finally get into the game and stop torturing Buddy.
As for everyone leaving Dillon: They make it seem so far away and impossible. Street is going to New York? Why not stop in Austin first, just to acclimate? And then Landry, who’s going to that mythical college where all the hottest co-eds fall for nerds. It’s so dreamy, it just perpetuates the sense that life after the Dillon Panthers is a fantasy.
Except for Devin. Boy, do I love that girl. “She uses V-a-a-a-a-seline.” That’s a great song she steals, and it’s nice to hear a girl sing it. And I love the way she delivers those platitudes—”Tomorrow’s a brand new day”— in that flat nasal voice of hers. I’d follow her out of Dillon.