Walkthrough: All We Know of Heaven
by Mike Tanier
You were here in December, 2004.
You were here before before FoxSports.com, before ESPN or The New York Times.
You were here before Pro Football Prospectus or Football Outsiders Almanac. You were here before any of our current Football Outsiders writers, besides Aaron Schatz himself. You were here before Bill Barnwell or Doug Farrar, before NFL’s Top 10, before press credentials, before book deals, before credibility.
You were here before money. You were here before my youngest son.
You were here when I arrived, nearly eight years ago. You were here when a 34-year-old math teacher, frustrated with his attempt to find readers, arrived at the FO doorstep and decided to give writing one more chance.
Thank goodness you were here.
I had spent three full years stringing for a fantasy sports service, earning a little money but no bylines. It was uncredited punch press work: scouting reports, voiceless game previews, news roundups. It was blogging in the last days of dialup, and all it got me was plagiarized: some loser was taking my work, uncaught typos and all, slapping his name on it, and pawning it off on one of the early aggregator sites, the kind where anyone could pretend to be a sportswriter, even without writing anything.
It was humiliating. Nobody knew about my work. Few knew my aspirations. Friends nodded politely about my hobby as a "football writer." It was hard to even justify the time expenditure to my wife: we could make the money up elsewhere, with less hassle, if all I was doing was chasing my career’s tail.
A friend told me about this site, so I thought I would check it out. Aaron read my samples, accepted my pitches. He published a long, semi-interesting, error-filled article about the weakest playoff teams in NFL history. It appeared with my byline in the winter of 2004.
And you were there. You responded. The message boards from some of our earliest articles are lost, but I remember that there were 40-50 comments. There were corrections, criticisms, discussions among readers. And there was support and encouragement, from you, actual readers, strangers who invested leisure time and effort into reading odd little explorations of football history.
Readers are a writer’s most precious resource. The hierarchy goes: spouse, children, readers, everyone else. And that’s when we’re emotionally healthy. Editors fit in there somewhere, but editors will fix all the format and spelling errors in the world with a smile if the readers are satisfied. If the readers are happy and engaged, the writer is happy and fulfilled. If the readers are disappointed in the work, the writer is disappointed in himself. If the readers go away, well, what is a writer without readers? He (or she, but it sounds more desperate for "he") is in the back of the coffee shop, with the beret and patchouli, or hanging out in his bathrobe in the basement with the other stereotypes. A writer without readers doesn’t feel like a writer.
You know where this is going, by now. I’m not going to pull a Trapper John and leave without saying goodbye, or without making one last M*A*S*H reference. The frustrated math teacher just signed a full-time contract with Sports on Earth, the new website being launched by USA Today and MLB Advanced Media. My work will start appearing there in a day or two. This is the end of Walkthrough, though I will still be a contributor to Football Outsiders Almanac in the future.
The great opportunity to join the Sports on Earth team came because of you. That’s not the ridiculous humility Aaron Rodgers warns about. Yes, it is because I am a good writer, and because Karen supported my endeavors (and during the dog days of the lockout, the family). It’s because Aaron gave me opportunities, Doug, Bill, Michael David Smith and Russell Levine and the others were here to create an atmosphere of good writing and good ideas, and so on. But this all happened because you came, and you stayed, and you kept coming back.
This great opportunity arrived because you encouraged me, and MDS, Russ, Doug, Bill, and everyone else who passed through Football Outsiders on the way to other things. You demanded great work, and rewarded it. You contributed important ideas. You reassured us. During the Fox days, I got scads of emails every week telling me how stupid I was, how lame my humor was, and offering the usual insights into my sexuality. For real insight into whether my ideas were funny or worthwhile, I came to you.
Memories of events that happened here, on a website in cyberspace, among you, are sometimes more real to than events that occurred in my "real life." Remember the great Falcons Fan Invasion of 2006? Some of you may have joined us during that siege. Others may have arrived later. To fill you in: the Falcons started off the 2006 season 5-2. DVOA, which then provided the power rankings for Fox, ranked them very low: 14th or so. Well, Football Outsiders message boards fell under attack the moment our rankings appeared on the Fox main page. Arguments roiled for days. We spent a week hearing and reading about how stupid we were, how lame our ideas were, and what haters we were.
It hurt. It felt scary. It felt like we were three more Falcons wins from being the laughingstock of the Internet and losing our credibility (and jobs). I don’t remember much else from fall of 2006, but I remember that: logging on to defend our ideas, calm the crowd, and write content that stuck to our guns. And I remember how you stood up for us, not because we are always right but because you knew we were always trying. And we all remember that the Falcons finished 7-9 that year, even though it was a lifetime ago. Three lifetimes for Michael Vick.
A year earlier, I spent Halloween night on the front porch with a laptop, then-toddler CJ wiped out after one of those hour-long trick-or-treat sessions children later misremember as all-night marathons. In between handouts, I wrote a zany story about the dumbest cliché in all of sports: "swagger." It was heavier on comic beats than anything I had written up to that point. Writing it on that brisk autumn night was a pleasure, because I knew you were going to be blown away. And you were: you were overwhelmingly appreciative, even when we re-ran it once or twice. You taught me it was okay to experiment, to tone down the hard science a little bit and to play.
All these times we shared are very real to me, very visceral. Getting a text message about Steve McNair’s death while barbecuing, then putting a comedy Walkthrough on hold to write something more appropriate. Live blogging the Pro Bowl. Seven a.m. writing sessions in the classroom. Hangover mornings at the Combine. Checking in from O’Hare airport, from Mobile, from family vacations down the shore. Reading your comments during 3 a.m. infant feedings. Reading your comments as diversions when loved ones were sick or dying.
Over the years, things changed. The newspaper demanded more of my attention, and signature work. There were suddenly other readers. But you were always the home team. You were the intimate crowd, the coffee house. You gave me a chance to share smaller ideas: the frustrations of the lockout, the dirty words hidden in Avengers movies, the biggest, evilest issue facing America today (Everyday Math). When I left teaching, you became the people I spoke to the most in the course of a week, besides my family. During the lockout, you kept me from going stir crazy.
But we cannot go on like this, because my new project demands and deserves monogamy. And seven-and-a-half years at one site is a hell of a long time, Internet-wise.
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This is not really goodbye, of course. I won’t be hard to find at Sports on Earth. I hope you visit me (A LOT) and post some of the comments there that you post here. You will find me in FOA every summer.
And I will keep coming here as a reader like you. Rivers, Danny, Andy, Vince, Ben, Mike Kurtz, Tom, and the college guys deserve the same opportunities you gave me and the old guard: to be commended, criticized, amended, pushed, inspired. This is where the stats are, where the fresh-and-focused ideas are, where the other smart readers are congregating. After over seven years, after watching competitors rise and fall, this is still the only site I trust for in-depth analysis of how teams are really winning and losing.
It’s one of the few sites on the Internet, on any subject, where I feel compelled to read the comment threads.
I am grateful for the chance to entertain you, talk to you, argue with you, and otherwise be a part of your football life for so long. And I look forward to doing so for years to come, at a different URL. Thank you.
I suppose I should make some big statement before powering down.
Two tangential-to-the-field football stories have dominated the news during my last eight months at Football Outsiders. One is the Saints Bounty scandal/concussion issue, which I label under the big category of player safety. I have written about that subject, seriously and in jest, several times. The other is the Penn State scandal, which I have consciously refrained from discussing for many reasons, the main one being that I have not wanted to nor been obligated to.
Both of these stories touch on grave issues. Both have generated hundreds of thousands of words of commentary, strong opinions, righteous zeal, genuine insights, and calculated histrionics and callous self-branding by sports talk personalities; I leave it to you to sort out what percentage of airtime and bandwidth was devoted to each of those categories. I believe that grave issues must be treated as grave issues: researched carefully, discussed with measured respect for the complexity of the subject matter. That’s not how our business operates in most cases, so I have tried to keep my mouth shut.
Ultimately, these two big stories converge and pose two important questions. These questions are far more important than statue removal or the parsing of Gregg Williams’ pregame speeches. They are questions about moving forward, not itemizing the sins and tragedies of the past.
The first question: how can I make football, sports, or community activities in general as safe as possible for my children?
The second question: how can football remain a positive, meaningful part of my life?
The first question is dear to me as a parent who drops kids off at karate, or basketball camp, or vacation bible school, then returns four hours later expecting to see nothing more than a bruise from an errant elbow or a tummy ache from too many rice cake loaves and Swedish fish. Every responsible parent is vigilant when it comes to looking out for Sandusky-level evil, but the player safety issue reminds us of fresh worries: concussions with gradual effects, coaches that preach Cobra Kai tactics when the parents leave, and so on. And of course, all the vigilance in the world can only do so much to stop a predator, someone who becomes an expert liar and manipulator in his quest to infiltrate the very institutions where parents drop off kids and feel safe rushing off to the mall for a few hours.
Question One is complex, multi-faceted, and unanswerable. That does not mean that it is a waste of time to ask it or to think about it. I can think of some partial answers. We should make more of an effort to volunteer and participate in youth sports. More volunteers means more eyes, more ears when the coaches speak to the teams, more opportunities to send good messages, more chances to get to know local kids, so that we can tell when something is wrong.
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We should make a better effort to attend school board meetings, so citizens have a more direct relationship with the local district than the annual budget vote. If the school is hiring a crisis counselor, or installing cameras in the locker room, or sending 15 coaches for first aid training, you will know. If they are trying to cut budget corners on items like those, you will know. Attend some high school games, and you can get a feel for whether the head coach is the kind of guy who makes "kill the head" speeches, and you can meet some more parents so the first time the community comes together is not when something awful happens.
There are other things that must go on behind the scenes in answer to Question One: technology, medical practices, hiring practices, background checks, incident reporting practices. These things must be constantly reviewed, questioned, and approved, but few of us are in the line of fire for such matters. Question One comes down to being the best possible neighbor and citizen, being as informed as possible, and recognizing that life is one long exercise in risk management. We must demand the best practices from our youth sports leagues and educational institutions. We must put every effort into making it possible for them to do their best, by being good, active participants.
Question Two is more subtle. Football is a brutal sport. It is not healthy for the players, and never will be, no matter what helmets or rules we dream up. It invites corruption, often sends bad messages to young people, takes up too much of our time and money and sometimes leaves us with more hostility than joy. Our love of football creates men with the power to cripple each other for profit, and Sandusky-types who can operate with the impunity of archdukes in their communities, their suspicious actions unquestioned because of their notoriety and success in this all-powerful sport.
Football also means more to me, and probably to you, than any other pastime in the world. It informed my childhood, spurred my imagination, and inspired a passion that spurred a midlife career change. It has provided life-affirming, character-building experiences for the hundreds of young men and three or four young women I taught who played football in high school, the vast majority of whom never played at the FBS level. We can argue that soccer or baseball could provide the same experiences, those sports are also vulnerable to the same abuses and many of the same health concerns, and there are some young individuals that will never select a sport that does not allow them to drill someone. You and I find football fascinating and downright life-enriching, and we all want to keep feeling that way about it.
Hundreds of years ago, bull baiting was a socially acceptable sport. Even 100-120 years ago, dog fights would be covered in local newspapers; not in the Michael Vick way, but with play-by-play. Soccer was essentially an inter-town blood feud in the Middle Ages, and so on. Two centuries from now, people may shake their head at barbarians like us who forced young men to risk concussions for money and who turned our universities into gladiatorial training grounds. But I want to remain a man of this century, plop my butt on a stool or the press box on Sunday, and watch Troy Polamalu hit people hard.
Question Two is no more answerable than Question One. We can boycott to no avail, write angry letters to provosts, wait in vain for helmets made from vibranium, pray. We can do all the things suggested in Question One and hope they provide a lot of spillover to Question Two, and they might provide a little. We can consign football to our guiltiest pleasures, but we love the sport too much, and there is something too precious, magical, and awe-inspiring about it to label it a vice.
There is one thing I tell myself when Question Two looms. These players risk their health for a few years of wealth. In college, they risk their health for a scholarship. The risks often pay off, in the form of wealthy NFL players and college athletes who get a useful education and some local notoriety in exchange for their labor. (Yes, that does happen sometimes.) Most of these young men know the risks as well as any 18-22-year-olds know any risks about anything. The Saints and Penn State scandals are about unanticipated risks –- that the minor bumps on the head are building to something terrible, that the opposing coach preaches a sermon of brutality, that the iconic coach who befriends you in youth league is really a creature from a nightmare. But football is a sport of everyday risks. Major injuries. Too much wealth too soon. A vagabond lifestyle. A college sport that makes studies a distant second. The possibility of finding yourself 30 years old, forgotten and directionless, with health and financial problems looming in the middle distance.
These are football’s forever risks. As long as the sport exists, young men are going to assume them. It is my job, at the very least, to appreciate those young men for assuming those risks. These young people make great sacrifices to entertain and enthrall us. Those of us who devote our Sundays to them, stay up nights thinking about them, or feed our families by writing about them should never take those sacrifices for granted.
It’s not much, but it’s a start. It makes us active participants. It puts us in the frame of mind to invest thought and energy in fixing problems, even if just at the grass roots level, instead of just complaining about them.
Football is our sport. If we love it, it is our duty to nurture it and improve it. I leave here hopeful that the scandals will make us stronger: society can be better, football can be better, and football can be a better part of society. We can do our part by being good citizens, good neighbors, and great fans. It doesn’t sound like much, but it could be everything.
Take care, gang. Visit me at the new apartment.