It is probably my most vivid childhood memory. It begins with the smell of my father’s hair cream, a slightly chemical odor mixed with an unidentified manly scent intended, no doubt, to mask the smell of the petroleum. I watch him comb it through his hair, with a very small black comb that he carries in his back pocket. He is very exacting, making sure that the part is perfect, and that each hair falls exactly right on either side of the part. If there is one thing I know about my father, it is that he will not relent until things are exactly the way he wants them to be. It is true of how he coaches, it is true of how he played, it is true even of how we mow the lawn. It is true of his hair as well.
Next comes watching him put on his freshly pressed shirt and buttoning it, over a bright white undershirt. He sends me to his tie rack and tells me to choose one for him. It’s a glorious feeling to have such an important job. I remember the feeling of his hands over mine as he shows me how to loop the end of the tie through the carefully positioned overlap, then tug the long wide end of the tie down until it landed, just so, on top of the shorter, narrower piece. I can still see us both reflected in the bathroom mirror, my small hands, my white blond hair, my porcelain skin contrasted with his huge hands, his jet black hair, his red, sun-battered skin and dazzling blue eyes. We are both very focused. I am in awe of him, he is enjoying my delight. It is important to do it just right on Game Day, or the consequences might be irreversible.
There is no other sound except for his voice and the few words we exchange during this ritual. It is absolutely quiet everywhere else in the house, a large two story perched high on a walled corner lot in suburban Virginia. I sit on the edge of the huge bed watching him buff his shoes to perfection before pulling them on and tying. Then he puts on his jacket. It will be our last moments alone before he runs the gauntlet of the rest of the family, my three sisters and my mother. I will have to say goodbye to him at the front door, along with everybody else. I can feel his freshly shaved cheek against my lips, I can taste the alcohol aftertaste of his cologne. In a moment, he will walk out the house and forget about me. This is our moment, this is all we have, seven Sundays a year when his football team plays at home. On the weekends that the game is out of town, the ritual takes place on Saturday morning before he boards a plane to places I have never heard of. And on those days, the ritual is more fun, maybe feeling a bit more distracted, less intense.
Mostly I can remember a sense of excitement: Today is the day. Today he is going to win again. It’s Game Day.
It’s a big deal in a football family like mine.
And there was one other thing I remember. I remember how handsome he was, his hair slicked back, his eyes so light, I can remember how big he was, well over six feet tall and a compact two hundred pounds. He is at his most handsome when he is anticipating Game Day. His sport coat, his white shirt, and his tie. His wingtips. Do everything just right, I think, and he will come home excited to see us.
At the time, my father was an assistant coach for the Washington Redskins under Vince Lombardi. I didn’t know anything else about him because I rarely saw him except on game days and Saturdays. I didn’t know that he was an assistant coach for the Redskins, I didn’t know that the big rings on his fingers came from Championship games. I didn’t even know what the NFL was. I did know that his boss, Vince Lombardi was a great man, maybe the greatest man who ever lived, maybe as great as God and certainly as powerful and that Dad worshiped him and that somehow he and football would keep a roof over my head. I didn’t need to know anything else. I was five.
By the time I’m in high school, Game Day has lost its allure. We’ve returned to Green Bay, and he’s still a position coach, but now the stakes are too high. It feels like watching your dad, but now he’s a stock on the stock market, one day surging, one day crashing, there is no sense of control, and I’m fighting like hell for an identity separate from football. In the dozen years since we left Washington, football has exploded into an entertainment universe, eclipsing all other professional sports. I still watch him prepare himself for Game Day, just as I did when I was five. But now, it feels like a last moment of privacy we are going to have for days, as the outcome of Game Day will be on the news, in the paper, and discussed everywhere I go, including math class, which I have first period with the football coach and the football team, until the fans become bored and begin to discuss next week’s game. I find it exhausting. I can’t seem to get ahead of the wave of obsession. Game Day has become tiresome, a signal that it is time for the dreads to set in until football season is over.
Fast forward another dozen years or so, and now I’m a coach, for a women’s rowing team in Texas. My father admires me, and admires the girls I coach. I’m surprised, because I realize I have misunderstood something about him all these years. Why he did it. Why he played, why he became a coach. It had nothing to do with Game Day. Game Day is a necessary evil. Game Day, or Race Day, is for everybody else. It’s the thing that we have to do to justify what we get to do during the rest of week, the camaraderie we share privately, in practice, over meals, and at meetings. The joy, the ferocity, the exhaustion, the thrill of being of part of something so much bigger than you. The women I am coaching have no resources compared to what my dad had getting ready for Game Day: No equipment, no money, a novice coach, crappy practice times, no attention, no press, and no expectations. And yet, here we are again. Game Day.
It was never about Game Day. It was always about connection. Game Day was for the fans. The preparation – that’s what we were all about.