I’m hitching a ride on a DC3 out of Togiak, Alaska to be in Green Bay for the start of training camp.
I’m working on a dock at a commercial fishery unloading salmon boats. The temperature hovers in the '60s, the humidity is suffocating, and everything smells like dead fish. Is it dangerous? Shit yeah, it’s dangerous, that’s why I’m there. Operating heavy equipment on a fishing dock is dangerous. Is the money good? Yes, it’s great. Is it physical? Yea, it’s grueling. I like it. But the fish have stopped running, and a morale-eroding anxiety has set in. No fish—no paycheck. Togiak, population 817, is almost 400 miles west of Anchorage, connected by vast tundra populated by grizzlies, ground squirrels, lemmings and shrews.
There are only two ways out: boat or bush plane. There is no hitchhiking, no bus, no train, no renting a car. No Uber. Without work to focus them, my foreman and his buddy take a special liking to me, the kind of special liking that makes a 20-year-old female dock worker uncomfortable. Charlie, a former Navy pilot with his own DC3, tells me he’s come to Alaska because he wants to make some quick cash. Before Togiak, he’s been in Central America flying for an outfit called Air America Freight (Iran-Contra and Oliver North is next summer, the summer of '86). When Charlie offers me a ride home, it seems prudent.
Doing the job of football, like my dad does, is sort of like working on a dock in Alaska: The work is seasonal, dangerous, and the money is great. Dad is still doing football, in his fourth decade with the pros, once a player, now a coach for the Packers. I want to be his mini-me.
Training camp starts an annual rhythm that has defined me since birth. July: Draft picks, free agents, veterans line up. There is no ambiguity in camp. Ninety players show up, half make the team. You’re either better than the other guy, or you go home. Then, September through December, the season’s a lot like adulthood: Go big or go home. Post-season: The guys willing to go the extra mile get the extra recognition while everyone else watches.
I believe in it. I believe in all of it.
I love the struggle, I love the fight. In training camp, they fight the elements—high heat, humidity, dehydration, summer storms. They fight each other. And they fight themselves too. Physical warfare. Psychological warfare. By December, it’s too cold, ice, frozen hands, frozen feet, frozen breath. They are special. I love how special they are.
Also, there’s fear. Mortal fear. On each down, I can smell it. Two guys oppose each other, fit, focused, highly trained. Each has paid a high price to be here, and is going to make the other guy pay a high price to stay here. Public monies, in junior high, high school and college are poured into developing their gifts from the moment their athletic talent is identified. Coaches, trainers, uniforms, all paid for by cities, counties and federal subsidies that prove these guys are important enough to use my tax money to train them. They don’t want to let us down, but someone’s going to get hurt today.
I have an inkling of what my love costs them and I love that too. I love how dangerous it is. Sort of like a 20-year-old girl going to Alaska to unload fishing boats—good money, some danger and some nasty weather. I’m my father’s daughter, after all.
I left Alaska with no permanent damage, on a plane, with a handful of tall tales. My dad and his guys? There’s not gonna be a DC3 to fly them out. It’s going to be a long post-game walk through the tundra. Period. They’re not all going to make it. CTE is a cunning and baffling disease, and now there’s a 99% chance it’s gonna happen to them all.
I love football. And now I hate it too.