The likes of John Elway, Jim Plunkett, Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers all have suited up for the Big Game. So when the collegiate football players of today come jogging onto the field, especially quarterbacks, I would suspect there must be a tinge of anticipation — or even angst — over trying to live up to the expectations that have been set before them throughout history and leave their own mark. Or maybe it isn’t something that crosses their mind. Perhaps they only are to focus on the objective at hand and nothing else. How would I know? I’m merely a writer. I haven’t lived the lives of those players. I haven’t devoted years of my life to football.
There was an intermediate time in my life, however, when I saw myself as an athlete as well. Now as a frosh at a Division I school, all I can do is sit in the stands (or this year on the couch) and stare in awe at my classmates who have achieved superior athletic prowess. But for the decade or so between second grade and my graduation from high school, sports played an integral part in my life.
In lower school, my peers and I were fast to pick up on societal norms around sports like any other kid that age — for better or for worse. We knew which sports were for boys (football, baseball), which for girls (softball, figure skating) and which for both (soccer, for example). In fact, most children have the ability to emulate gender roles in their environment by the time they are six or seven. We could already distinguish the jocks from the nerds, and so on. I wouldn’t say that I was ever identified as a nerd, but I did feel like I was on the outside of the athletic circle. In fact, I felt somewhat “defective” for not feeling the desire to play sports, and my awareness of this emotion ballooned under the surface. By third grade, I was considerably aware and everywhere I went, it seemed, I saw sports. So, I set out to make myself “right” by joining the other boys on the field for football during each recess. It didn’t matter what I wanted to do anymore, only that I conform to regain a sense of self-respect.
I soon discovered I could run faster than anyone on the field. That allowed me to build up a reputation after about a year. I started running track as a sprinter and then played soccer throughout middle school. In high school, I focused on baseball and rowing crew. The entire time I suppose retrospectively that I was filling a vacuum, only temporarily hiding a deep insecurity. It almost feels like if I’m not doing something physically rigorous in my life, something’s wrong with me. My meaning is cast aside and I feel less than as a man. Often I wonder if this is a universal phenomenon or only me, and I think about it much more often now that I no longer play organized varsity sports.
Through lived experience and the wisdom of my peers, I have learned about myself that I want to feel important, even though it’s easy to feel helplessly insignificant on a planet of billions of people that is cast against the vast blackness of an indifferent universe. However, I can at least feel needed by others. That’s where the brotherhood of athletics comes in. Throughout high school, I got my thrills and worth by playing sports. When I (barely) made it onto the varsity crew for the Chicago Rowing Foundation (CRF), I walked around throughout the day with a sense of pride and honor because I knew that I could put myself through physical rigor and that I could work effectively in a team toward a common goal. Even on the days that I’d rather go home, I still would put myself through the wringer during practice for my teammates because it was my responsibility to carry my weight — literally — even if the waves in the river were crashing into the boat or if it was raining ice and I couldn’t see a thing. I knew that our competitors across the country were also practicing, and I wouldn’t let them have the satisfaction of having put in more work than me. Indeed, belonging to this group of hardworking individuals with a larger common goal granted the feeling of deserving a meaningful life.
With 347 schools across 49 states, only 0.8% of high school athletes advance to compete at Division I collegiate programs. The selectivity, packed stadiums and features on ESPN sound glamorous, among many other perks. However, it’s not all private transportation, custom uniforms or campus celebrity. It is likelier that being a Division I athlete is akin to working a highly scheduled, full-time job during the week, with overtime on the weekends. It is not glamorous. But it is honorable, and I think that is a higher rapture than glamor. Let us visit the notorious playwright among performing artists G. Bernard Shaw for an example. I once knew an app developer who studied acting and physics in college, and he said that the very process of rehearsing Shaw’s plays was a dreadful process. But eventually, he came to realize that this suffering was, counterintuitively, related to his enlightenment and well-being. It is a notion so poignant and so masterful. In his work “Man and Superman,” Shaw represents it well: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
A life worth living is one where you spend everything you’ve got, and even if I commit my mind to academic, artistic or professional excellence, that isn’t all that I can do. For millions of years throughout the evolution of humans, using one’s body was an essential act, and now I can sit in a chair all day without any physical movement. It simply doesn’t feel like I am using my body in the way it should be used. My body isn’t just a vessel for transporting my head to different locations; it is its own full entity.
Aspects of our culture like athletics are likely motivated by higher needs. Sure, along human evolution, being able to run or throw were selective advantages, but I think those abilities also serve a deeper, more profound purpose. For instance, I have a mouth for a clear reason. If I’m hungry, I put something edible in there, and I’m done. However, as creatures, brains and cultures become ever more complex, so grows the abundance of demands and behaviors required to satisfy them. We need games — sports, specifically — in the larger game of life because the goals are entirely definite and understandable. Furthermore, the primal interaction and exhilaration of physical activity is a phenomenal way to experience the sensation of reward. Philosophers have reflected on the significance of sports at least since the times of Ancient Greece. Plato and Aristotle saw athletics as an essential component of education and human flourishing. They stressed that an educated Greek ought to find harmony between mind and body.
Perhaps the time of physical activity is long gone. Maybe one day robots will replace football players, too, and drones will fight our wars, and we’ll all be reclining in leather armchairs at home. I’m not entirely sure if that’s a world I want to see come to be. How can someone be inspired by a machine? It is possible, though, that my adamant belief in physical activity above all else is also a relic. Initially in lower school during recess, I’d rather play with puzzles than run around. I never wanted to play sports or do anything rigorous with my body. Probably most see that part of me, but I’ve been molded into someone who wants to be seen as more. I was molded by my environment into a fanatic of physical ability, albeit a possibly synthetic one. Of this I am aware, but do you not see how much I have learned and the camaraderie that I have obtained in the process?
Because of rowing, I know that races are not won on the day of the race. Medals are won during the hours of cooperative practice, even on those days you would rather go home. My rowing community makes a point of looking at the competitor at the starting line and knowing we put more work in. This adage is one of many that our coach has imparted onto us. He once told me that “you can only be as strong as your mind.” When we take that to heart as a unit, our community is something that no one else should want to go up against. When “Row!” is called, we take an initial Herculean stroke as we go to war with inertia. When the boat gets to full speed and the coxswain guides us to the correct stroke rate, we begin to adjust to each other’s fine movements in an effort to conserve energy.
Marathon runners describe hitting “the wall” at the 23rd mile. Our version is “the pain cave,” which opens up as early as the first two minutes of a race. My mouth gets dry, and I struggle to take a deep breath. Every time I slide the seat with my thighs, I feel nails. I can feel my forearms splitting. Then the pain becomes disorganized and confusing. My ego dissociates, and we are now moving the boat forward in one uniform, seamless motion, like the expansion of lungs or the gallop of a horse as it rounds the homestretch, never letting all four feet hit the ground at once, with a body that is already spent. The remaining distance seems unthinkable, but the prospect and the shame of losing are more so. We forget everything outside of that shell, and the motion of swaying back and forth is no different from unconscious synchronized breathing. When we collapse at the finish line, cowbells ringing, horns honking, we are too spent to outwardly celebrate what we’ve done. However, the elusive, transcendent, deeper sense of connection with my crewmates is there, albeit invisible.
And I could probably go on all day recounting stories from CRF, trying to convince myself that I’m some “tough guy,” but there’s always some form of inadequacy (or inferiority) that takes over. It’s like there’s some vacuum, and I have to fill it by proving that there’s something inside me that’s worthy of the respect of other people, or else I won’t feel like a whole man as I continue through the stages of life. Practicing athletics has been such a cornerstone of my identity — even if that identity isn’t inherently mine — that I cannot imagine my life without the discipline, honor, exultation and community. But as athletic activity becomes an increasingly small part of my life, how will I be satisfied? Will I revert back to who I was in second grade?
Sometimes I wish that I had devoted even more time to sports so that I could be on one of the varsity teams. I could have been a wide receiver for the football team as my father briefly was during his time at Stanford. Instead, I look at our athletes with piercing envy. I think most people I know just see me as an intellectual when for most of my life I’ve wanted them to see me as something more, a Renaissance man as we say in my family.
Indeed, I often question whether I am exclusively an intellectual at the core, and just as often I reject that idea. No, I do not only spend my days clacking away at a keyboard, writing about epistemology and indigenous species of moss. Just some. I’m not merely a writer. I’m a Renaissance man, clothed in a breadth of interests. Thus, you can count on me to be rooting for the Cardinal this Friday, but I won’t be able to tell you if that passion is intrinsic or manufactured by years of socialization.
Contact Matthew Turk at mjturk ‘at’ stanford.edu.