After his fourth or fifth pint one Friday years ago, an Irishman masquerading as a friend described American football as “your crazy, gladiatorial combat.” He was accurate and descriptive enough, the full quote has been carried in a back-pocket notebook ever since. He was also, of course, missing many key facets.
He didn’t think to mention quarterback regression, Playoff pathways or the lack thereof, and vaudevillian injuries. More than the chaos and violence of the sport, we tend to get caught up in these relative trivialities. In doing so, we lose track of the real difference between football and the vivid picture John succinctly painted.
This sport often contains pure joy. Not to be confused with the elation of victory, the feeling of accomplishment or the misguided antics of unsportsmanlike conduct, it can elicit utter happiness.
It can turn a 285-pound Hawaiian into a 9-year-old from anywhere.
Notre Dame junior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s 48-yard fumble return in last week’s 35-20 victory against No. 18 Virginia was not a moment worthy of the spotlight because Tagovailoa-Amosa is nearly 300 pounds. Rather, it was the fact that he had not tucked the ball under his arm and taken off since he was 9 or 10, by his own estimation.
Sure, his abundance of size led to the lack of those opportunities, but it was that rare chance that delighted Tagovailoa-Amosa afterward, not the chuckle that he was not quick enough to avoid being dragged down seven yards from the end zone. (By postgame, even that could be laughed at, especially since the Irish gained those seven yards in the next two plays.)
“That’s the dream right there,” Tagovailoa-Amosa said while holding court, later pointing out how contagious smiles are and relishing the thought of applause coming from a certain Alabama quarterback.
The proud moments were earned. Tagovailoa-Amosa missed nearly all of 2018 with a broken foot. As hard as it may be for a 285-pounder to stay in fighting shape during an active season, it may be subtly harder for one to stay at that weight while inactive. Keeping his pressure on the scale in check was only half the difficulty for Tagovailoa-Amosa.
“It challenges your mind,” he said. “There’s a point in time where you start to think selfishly and that’s the worst thing that can happen for you. For me, surrounded by brothers who know that things like that can affect someone, all they did was surround me with love.”
Love, smiles, dreams. If that all sounds childlike, it was, in the best of ways.
Go to any flag football game filled with 9-year-olds. As surely as there will be dropped snaps and fowl throws, there will be a moment with as much glee as Tagovailoa-Amosa felt. Thursday night, one such game featured back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns. Watching a slight ball carrier emerge from a morass of frantic arms only to realize his flags were still attached was to see a reaction very much akin to Tagovailoa-Amosa’s when he saw the football pop into the air right in front of his facemask.
Watching that 9-year-old, it was not difficult to envision Tagovailoa-Amosa’s last time carrying the ball, more than a decade ago.
Even if Notre Dame had lost to the Cavaliers — after all, by the definition of back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns, one of those teams had to lose Thursday — the Irish laughs over Tagovailoa-Amosa’s jaunt would have lasted.
There are other, though fewer and fewer, differences between this sport contingent on an oblong ball and gladiatorial combat, but the moments best enjoyed by 9-year-olds are the most vital contrast.
Losing them among redundant, inane and cyclical debates about completion percentages, coaching plateaus and Playoff résumés is to render all those irrational arguments moot in the first place.
When at the bar this evening with John, or tonight around a backyard bonfire with a father of two, or lingering near the grill tomorrow, perhaps don’t begin a conversation with, “Why doesn’t Brian Kelly play Phil Jurkovec?” Instead, smirk at the real reason Tagovailoa-Amosa did not score on his scamper. After senior defensive end Jamir Jones forced that fumble, he had no idea the big man had secured the football. For the quickest of beats, he didn’t know why Tagovailoa-Amosa was running down the field, a beat long enough to allow Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins to go make the tackle of a player outweighing him by 70 pounds.
“Sad we couldn’t get him into the end zone,” Jones said, knowing his own momentary disbelief shorted Tagovailoa-Amosa’s beeline toward the end zone.
Though, Jones was not that sad, grinning wide at every mention of Tagovailoa-Amosa with the ball in his hand.