how I succumbed to mob fever
|Some people hate football.
It's hard to fault them. While most of us seek to avoid injury, games regularly produce casualties on par with Italian Renaissance battlefields.
There is a chasm between the game played in the streets and that played in the stadium, unlike that of baseball or soccer (or should I say "real" football?). Sure, you can play catch with a football or even put together a pick-up game of touch as the kinder, gentler alternative to the truer tackle. But American football expresses the material and technological character of the culture. Thus the armor, the goalposts, and the squadrons of specialists.
And let's not forget the irony of the game's name: they only let one or two guys anywhere near the ball with their foot.
Of course, most people who hate football do so with assistance from our friend, the television. The fanfare, the analysis, the hyperbole, the hours on end of grunting, yelling, cheering, dancing, and weeping (this is beginning to sound very Dionysian, don't you think?).
I mostly dig it.
When you get right down to it, people like football for the same reason they are drawn to chess, cop shows, or Jerry Springer: the drama of battle.
I had my day on the battlefield in that dark time of my life I refer to as junior high. I wanted to play. And I wasn't going to let the fact that I was a foot shorter and 50 pounds lighter than every other player get in my way. Which led to one of many hard life lessons: the well meaning phrase "you can do anything you want to if you try hard enough" just wasn't true.
The coaches knew I had some smarts so they made me the third string quarterback. Unfortunately brains don't compensate for a weeny passing arm. I reeked as a peewee QB. I was rotated around until I ended up as the third string defensive back. Ironically, I could tackle pretty well. I wasn't afraid to take on anybody with the ball.
The funny thing that you don't pick up from watching football on t.v. is that sometimes the tackler takes a worse hit than the tacklee. It's physics, you know. Force = mass times acceleration. (My favorite Newtonian formula.) But I was still too short. The upshot is that I could tackle the receiver once he caught it, but could rarely get high enough to prevent it from getting their in the first place. The cruel ironies of genetics.
Sometimes you hear people who have fallen tell you that they just got the wind knocked out of them. Nuh uh. If they're talking, they didn't have the wind knocked out of them. I should know. I've been there.
The team had suffered a particularly painful defeat two days ago and the coach was not amused. The order of the day: a sadistic little punishment he called the Hamburger Drill. The entire squad forms two parallel lines about ten feet apart. Once you reach the head of the line it is your turn to make your way down the alley formed by your team mates. The only problem is that the first of the three biggest baddest boys on the squad is directly in your path. You run at him. He flattens you. Get up. Run. The next flattens you. Get up. Run. And the last flattens you. Get up. Get back in line. That, my friends, was the Hamburger Drill.
I've reached the head of the line. In front of me is our starting offensive guard, Nick Hastings. Basically a good guy with a freckled face and a friendly disposition. But he had a job to do. I went straight at him. He hit me low and came up, lifting me off my feet and throwing me over his shoulder. I was briefly airborne and then came down flat on my back.
It felt like a giant had taken my chest between his massive palms and clapped hard.
My eyes opened but I couldn't get up. My lungs were not filling. I was alarmed. And worse yet, I was clogging the Drill. My reputation as a tough little cuss was fairly secure, so when I didn't move out of the way, the coach, with a somewhat irritated tone in response to my concerned team mates queries was correctly "he got the wind knocked out of him".
It took a few more seconds and then the air slowly filled my squished flat alveoli. I was helped out of the way so they could run the Drill on a few more guys but I think my little incident gave the coach pause and he soon turned our efforts to something a little more productive.
I desperately wanted to be good at football. Racing down the sideline with pursuit close on my heels towards the wide green expanse of the end zone. Or reaching up and tipping a pass with my fingertips intended for my opponent, pulling it down and running like hell. I wanted it. But it was not to be. I ended up bailing out from the eighth grade squad after being terrorized by a pasty white hood and his little gang who just happened to be on the team.
Now all that stuff isn't the stupid part. (Actually, that's a judgement call on your part.) That was context.
Fast forward ten years.
Among my siblings, I am the only one who has not been a cheerleader. Both my sisters were cheerleaders in high school. And in his junior year, my brother made the cut on the rally squad for the University of Oregon. Now if you've got any misperceptions about the masculinity of guys being cheerleaders, you probably wouldn't tell Craig to his face. He can take care of himself pretty well.
It's not a bad job. Hang out with pretty girls. Toss them around. Watch games. Yell with the giant megaphone. Harrass the mascot. There's a lot of work too. And contrary to what you might think, you don't get any leg up on the action with your lady counterparts. They're basically your co-workers.
But you do get season tickets, which brings us back to the point of this ever burgeoning tale.
November 1991, Autzen Stadium, Eugene, Oregon. Among a sea of 30,000 souls I am seated in a large, rowdy section of students most of whom got in free through their student fee support of the program. I'm five years into the wildnerness of life after college and it feels good to reconnect with the youthful and reckless vibe. The temperature is a touch low and I'm glad that I snuck in a little container of cognac. Just watching the dudes behind me with their shirts off sends chills down my back.
(It should be noted that I did not attend the U of O. I got my B.S. (stop that snickering) in Communication at Lewis & Clark College in Portland -- home of the mighty Pioneers. It's a small school that has a NAIA(?) league football team that's mostly there for the players, which is fine. Portland does not have an NFL team and thus the U of O team serves the invaluable role of the state's team. (Don't tell that to Oregon State fans.))
It's a good crowd. When the rally guys hold up a sign, the crowd responds with a thunderous "Go!". The far side of the stadium responds to their cue card "Ducks!". (Don't bug me on this one, guys. All you need to know is that the U of O made a handshake deal with Walt Disney which gave them eternal rights to certain uses of a mean Donald Duck. It's the Quack Attack, baby.) Satisfying on a tribal level and the stereo effect is indeed impressive.
The UCLA Bruins are on the field; they've been beating up on us for more seasons than I can remember. But our coach is Rich Brooks (who a few years later would lead the team to the Rose Bowl) and our QB is Bill Musgrave (I think he later spent a little time as a third or fourth string QB for the Niners...). We are on the verge of becoming a good team. And this ends up being a game that begins the best decade of a hundred year program.
Up until now we've won every home game of the season. If we were to win this one, it would mean the first undefeated home season in about thirty years.
It is the fourth quarter. We trail by ten. The natives are restless. We have the ball on our thirty and our drive has stalled. Musgrave airs it out to one of the receivers. The defensive back and the wide receiver make a little contact. The pass falls to ground and the crowd deflates for a moment until a yellow flag the color of a life preserver sails from the hand of the referee. It looked like a clean play to me but the ref says "pass interference". First down. The crowd roars back to life.
A few plays later we're in the end zone. Ten minutes left in the game and trailing by three. There's time. Among the students a few of the guys point to the end zone and begin to chant, "goal-post, goal-post".
And the chant grows a little louder.
The defense is a brick wall and the Bruins go nowhere. With four minutes on the clock our guys slowly march down the field on the strength of quick, short out passes and a few runs mixed in there for good measure. On the twenty, Musgrave sends his best receivers left, takes the snap, fades to the weak side and lobs it right over the shoulder of the defender into the hands of a senior who has caught only three passes his entire career. The perfect play to the perfect guy at the perfect time. Touchdown.
We go bonkers. "Goal-post, goal-post!" takes on a more decisive, prescriptive tone. Guys in the section are now turning, looking to others throughout the area. Some with a mad glee in their eyes. Others with a giddiness and incredulity, looking for reassurance that this is the real deal. That if they commit they will not be alone. And right there I made my decision.
I'm going in.
Now people, this is Oregon. We don't have a big reputation for rioting. Recycling, yes. Land use planning, yes. Rioting, no. We read a lot of books and stay out of trouble.
But thirty years of getting stepped on and being one of the doormats of the PAC-10 can make you a little crazy. And maybe the cognac played a little part in there too.
3-2-1, woohoo! I catch my brother's eye to let him know I'm going after it, not sure whether he's signed something that prevents him from destroying school property. Bodies are streaming onto the field quickly but in an almost orderly fashion towards the north goalpost to meet a cordon of well-meaning student aged rent-a-cops.
Frankly, I blame the stadium admins for not radioing these guys to get the hell out of there. But they didn't and the security guards stuck to the script and defended the goal post. Jostling and mixing commenced which produced a tidal force. It was at once a powerful and powerless feeling.
From my view, we Americans are a pretty fractious lot. At the heart of our culture is the Big Me and the Big Me isn't a fan of the Big We. I believe we suffer the tantrums of the Big Me a touch more than we ought. We need more of the Big We.
The celebratory mob is one manifestation of the Big We. A big, visceral, scary incarnation of the tribe with a direct connection into Nature's power grid. A rally, strike, march, fight, civil disobedience, memorial. These events connect us and can trigger the Big We. And when it is right, it can be powerfully, righteously right. Of course, we all know there is a dark dangerous place on the power grid which is one of the reasons we fear the Big We.
I'm about fifteen to twenty layers back from the bottom crossbar. I hear yelling and jostling, nothing too alarming yet. But the momentum has clearly stalled. A guy behind me yells "other goal post!" and the entire mob, I mean, crowd turns and hustles one hundred yards to the other side. The security guards had committed reinforcements to the original goalpost leaving the other under-manned.
The dynamics of a mob are not unlike that of the mosh pit. You have most of the people pressing and bumping into each other and then you have a few agitators. In our mob, the masses pressed our front line agitators forward through the resistance with sheer weight. Although the carpet of Astroturf(tm) had a touch of give to it, if one were to fall as the crowd tilted ever so lightly into the dark dangerous part of the grid, one would be badly mangled.
Luckily that didn't happen. A guy near me went down in the mass and Craig called out for the crush to give way and it did, which is a good thing.
Once your agents provocateur have been hoisted onto each end of the crossbar, they begin a wild rocking motion from side to side. The posts are not designed to withstand these types of stresses and with sufficient effort, they topple. (F=ma redux. Thank you, Sir Isaac.)
And topple they did. In a slow, almost graceful surrender one of the yellow metal posts slid down onto our upraised hands. We had it! I am only partly ashamed to admit that it was exhilirating.
The cool metal in my hands had a heft to it implying a much greater weight distributed among forty of us. We marched it back across the field.
I looked over to Craig. I figured we had accomplished our mission, plugged into the power grid none the worse for wear. We stepped out letting our comrades take on the logistics of transporting the prize to it's final destination.
Accounts from the following day's Eugene Register-Guard were both touching and absurd:
"For some, participating in the goal post foray seemed akin to a religious experience.
'It was the ultimate,' UO senior Brian Ellingson said. 'It doesn't get any better than this'
'It was the greatest experience of my life,' said Sam Sachs, a senior at Western Oregon State College. [Sam does not get out much...] Sachs said the football team at his school never does well enough to justify having so much fun.
UO senor Jeff Waller said the crowd merely had 'collective effervescence' because the Ducks came from behind in the final minutes to beat UCLA. [Like when you shake a pop can, right Jeff?]"
Later, we found out what happened to it...
"With 50 to 60 students carrying the post, a procession of about 1,000 wended its way across the Autzen footbridge and arrived at the UO campus about 5 p.m. ...Students dumped the goal post's remains on the front porch of the UO administration building.
At one point the goal post wound up in a creek. Several students said an unidentified 78-year-old Duck fan jumped in the creek after the goal post. Other students followed his example and dragged the post out of the water. 'He said he hasn't seen anything happen like this since 1939,' said Waller. 'He was having as much fun as the rest of us.'
Violence. Wanton destruction. Mob rule. Stupid.
Would I do it again? Hell yeah.
more stupider: how i nearly froze to death in the middle of the city.