Football in the Time of COVID
It’s the first Sunday of football season and I’m sitting on a wicker couch on my friends’ back patio, so close to the big TV they usually keep in the living room that I have to turn my head to see the edges of the shot. About 15 feet away, through the screen door, my friend watches the Packers in the den. My friend’s wife and 13-year-old step-daughter just went to the store, masked and armed with hand sanitizer. G., who’s almost four (“I’m still three,” she assures me when I lament how old she’s getting), moves back and forth between us, cheering when we do and listening patiently when we explain what’s going on. The family dogs, both corgis, are always at her heels, the puppy easily distracted by any form of attention, by smells, by sounds.
I usually watch Bills games at the bar. It’s the only time I like going to places like Buffalo Wild Wings, where I can camp out on a stool at the end and watch the game while eating overpriced, lukewarm appetizers and drinking shitty domestics. I love sitting there, listening to the people around me, cheering and booing as their respective teams play on competing TVs. I love the sensory overload of it all, the way I can start to tune it all out and focus, really focus, kind of like I do when I’m writing at coffee shops. The energy is contagious. Invariably, there’s a middle-aged white guy who sits next to me and gets chatty, but as long as he’s not a Patriots fan and we steer-clear of politics, we usually get along okay. He always gives me shit about the Bills; I always say, “this year’s our year,” even though it never is.
I was raised by half-assed Presbyterians and haven’t been to church in over 15 years. Football is my one and only Sunday ritual.
I haven’t been inside a bar for longer than it takes to pick up take-out since March, and (considering that Indiana’s coronavirus numbers worse—much worse—now than they were when we shut down in March) I don’t plan to change that anytime soon. This is the first time I’ve even been to my friends’ house in months. I’ve run into them twice—on a walk in early April and at a protest in late June—but otherwise our only interactions have been on Instagram: I “heart” photos of their dogs, their daughters, the ducks they keep in the backyard; they do the same for photos of my cat and the sourdough starter I’ve named Betty.
I had planned to set up the game on my external monitor and mute it so I could watch, half-heartedly, while I caught up on email. When my friend offered to set up the extra TV outside, I didn’t even have to think about it. Before he had kids, we would sometimes watch games together at the bar. He’s the kind of guy who wears his Aaron Rodgers jersey on game day, who yells at the TV, who gives me shit (but only because I like it) about the Bills. After so many months of nothing seeming normal, it sounded perfect.
After a rough start—a turnover, some close calls on third downs—the Bills are up 7-0. G. is sitting a few feet away from me, waiting for a commercial so I’ll give her my full attention. I yell in to my friend and ask him the score. “Vikings are up, 7-3,” he says. “We’ve been in the red zone like four times and still only have a field goal.”
Just then, G. screams, points at the air, yells for my friend. “Daddy! Wasps!”
There are, indeed, wasps, at least five of them, circling around us. A couple of them land on the straw in G.’s apple juice. Another dive-bombs my head.
Both games on commercial, I guide her down into the yard while my friend comes outside in full suburban dad mode, fly-swatter in one hand and a can of beer in the other. “These things are everywhere!” he says, swatting at one while another flies around his head. “There must be a nest.”
G. starts kicking around a soccer ball, the puppy running after her across the yard. I help my friend look around the patio—under the furniture, in the crevices of the awning, inside the smoker. No nest. He seems to have gotten them all, at least for now, and the games are both back on. We decide it’s probably the apple juice, so he takes it inside.
I sit back down in time to watch Josh Allen complete a pass to one of the receivers, but I miss which one when the puppy jumps up into my lap. I hear my friend yell, “Safety!” and I see the score for the Packers game change to 7-5 on the bottom of my own screen. G. gets tired of soccer and runs inside. The puppy jumps off my lap, darts after her just before the door slams. She comes back out with her hands full of plastic action figures and drops them on the table.
“Hi,” she says, the moment she sees a commercial. She’s sitting on the edge of her seat now, looking at me like a kid who’s been told they can have ice cream if they can just hold out for one second longer. She can’t.
“Hi,” I say back. “How are you?”
“Good,” she says, then goes silent, like she’s suddenly shy. Then, a moment later: “I’m learning about the solar system!”
“Oh cool.” I have no idea what to ask an almost-4-year-old about planets. I know nothing and I’ve got 29 years on her. I decide to go with my old standby: “Which one’s your favorite?”
“Saturn and Earth,” she says, the th sounding like an f. “But Wanus is the funniest.”
“Wait, which one’s the funniest?” I figure out what planet she’s talking about before she repeats it—but she does anyway.
“Way-nus,” she says, enunciating it more slowly. I can’t stop myself: I laugh. I’m sure I’ve laughed out loud lately, while watching a movie or listening to a podcast, but it feels so good to laugh at something another human being has said, in real time—especially something as classic and as pure as a Uranus joke. G. laughs, too—full-body giggles, head-thrown back, arms folded across her stomach. “He’s so funny,” she says again, resituating herself in her chair just before she falls.
“Wait, why is he the funniest?” I’m sure I know why I’m laughing, but I don’t know if we’re on the same page.
“Because he’s on his side!” She’s still laughing. She says this so matter-of-factly, so confidently, that I don’t feel like I can ask a follow-up question—but I have so many.
On his side? What the hell is she talking about? I quickly pull out my phone and type “Uranus” into Google images while she tells me more about the planets. I only catch about half of it. My phone screen is suddenly filled with images of a blue planet with rings—rings that seem to be tilted, as if, indeed, the planet was leaning on its—his, apparently—side.
I want to ask her something else about the planets, but she’s already onto the next subject—Scooby-Doo. Those were the action figures. “This is Scooby,” she tells me, holding up the dog. “He likes Scooby snacks.”
“Who’s this one?” I ask, pointing to the one whose name I can never remember—the blonde dude with the ascot. I’ve lost track of the game, not sure who even has possession of the ball. I’m not sure why, but I’m suddenly so invested in hearing about Scooby and the gang, about the planets, about all of the things she’s learning.
“Fred,” she says, picking him up and showing me his face. “He drives the Mystery Bus!”
Just then, I feel it: another wasp, this time flying around my head. They’re back. G.’s eyes go wide and she yells for her dad. “It’s okay,” I tell her. “We’ll get them.” She nods, runs down into the yard again, just as my friend comes outside, armed with the flyswatter again.
He gets a couple when they land on the table. “Motherfuckers,” I hear him whisper under his breath, just low enough that G. won’t hear. “Where the fuck are you coming from?” Rather than yelling it for emphasis, his voice drops away and I can barely hear it. I start laughing. I lean against the house. Pretty soon, I’m laughing so hard I’m out of breath, there are tears in my eyes—actual tears.
This all feels so absurd: the separate TVs, the masks we all wore when we greeted each other at the front door, the wasps, the fact that all of this—my friend the suburban dad battling his backyard nemesis while watching the game on Sunday, the almost-four-year-old telling me about her Scooby Doo action figures and her favorite planets—feels so normal and yet so, so fucking strange.
I can tell my friend is having the same thought. He stops, looks down at his hands, at the flyswatter, the half-empty beer, and he starts laughing, too. The wasps have disappeared again and so we’re just standing there, unable to speak, laughing even harder every time we look at each other.
G.’s watching us from the yard, unsure if it’s safe to come back up yet. “Why are you laughing?” she asks. She’s holding Fred upside-down by the feet in one hand, Scooby in the other. The puppy is barking at something next door. It takes us a second to catch our breath, to try to answer.
My friend looks at me. “The adults have had a tough time the last few months.”
We pause for a second, I think both of us trying to figure out how to explain this to her. What can we say, when we can’t even find the words to explain it to ourselves?
Just then, another wasp lands on the TV. My friend and I get back to searching for the nest, which we won’t find (under the lid of the gas grill) until the fourth time they reappear. G., apparently satisfied with her dad’s half-answer, starts running around the yard again, the puppy right on her heels. We hear the other dog bark inside, letting us know the rest of my friend’s family is home from the store. It’s half-time. Bills are up, 21-0.