WHAT’S LEFT IS WHAT’S PRACTICED
If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break
The flood of 1927 wrote the song. Somewhere in “Touchdown for LSU”—played today at the beginning of the fourth quarter at LSU Football games—there is an rushing water that does not stop or cease, a flood that swelled the Mississippi River to levels it has not seen since, burst levees that were supposed to be unbreachable, and broke the pumps in New Orleans. The floods turned southern Louisiana into a lake for weeks, a sheet of brown water dotted with the bloated carcasses of drowned cattle, downed trees, the skeletons of disintegrated houses, and the occasional human corpse. That lake is the song’s wellspring.
Its lyrics were penned by a lawyer named Huey Long, who ran for governor the next year and won behind a surge of voters wanting someone, anyone to clean up their ravaged state. Huey Long told white voters in northern Louisiana that the elites in New Orleans were happy to let them drown; he got French interpreters to accompany him into Cajun country, where he accused the media of lying about everything he had ever said.
He was elected in a landslide, and took LSU as his pet. Long fed the small state university until it was obese with federal and state money, and sitting snugly in the lap of Long’s cult of personality.
The football team, in particular, caught the governor’s attention. Long expanded the stadium by building dorm rooms that—in a unique and uniquely Louisianan compromise—just so happened to have seats built on top of them. (In an un-Louisianan thing: The student housing fees generated from them eventually paid for all of it.) He inflated the size of the band playing his song to 250 people wearing flashy new uniforms.
Long took quality control seriously: He often led the LSU band onto the field himself, and stood on the sidelines during games. There are photos of him, taken while he was talking to officials in pregame. You may assume that LSU had zero holding penalties on the day.
A flood led to Long led to Louisiana being Louisiana, and to LSU being LSU, and to a big piece of the SEC, which is a big piece of College Football, which is a not-insubstantial piece of America. Two years later, Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, blues musicians from Mississippi and Louisiana, recorded a song they wrote about the flood.
Glance at a map of Father’s vast watershed. Note that our lands lie in the mouth of an enormous funnel. Then remember that every creek and gutter from Western Pennsylvania to Wyoming empties its water into the top of that funnel...Two-thirds of this Union combines its flood to drown us. So we do earnestly insist that those who dump water into the funnel should help to minimize its disastrous results.
The strangest thing about this year, and this moment, is realizing how many people had no idea where they really lived. I don’t know what that exact percentage is: it’s more than zero, and less than one hundred, but enough to count as something like group shock.
For a long time, the South and everything and everyone in it has represented a combination of kickable squalor and pitiable shame—all at a remove, safely tucked down a drainage path from the upright rest of the nation where it could be trotted out for exotic horror, used as a case study for or against a particular political point you wanted to make, particularly when it came to race. (These displays rarely benefitted black Southerners.) Sometimes its culture was sold for value. (The profits rarely went to the black Southerners who made most of it.) There’s a pattern here.The rest of the country was something other, different, better.
For a long time, that went for college football teams from the rest of the country, too. Harvard beat everyone to integration when William Henry Lewis played on the 1892 Crimson team. The Big Ten had integrated at the turn of the century; Jackie Robinson was one of four black players on the 1939 Bruins football team. The all-white 1962 Ole Miss Rebels lost a national title in large part to voters being repelled by the state’s segregationist policies and the rioting on campus when James Meredith walked into Oxford to become the University of Mississippi’s first black student.
This all reversed course. I don’t know exactly when, but at one point this all broke contain, and whatever wall separating a mythical, better America from where I lived. Assuming the worst possible intentions, reversing whatever someone said and calling that the likely truth, realizing every appeal to power or virtue was a disguised attack on the defenseless--they always made sense locally. I started to worry when they started to make sense globally, and when everywhere, at one point or another, became the South.
I know one point where it happened. It’s a small one, relatively speaking. In college football it happened sometime after the SEC started funneling its TV money into professionalizing its programs, building weight rooms the size of commercial airline hangars, before the other conferences quite realized what was happening. It was in 1995, when the SEC signed a separate deal with CBS; maybe it came when the Big Ten started their own network, money that would eventually work it way into the forms of former SEC coaches like Urban Meyer and James Franklin’s salaries.
That slide may have a slow one, but the money begat the pressure that begat the arms race leading us to the place we live now, where college football teams are now run more and more as discrete commercial animals living tax-free and happy in the wilds of the American university system.
The myth would be: That where there was once a quaint game fairly fought, there is now a lopsided, wealth-soiled world of aristocrats and sans-culottes.
There is another point where things slipped in a larger, starker way: November 8th, 2016, when everyone in America realized they were living in the South. The perversity of realizing that the worst parts of where you’re from—the racism, the galling inequality, the fictionalized victimhood an illusion of power, the reliance on a bankrupt concept of loyalty disguised as faith, the disgust for learning and fatal aversion to uncomfortable truths, the willingness to protect a deranged sense of identity at the cost of what might literally be the entire world—were all there, everywhere, all along.
This entire years has been a long series of half-familiar horrors happening in new variations: watching a lumpen guy from Ohio drive a car into a crowd of human beings, or watching people in the noted Confederate stronghold of Montana try to defend a monument to cruelty, or watching an Ivy League bankruptcy case from Queens talk about “our heritage” to a crowd of flustered elderly people angry at the rest of the world for simply existing.
It’s one thing to view it from your very special niche—as a privileged person in a privileged space in a city that, for all its faults, is an island of sanity compared to its surroundings—and another to watch something monstrous unmasked for others who did not understand the limits of that protection. Those on the barrel end of the gun have known it for years, and tried to warn, to scream, to outline the shape of something hideous so that others could recognize it. Few listened.
There’s no comfort in recognizing it now, only a kind of grim clarity. Y’all live in the South now. We all do, and always did.The franchise worked so well down here they tried it everywhere else.
There is no getting away from that feeling, and there won’t be, not even in the sweet delirium of a football game, where the prayer goes up to a god you don’t recognize, and the anthem is sung by people you suspect of wildly different understandings of just whose home the free inhabit.
I will always be an offensively minded football person. Defense is the thing that snaps legs, maims, nullifies optimism. The defense wants negative yards and the offense wants positive yards and those two things have never been insignificant to me. At its most appealing, defense can be inspired banditry. Most of the time, however, defense is a kind of weaponized strategic despair, a strangulation given out in three-down installments.A good result for the defense is nothing; The best possible result is theft with injury.
Offense is an organized hope. Not an unguarded hope, but one designed to take care of something, to carry it forward. Offense is measured in terms of moving forward or backwards, with the goal being to move forward, live for another series.Offense is the art of solving for hope against endless variations on despair.
Mesh is one of those solutions, a nearly flawless play I can’t stop turning over in my head. In his book The Perfect Pass, S.C. Gwynne devotes a whole section to it, an entire perfect chapter of airtight, crystalline-clear writing. There is no plot, no sweeping grand rhetorical bridge to a philosophical conclusion. It isn’t used to bolster the tale of one man’s greatness, even if Hal Mumme seems really smart for figuring out how to take one play and almost turn it into an entire offense by itself.
It is just the story of how the play happened, how it evolved, and how if it’s done right you can run it forever. Mesh, at least the way it’s taught by Mumme, never settles on one set pattern, and relies almost exclusively on simple reads. The logic of x’s and o’s and picking out individual players doesn’t even matter. Players throw to color, to open space. When it’s practiced enough, and turned into something less like strategy and more like muscle memory, it’s not even playing against a defense. When done right, it’s like the defenders aren’t there at all.
I’ve read that chapter at least twenty times, because it has the contagion of an infectious idea: The obsessive need to figure something out, and build a framework, any framework at all, that can not just survive and float out of chaos, but end up dry on the other side.
I cracked out an old XBox 360 and a copy of NCAA 2014 and ran Mesh against the computer over and over again, just to see how many different ways it could work. I ran it for entire series with different quarterbacks and receivers and linemen, against set blitzes and random coverages in practice and in games. I called it for entire drives sometimes.
If you read it right, it’ll work forever. Everything else evaporates. There are only clean lines on a sheet, stretching to the sideline, the hash, to the flats. Field as far as the eye can see. Dry land, and a path forward. Something that feels like creation.
This is where I tell you that there is no sticking to sports, and especially no sticking to sports in college football, and definitely not in the SEC. There never has been, and never will be.
There can’t be—not when the stadiums and the teams and economies of the sport itself only exist atop very specific arrangements of power, and the entire game could be wiped out in a single court decision.
There can be no separation when a simple act of protest exposes the frailty and insecurity of the beholder’s beliefs. There can’t be a moment free of the paranoia that even in the act of watching something under the guise of a shared tribe, that we are not all on the same team.
Every single day this year has been the stupidest day in history, and the next one will be stupider, and there is no escaping that. There is no avoiding the fight because stupid will walk right up to your door. It will blame the sheep for inciting the wolves. It will walk right up to your door in the middle of a flood and tell you that god made you a pool and you should be grateful that he plans on making more.
The game can’t save you. But practice, though: practice can. Practice is hard, practice requires work, but practice keeps things alive—in games, in kindness, in love. Practice is hard because it has to be sustained through tedium. The urge to hide, to tunnel away from the endless sea of trash and malice, isn’t a discipline. Fighting that urge is, and it takes some kind of practice to beat it even once. It takes so much more if getting through all that practice means moving across and through a series of days that will make you question whether any of us survive any of it.
Last night I got to watch Ohio State play Indiana. This was not a watershed game. Don’t try to say it’s a moment: Indiana is not a great football team, and Ohio State is stocked with the kinds of 18-22 year olds most likely to be selected for the team Earth sends to fight in the intergalactic Hunger Games. One of them is Parris Campbell, who dropped a wide open score in the endzone, then ripped off a dazzlingly fast TD reception when he caught a short pass, broke across the field and turned upwards, leaving slower, more mortal Indiana defenders gasping in his wake.
There is something singularly beautiful about the play, and something collectively beautiful in the play beheld together. It is a commonality, an imperfect connection, but a connection. It is not common ground overtly decided on by debate and contract. It is a shared experience that happens at a level so passive and yet immediate that it bypasses immediate comprehension. It is, even on a Thursday night, chain lightning.
Last night, for the first time in months, I didn’t think about anything else at all, or feel completely alone in a group of strangers. I didn’t even mind going online. The people I knew were happy, distracted, furious only at a bad targeting call, and not at a ranting shitbag somewhere mining dollars from the bitter ashes of misplaced anger. There wasn’t common ground, but a common practice, the kind that sorts some kind of order from disorder.
Flood waters recede. There is a wide, mean plain of agony to follow and a future that will look different from anything you can predict—but they will subside. There are LSU people out there right now, children born out of the great flood of 1927, who are sleeping in their trucks, rerouted from a football game to drop a boat in the waters of a Texas flood to rescue complete strangers. They are doing it because tragedy and its legacy is an universal human inheritance that varies only in its sum from person to person. They are doing it because kindness is a practice that pays off that inheritance an act at a time.
Oh, and the play, the one where Parris Campbell scored against Indiana? It’s not exactly the same as the one I couldn’t stop thinking about all year. I can’t tell where #83 comes from at all here, for instance, or where he even lined up at all. It’s a variation, but right there, in the middle of the defense, there are two receivers crossing, and Parris Campbell popping free and blazing down the sideline.
It wasn’t an accident. It was something they practiced. It’s Mesh, parting clouds and shining bright as the sun. What’s left is what’s practiced, what’s passed down, what is carried along when everything else is left behind.