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Fumble-ina

A new NFL playbook offers a word to the wives.

He's sat here all afternoon, talking about an awful game; One boy will not be out till June, and then he may be always lame.

Foot-ball! I'm sure I can't see why a boy like Bob -- so good and kind --

Wishes to see poor fellows lie hurt on the ground. I may be blind,

But somehow, I don't see the fun. Someone calls "14-16-9";

You kick the ball, and then you run and try to reach a white chalk-line

And Bob would sit right there all day And talk like that, and never say

A single word of sense; or so

It seems to me. I may not know.

But Bob's a faithful friend to me. So let him talk that game detested,

And I will smile and seem to be most wonderfully interested.

-- "Friends," by eighteen-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay, the future Pulitzer Prize- winner, who earned $5 for her poem in 1910.


My neighbor Karen grew up in a fine, upstanding household where traditions were passed from generation to generation without regard to gender. Which is to say, she watched football along with her father and three brothers.

"Every Monday night and every Sunday, every game, no matter how many hours it took," she recalls. "I understood the game and never missed one. I brought the chips and salsa out to the sofa, and then I sat there."

She married young -- to a football enthusiast. The tradition continued without a break: Weekends of solid, televised football, chile con queso dip and, now that she'd left home, beer.

"And then," she says, "one day, after ten years, it hit me. I sat there on the sofa and had a revelation. 'I don't have to do this!' I thought. Not only that, if I don't watch football, I can do...something else!"

"That was ten years ago, and ever since then I've watched the game alone," confirms Doug, her husband and the father of their two teenage daughters. "It was over. For a while there, it had been beautiful."

Doug has slogged on without her. On Sundays, for hours at a time, he sits alone on the sofa, queso- and beerless. Karen is out doing something else, without a moment of regret about abandoning football.

There was a time when I would have considered this sacrilege, conduct unbecoming a woman, reasonable grounds for divorce. I played football starting at age eight and watched it every weekend. Sometimes I played while I watched. During televised games, my best friend and I would casually handle a football, flipping it back and forth, until one of us screamed "Fumble!" and we'd start pounding each other for possession of the ball. Once, while he was visiting me in another city, he slammed me so hard into the drywall that I ended up in my neighbor's apartment.

In short, I have a strong sentimental attachment to the game.

Yet as I listened to my neighbor talk about her release from Sunday tyranny, I also realized that it's been years since I sat through an entire four quarters myself. There are plenty of reasons: The players don't seem very interested in what they're doing, and so they aren't very interesting themselves. Their personalities have been filed down to dull nubs; churlish now passes for engaging. Not to mention that football games themselves seem to have slowed down to a crawl: Who has four hours to spare?


A few years back, the NFL noticed that about four in ten of its viewers were women. This drew the interest of the league's eager marketers -- the NFL was the first pro league to develop a full line of women's apparel -- and "Football 101: NFL Workshops for Women" was born. While football may seem to be a game exclusively played and run by men, a brochure for the seminar series notes that this is not the case: "From women executives to players' moms, the women you will meet have contributed their own talents in their own way to making this game what it is."

Last year, more than 10,000 women attended workshops hosted by various NFL teams across the country. This year, after being pestered by hundreds of neglected Colorado women, the Broncos agreed to give it a shot, too. Last month, a capacity crowd of 500 females -- paying $75 apiece -- filed into Invesco Field (at Mile High) to see what they could see.

When it comes to football, the women I know are either enthusiastically into the game or aggressively ignorant of it, so I was curious to see who would show up. I took a guess: Those who love it would be well beyond an introductory course, which left trophy-wife wannabes and those who'd gone through years of worthless marriage counseling, attempting a last-ditch salvage effort before heading off to court.

Rebecca Damiano, the Broncos' manager of special events and entertainment, wasn't sure what to expect at NFL 101 either, although she had some similarly stereotypical ideas before the sign-ups started. "I thought we'd get women just trying to fit in with their husbands or boyfriends," she says. "I was pleasantly surprised at the way they knew the game. I only spoke to two or three who didn't know anything about football."

Naturally, Damiano herself is a huge fan. "I've always loved football," she says, even though she was raised in a Western Slope family of all girls. When it came time to select a college, she chose the University of Iowa -- because the school's football team had made the Rose Bowl the year before.

But it wasn't just the game that held her attention: Damanio is thrilled by the spectacle that results whenever 50,000 human beings gather in one spot. "I'm a huge people watcher," she explains. "I look at the crowd, the mascot, the cheerleaders. At high school games I was always watching the two girls in front of me arguing over their boyfriends."

There's plenty to watch at NFL 101. After milling around several tables heaped with seafood, roast beef and cheese, and being led on tours of the new stadium (visitor's locker room only), the women file into a huge room with lovely views of downtown Denver. Anita Lopez, a Channel 9 anchor, introduces the program by guessing why women find the game interesting. "How many of you are here because you like to see tight ends in motion?" she wonders and gets a loud cheer as an answer.

Next up is tight-end coach Brian Pariani, a dull brick of a man. While undoubtedly an inspiration to his receivers, Pariani seems hopelessly at sea in front of a roomful of women. "Um, the field is a hundred-yard field," he begins. The women laugh at him. He tries again. "The objective is to score and get things done like that," he says. "There are a lot of things you can do to score a touchdown."

"Although you wouldn't know it," mutters a woman sitting next to me.

Pariani plods on. It doesn't take long before the crowd gets restless, and the noise level rises audibly. Some women begin passing around family pictures. Fifteen painful minutes later, Pariani finally finishes, concluding coach-ishly: "That's all I have from a football standpoint."

He asks for questions. A smattering of women raise their hands and begin peppering the coach with a series of ponderings that have a certain emperor-has-no-clothes logic.

"What's pass interference?" one woman asks. "Aren't we trying to interfere with them catching the ball in the first place?"

"I don't get holding," another complains. "If you're going to get caught, why do you do it?"

"What?" Pariani says.

"Holding," the woman persists. "Why do you do it?"

"I want to know what they're saying in the huddle," another woman says. "Are they telling jokes, or what?"

Pariani is too terrified to try anything as risky as humor. He launches into a serious answer about the complex machinery of play calling, but by now no one is listening. He leaves the stage to tepid applause.

Next up is Frank Bush, special-teams coach for the Broncos. He starts by playing off the buttocks riff begun by Lopez: "How many of you are here because you have husbands or boyfriends interested in football?" he asks, getting a few claps in response. Then: "How many of you ladies showed up 'cause they look awfully damn good in those pants?" The reply: raucous applause and wolf whistles.

Bush is tall, loose limbed and well built, and he seems much more at ease in front of a crowd while launching into a basic primer on defense. Cornerbacks are the gnatlike pass defenders who buzz around wide receivers, he explains, while "a safety is a bigger guy. Still looks good in his pants, but a big guy." And then, "When we say blitz, we're not just sending those four big guys who don't look good in pants."

To his credit (and in contrast to many men), Bush also appears to have acquired some perspective on the game -- perhaps because of the sudden conclusion of his own career about fifteen years ago from a spinal injury after two promising seasons in the NFL.

"It ain't that hard," he acknowledges. "We got something called 'two-deep' coverage. Why do you think we call it that? 'Cause we got two-deep guys!" And, "Man coverage -- what's that mean?" He walks across the stage, stops in front of the lectern and points at it: "I got you." As for "hot dog coverage, it means that if my guy goes into the stands to buy a hot dog, I go with him. That's it; it's not that hard."

Despite Bush's capable delivery, by the time he's winding down a sizable portion of the audience has again grown restless. A few women get up for drinks. (The event is co-sponsored by Ernest and Julio Gallo; the "NFL for Her" Web site lists recommendations for wine-and-cheese pairings.) More pictures are passed around. But all this distraction stops at the appearance of the next speakers.

Lisa McCaffrey and Ann Frerotte sit next to each other on tall stools. They seem to be good friends, and it's clear they have learned to give football just as much respect as it deserves.

While McCaffrey plays the fake-glam wife of a bona fide NFL star, Frerotte is the put-upon spouse of a back-up journeyman quarterback. The questions now come fast and furious -- and I can't help but notice that these queries are way more interesting than anything having to do with actual football.

"What's it like to see someone wearing your husband's jersey?" one woman asks.

"It's unbelievably flattering," McCaffrey answers. "I want to run up and give them a dollar."

"Nobody wears Gus's jersey," Frerotte says. "I went to a concert once, and a guy was wearing Gus's jersey, and I went up and started humping him."

"What's the toughest part of being a[n NFL] wife?" another woman wants to know.

"It's not a family-oriented Sunday," McCaffrey responds. "It's 'Please don't get your ass kicked.'"

"Do you answer your husband's fan mail?"

"Oh, yeah," says Frerotte. "I'm basically his mail bitch."

"What's it like when your husband has a bad game?" one woman asks.

"I'll handle this," Frerotte says to McCaffrey. "You don't know." Then, turning back to the audience, she replies, "Gus lets it roll off his back. I burn the newspapers in the sink."

Another woman doesn't really have a question. "I saw Ed feeding your baby with a bottle at a soccer game," she tells McCaffrey. "He's a good father."

At the end of their time, McCaffrey and Frerotte give away an Ed McCaffrey jersey. A number is called out, and a large woman leaps to her feet: "Wooooooo!" she screams. She scrambles up to the stage and takes the shirt from Lisa.

"I love your husband," she says.

"Me, too," McCaffrey says.

They hug. The woman closes her eyes. She presses the Number 87 to her chest and sighs deeply.


What I learned from the women at NFL 101 is this: It is possible to like the game despite the football part of it. So I head home with the seminar's workbook and hand it to my wife on Monday night. "Sit," I tell her. "Watch." Here are her notes:

My high school boyfriend was captain of the football team; I gave this game the old college try. But nothing has changed. My brain absorbs the mechanics of football exactly the way it registers the facts of electricity -- the info goes in, then it goes right out.

I can't even seem to concentrate on this NFL 101 cheater's guide, which explains the game in nearly preschool terms. I suspect whoever wrote it knew this might happen, so she threw in a section called "Helpful Hints on Game Day," by which she meant: "how to seem like you care." Here's what you do: eat; try to pick up bits of "lingo" from Joe Football; pick a few players to watch; predict how many yards the next play will gain or lose.

Stuffed with "stadium fare," I recline beside my husband to take in a game: the Denver Broncos vs. the Tennessee Titans. Multi-tasking, he readsSports Illustrated while watching, though I can only imagine his reaction if I were to knit or something. Watch I must. Already, the contest is as exciting as the growing of grass. So I grab his magazine, yelling, "Fumble!"

But Joe Football swats me away like a fly.

I focus on 39-year-old cornerback Bruce Somethingorother. Thirty-nine is old! His physical therapy bills must be huge. As for his wife -- does she consider him a hottie without that vile, spit-covered mouthguard? Is a football player, by definition, a hottie? Sorry, NFL 101, but no, because his lower half, like that of an '80s aerobics instructor, is encased in Lycra. Sure, these are finely conditioned men, but their butts are glossy, and somehow this is wrong. Consider the humble baseball player, with his visible belly and redneck haircut, whose butt is at once so accessible and so godlike. Because, I think, of that small percentage of cotton and the absence of glare.

"No score," my husband says. "This may be the slowest game I've ever seen."

"Maybe not for long," I chirp, "for I predict the next play will gain our fellows 200 yards!"

"Oh, Christ," he says.

I don't remember the rest of the game.

She doesn't remember the rest of the game because she quits well before halftime. I last through another few downs, but then I start to feel restless. All over the house, "situations" are developing. A bottle of wine is being opened -- does my wife really grasp the correct cheese pairing? In the basement, sibling rivalry erupts, with unknown injuries. Out in the driveway, my favorite toy, an adult-sized baseball pitchback, sits neglected.

It turns out the T-shirts have it exactly backward: Football is just a detail -- the rest is life. I'm going in.

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