The first time I saw Troy Aikman, he was admiring a Frieda Kahlo painting with a mild look of jollity in his football-shaped eyes. To see him there, combing through his hair with two chapped hands, you would think he had a date with that painting on the chilly Tuesday afternoon that followed the beginning of the New Year. I could not believe this was the man notoriously referred to as “Doctor Shang” by the British press. His benign stance and the long knife holstered at his side created a paradox, like Shakespeare’s noble savage Caliban. However, as the years passed, evidence for every slight against the legendary quarterback presented itself in his erratic behavior, viz., Troy’s addiction to pudding, Troy’s perverse collection of antebellum theatrical props, Troy periodically throwing a dish at my head from across the room and then collecting the shards in a paisley bandana. None of those future events bothered me as I approached the retired athlete with whom I had made engagements to meet at the Dallas Art Museum.
I had just said hello when Troy dropped a long bomb on me, as he was known to do during his first encounter with anyone.
“Time for erotic cat impressions,” he claimed in response to my greeting. Immediately his back arched and both hands began to claw a feline pantomime at the space directly above him. For all the spiritual preparation I had done in private before this highly anticipated meeting, I now stared at Dallas Cowboy Troy Aikman with all the courage of a man in a diaper. Fear pulsed in my veins, and the words in my throat choked me like hotdog stew. Through the tears, I watched Troy’s mouth snarl into a wide mess of teeth and fleshy lagniappes.
The terror of this scene caught my attention quicker than a banjo thicket revival; but the Lord works in mysterious grocery stores, where foodstuffs write the world we live in... And they’re always glad you came. With an open-mindedness not innate to the American Southerner, I decided to try a taste of the eccentricity Troy has carried for twenty years. To find him this strange after only twenty or thirty seconds, I admit I was even more intrigued. Clearly, Troy gave off a glow of freedom that secretly infected everyone around him like Mad-Cow disease. The last time this much excitement flowed through me, I was overthrowing the Peace Corps in Honduras. I remember the sun reflecting off his teeth from the gaping skylights above us; and as I tore up my museum ticket and sprinkled the shredded bits on Troy’s basic hairstyle, I knew Christmas would come a lot sooner this time around.
The following years of our acquaintanceship provided many fine evenings in the Aikman abode, which he had named “Urbanshire” with the utmost gentility. And indeed, Troy’s home was something worth seeing. On my first visit I was led from room to room like an employee in training, shown how to adjust each room’s lights and taught to operate Troy’s delightful remote-controlled toilet with painstaking detail. Twenty minutes of lecturing accompanied the study of a glazed brick wall Troy erected himself, made to partition his pinball machines from his pool table. The rails along the stairway were polished so diligently that I continually checked my hand for wetness after touching them. The tour passed through the room where Troy kept his collection of theatrical props which he had bought from theatre companies, universities, and various auctions; yet here Troy feinted me by refusing to turn on the lights. We passed through, but I will never forget the dense silence and the smell of that room.
At the last stop before the kitchen, where the drink I had been offered a long time ago was either waiting to be made or melting in the glass, Troy showed me some of his awards. Surprisingly, not all of them were related to football. He had a certificate from a mail-order poetry contest, a leadership award from some all-star training camp where he delivered a speech on the first day, and a shiny championship belt from the Texas State Fair eating contest. When I joked about the irony of presenting Texas’ biggest eater with a belt, Troy grabbed it from my hands and said, “That’s not funny,” with the most unexpected measure of seriousness. We proceeded through the hallway.
I had come a long way across the pock-marked road that some say leads to Mt. Kubrick, but as I looked at the faceless side of Troy’s head I began to wonder how I had arrived at this specific point. The earlier sense of adventure in me had silenced all the reasoning which should have told me I would not learn anything from Troy, that I was not the invincible descendant of Rambo’s three sons that Troy argued I was.
After a round of gimlets on the balcony he built himself, Troy fed me pepperoni sandwiches and haystack cookies until I fell asleep in an easy chair near the fireplace. Several hours passed, and only once was I half-wakened by the sensation of chapped hands running through my hair; but when I opened my eyes in response, no one stood before me. Eventually I was jarred to consciousness by realizing that sleep is only proper when there are other guests to entertain the host, whose eyes never strayed from me once; and it seems impossible, but it is my heartfelt conviction that the intensity of Troy’s thousand-yard stare could wake a person in the deepest mire of sleep.
Troy’s wife, Rhonda, then entered through the archway that joined the den and the dark prop room that smelled faintly of butter. Watching a woman cross the room from an easy chair made me feel like my father, and I thought of his last words to me: “I’m sorry I never sent you candy from jail.” He had broken my mother’s heart, and gone away to spend twelve years in the glass walls and orange suits of the Terrell Unit. For the rest of his life he talked about the candy they made there, the rodeos they had; and the crude kites the inmates constructed from playing cards and telephone wire. After he died my mother had no one to turn to, and only ten years later she went the way of the pewter debutante back into the melding Earth.
Since the end of that hilarious time in my life, I have had only Sarah and a lot of delusions about what football really was in the early ‘90s. Sometimes I wanted Sarah in my arms, and my shoulders tingled with fancy: but strangers often reduce this to a repressed desire for compacting women into cubes. Sometimes I wanted to turn Sarah into my mother and make her throw me the football again, like Saturday mornings in the field behind our house. In dreams I saw Mother rubbing taffy into a stranger’s hair as he kicked in his wheelchair and screamed about hot piping, and for days on end my only refuge was watching large men tussle over the ball I knew so well. The NFL entranced me when Troy Aikman would launch a pass that connected him to someone forty yards away. For all the suspenseful precision of that spiral trajectory, it could have been someone so much farther removed: A hundred miles away, or twenty years away with no known geographical location to aim at.
My mind touches back to an evening some time ago, an evening blown in by trade winds and tired people coming home from work. A glazed duck was set at the middle of table, and not five seconds had passed when Troy announced I could not have any because I was not a real Texan. I protested this, citing my birthplace as Lewisville—but Dr. Shang aptly countered that Lewisville had been annexed from Mexico only five years ago. Troy’s professorial sharpness only emerged when he was sharing some fact that had no basis in reality. Perhaps this man had been sacked one too many times, although I doubt it: But he definitely had. Understanding the duck as a case quite closed, I asked him for a story instead. He winked rudely.
“I can think of a good story that involves you,” Troy began, addressing me but casting a sidelong glance toward his wife. Of course I knew the story was related to the Cowboys/Redskins game of November 1994, when, even though Troy sustained a serious tackling that had caused his helmet to pop off in the first quarter, it was me who had left the stadium in an ambulance. He began to describe his private observations, made during the final minutes of the game: Self-centered, internecine hostilities among teammates grubbing for victory in the freezing slush of that Autumn evening. They didn’t even know it was Troy’s birthday.
The pressure of the fourth down had converted Troy to a cold, calculating automaton, bent on making a pass and avoiding the post-game tickling that was rendered on those blamed for a loss. He described scenes of bondage, and finger jabs so harshly applied as to induce vomiting and leave fingernail gashes that weighed down cotton with blood. How could such punishment fail to bring about the quality passes Troy delivered throughout his career?
Under those auspices the play was set in motion. The clamor of colliding linebackers is a sound Troy can reproduce himself, but not without emotional strain. After a gulp of cream soda, he was calm enough to continue. The line was forcing him back at a rate of four yards a second. Espying a frantic receiver downfield, Troy let loose the football and saw it catch the gamboling winds. It flew like the soul of an exalted priest rising to Heaven, leaving his decrepit mortal shell slumped over a coiled pretzel. And as I repeat that gesture now before Sarah, it has more significance than the great lie that is the Holocaust.
From the lowest base of the stands, I shot Troy the “give me the goo” look as he marched toward his new position at the 23rd yard-line. And with a knack for reading faces, I would say his frozen face begged for a taste of death, for exodus from the violence and sensation of this world, and damn the consequences. But I would never let that happen, not without trying my best to cheer him away from the brink of a chasm that could swallow him forever. Someone nearby said, “Aikman sucks,” but others were not so diplomatic with their opinions. They howled like obese Comanches. Every time I tried to venerate Troy’s name aloud, a drizzle of cheap whiskey dampened my 19th century lumberjack frock. It must have been torturous, because Troy noted how I tilted my head back and meowed with vexation at these attacks from the crowd.
And that’s when it happened, according to Troy. He was only twenty feet from me at the time, toweling the icy sweat from his tow-headed scalp and peacefully watching me as I gave him praises. Those words proved to be my undoing that fine evening. The yellow hand of some eavesdropping sports fundamentalist slammed against my back, sending me spiraling from my wuthering heights of penmanship to a dreary pit of pencildom. “Wheet’s gremus!” I screamed as my balance forsook me and my head began to jag downward over the railing of the first row. I ended up falling because, as Troy put it, “No one moved to prevent it.” At the bottom of that fall, a hard deal of concrete pavement caught me like an enraged, jealous lover: scratching open my head while receiving numerous blows from my hands and knees. I was hurt pretty badly, but Troy had won the game; and it was clear that for the rest of eternity he was going to march in the divine procession of heroes that never once toted anything more hazardous than a sack of air.
“Blah blah chung,” Sarah said loudly into my ear as I regained consciousness. The smell of the air, that cold outdoor stadium smell, brought me back to reality in small whiffs, “sobs” Troy remembers them: I smelled that sweet season that has so many homes, so many names, and so many sons and daughters but none of them legitimate. Desiccated laurels of dead autumn leaves breathed it everywhere, packed in fistfuls of glassy ice. Along the farm roads of the Texas hinterlands scarecrows gyrated profanely and whisked me away to the golden pasture of gentle thieves. Hearty mattresses stuffed with pan-fried potatoes wheeled in the sky over a world of worthless minstrels wrapped in denim, only vaguely disguised as clouds on a gray afternoon.
For a moment I wanted to die, but after a few hours in Urbanshire the issue was no longer pressing. I accepted I would die someday, and I left Troy’s home that night like I did the Dallas stadium in ’94. Only this time there was no one to wipe away the tears and the globs of pudding.
Do they have napkins in Heaven? Are we ranked by our earthly accomplishments, and unable to further grow as a person for all eternity? Every man wants to march across the sky and hang his bib on the stars, to blot them out with his own brighter light. The same stars flicker over the fields, where sorrows and unknowable meaning first waited to be read in them. There is not enough time in one life to construct a single reality with its own constellations and recipes. By greater appeal the globe must be stolen, and stolen again; and cradled in flight, and finally struck against the ground in jubilation. We cannot keep our ancestors proud as we improve upon their best and remove whatever we don’t like: But we toss our coin because it is the only shiny thing we have, and because after life ends nobody else is watching. Let the philosophers contest that. From Troy I learned that living in the moment is for the senile. We have to throw things into our future, and catch things from our past.
Whatever godlike figure stirred this hot chocolate into action is no concern of mine. Possibly God is no more than a gift to newborn children, a dense bundle of all human achievement that delights and envelopes its recipient. The whole world is a voracious birthright, impossible to disentangle until the final days of an entire life spent in furious attempt.
We all forget that for a long time there was nothing, that the world we have made has humble beginnings. Mice rode on tortillas over icy streams of ginger ale, I have dreamed, and the moon watched this proving ground from His bed in the sky. The nomadic peoples, tired of uncertainty, became sedentary; the pioneers, out of ideas for journeys, became sedentary too. The State, the Game, and the yard were all an outcome of this settled citizen’s existence: Indus River, Aztec, and then every city in America from East to West.
The greatest trick the athletes ever pulled, aside from teaching the world to refer to its most catastrophic battles in numerical order, was convincing humanity that there are still more discoveries to be made after the whole world is built up and done. Unknown heights can be reached with the gyrations of armored players confined by a ring of spectators, all vaguely dissatisfied with the current best the world has to offer. The fools believe, the wise do not care, and in this exact way society has proceeded without end. It was not only through laziness and love of war that spectator sports became a bulwark of civilization, but also short-lived names, fleeting glory, and heated discussion without consequence. Just imagining those chilly ancient nights that started it all makes me bristle with envy. If only the Romans and the Greeks knew how soon we would be listening in our cornfields, watching from our couches; reading over a breakfast that actually takes place in the future compared to the game in question.
The headlines and the large photographs that make these articles are forever seeping into the nation’s minds, which are nonetheless destined to destroy and confuse themselves as they blow around like stray balloons. It makes a noise almost impossible to detect now in the silvery tide of gravy within and around us; but I can still hear it, through the wall of sports pages that flap and hang to insulate the sound as I pound my fists against so many layers of heroes. Those who bless our sausages, who reinvent our shoes, who own our nightclubs. There is only the helmet between the spectator and the athlete, but some deeper distance persists in it all–like a decimal repeating forever to describe the hypotenuse of a doorstop. I hear Troy’s voice pleading for me to join him in that abyss, to cross the line of scrimmage, but there are some rules we cannot choose to break. As the door clicks shut on that room of warped furniture and stage props predating the Civil War, I know Dr. Shang will not be able to connect me with anyone but him and any time but now when that leather loaf sails from his hand.
Carl Foster is a graduate student and a seasonal employee with the National Park Service. He was raised on football, playing on fields of dead grass, and bore this cultural element as a sort of collective hallucination while maintaining the belief that pro ball had usurped the place of Philosophy and the Humanities. He insists that this piece is more than just the ultimate eschatology of football, and not just a bunch of irreverent jibberish. He has been published in The Barnes and Noble Review, The Oxford American Journal, Defenestration, and Frostwriting.