Walk On The Wildside: Unwritten Rules Of Football (and Life)

Derek Anderson, as my old friend Russ Bell would say, “It’s just f’n whiffle ball.” Photo by Matt McGee

This is an opinion piece of mine from last year that I delivered for my weekly segment “A Walk on the Wildside,” at The Audible on Thursday nights at 10pm EST. The opinions expressed here are not those of The Audible, Cecil Lammey, Sigmund Bloom, or Footballguys.com

As many of you know, I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, home of Coca-Cola.

If you’ve never been to Georgia then you might not realize how much Coke is a part of life around here. Unless of course, you’re a (North) Cackalacky like my wife who still wonders why people look at her funny when she asks for a Pepsi. There are some things you just don’t do – or at least have the sense to know what you’re getting into when you do it.

Coke is so ingrained around here that my buddy Russ Bell, who runs a local grocery chain in Athens, made the drink a semi-official sponsor for his obsession with wiffle ball.  Yes. Wiffle Ball.

Years ago, Bell became the owner-proprietor-groundskeeper of a wiffle ball diamond. Not so coincidentally it was part of a package deal in the mortgage that included his first home (as backyards generally are). Just off the bank of a small river that runs beyond the boundary of his backyard, Bell christened his ballpark Frank Field.

Frank Field was inspired by Bell’s love of two people: Frank Zappa and Frank Sinatra. He also found that “Frank,” was easier to hear than “Russ,” on the loudspeaker when he was on his third or fourth pitcher at Steverinos and waiting on another round of wings.

We just called it “The Frank.”

The Frank is adult wiffle ball at its finest, replete with a keg buried into the pitcher’s mound and a Coke banner hanging from the center field fence. The Frank was a memorable part of my mid-twenties traditions. Wiffle, beer, butt (the Boston variety), and of course, Coke.

Coke was literally in Bell’s rulebook. There were only three maxims:

1.      It’s just f’in wiffle ball.

2.      No discussion of politics – The Frank is a card-carrying Libertarian and he can’t stand any of those sons of bitches.

3.      No Pepsi products.

And these rules were real. I’ve seen him eject some of his best friends from the Frank for violating any one of them. Once you entered the confines of the Frank, you were to Have a Coke and a smile.

I’m telling you about the Frank because there are some folks around the NFL that I think need to Have a Coke and a smile.

Derek Anderson is at the top of the list.

I did some beat reporting for a college football team as a young writer. But you don’t need that experience to know that Kent Somer’s question about Anderson’s cutting up on the sidelines during a 31-6 loss was an attempt to question the quarterback’s commitment to winning.

However, I’m willing to accept that there’s a possibility that Somers might actually have been digging for information just to use it as a harmless lead for one of 8 million columns he has to write. If it were me that lead might have went something like:

Derek Anderson was seen on the sidelines joking with his teammate in the waning minutes of a 31-6 drubbing that hands of the 49ers, but it was no reflection of how the Cardinals starter felt about Monday Night’s embarrassment.

But I shouldn’t have to justify Somer’s question. It wasn’t the problem. Anderson’s reaction was. The question obviously struck a nerve.

Anderson could have found another way to respond to Somers:

“It was a private conversation during a down moment in a really bad game. I’m sure you’ve had situations in your life where you’ve went through a rough stretch at work, but still had a brief moment to laugh and have some perspective about life. If not, may I suggest a Coke and a smile? Meet me in the parking lot later and we’ll go get one.

Situation defused.

Then again, I’m a writer. It’s easy to come up with something in hindsight. Even so, Anderson has had plenty of practice with beat reporters. He could have done better.

Instead, Anderson reacted to the reporter’s pressure as poorly as he handles pressure in the pocket.  Of course that quick-thinking and deft feel of the pocket is what’s missing in Arizona right now, which is s why Anderson will be a press conference punch line longer than he’ll be a starting quarterback in the NFL.

There are some unwritten rules in life. Anderson’s tirade revealed that he didn’t have the ability to follow the more basic ones for performers. Never let them see you sweat.

Honestly, I don’t think its fair that our society has unwritten rules that don’t allow are public figures to be human without getting vilified for it in the press. Losing control of your emotions is a human tendency. But if you’re going to be in front of cameras and microphones in today’s world, its tough to have a vulnerable moment.

You’re doomed either way. Because if you take the Tiger Woods sports celebrity route, you’re a robot. If you’re all-too human like Derek Anderson then you’re an embarrassing ESPN clip or worn-out idea for a beer commercial.

That’s the problem with unwritten rules. Until you make a few mistakes, you don’t realize how important they are.

Every subset of society has its own unique set of unwritten rules.  We’re fascinated to see them played out in drama. This is why we love movies about the old west, mobsters, gangsters, the cops, and the military.

And bullies.

The written rule of polite society is not to meet violence with more violence. I believe in that written rule. But I also believe in the unwritten rule that there are times where the rulebook isn’t going to save your ass and you have to defend yourself. You may disagree and I may someday learn more and become wiser. But it’s what I’ve taught the kids in my life and will continue to teach them until that day comes.

In 2001, I taught this to my 7-year-old daughter when she came home from school upset because another kid was bullying her. Just a quick aside – according to the rules of life, she was my stepdaughter. But the unwritten rule of any adult with a clue is that you are either family or you’re not. She’s my family and will always be as such.

My daughter asked me that evening what she should do if she’s bullied again. My first response was the one of the sensible parent. Get away from the kid and tell a teacher. But most kids are smart enough to know there’s not just one way of doing things. She continued to pepper me with multiple “what if” scenarios.

What if she keeps bothering me when I try to get away from her?

But what if I tell the teacher and the teacher doesn’t make her stop?

But what if there is no adult around and I can’t get away from her?

That’s when I turned to my daughter and did my best to teach her a lesson by defining an unwritten rule. A lesson that was obviously ingrained in Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson at a very young age:

I told my daughter that if she couldn’t get away from the kid or she told an adult and nothing happened to get the kid to stop bullying her,  then she needed to wail on that kid until that kid was on the ground and crying. Then she needed to go find an adult and tell them what she did.

I told her she’d get in trouble with them, but I’ll handle that part of it and we’re square. But if I found out she did it and had another choice, she was going to be in a lot of trouble with me.

I still remember my daughter picking her jaw up off the floor. I was already imagining the phone call I would get from the school in the coming week when the advice backfired. I didn’t even want to think about the beef I expected from her mother.

But years passed without said phone call. There were no incidents in first grade, second grade, third grade, or fourth. It was five years later that I got the call from the middle school principal. My now-12-year-old daughter was facing a week of suspension for fighting.

When the principal initially called she didn’t have the details yet. However, once I got to the school she had spoken in more detail with the teacher and some students:

A 13-year-old boy was harassing my daughter at her desk. The teacher had left the room due to a minor emergency in the hallway. My daughter tried to ignore the kid, but that didn’t work. So she left the room and found the teacher. That didn’t work, either. When she returned to the room this boy began shoving her around. So my daughter went into full Andre Johnson-mode on his Cortland Finnegan-ass.  From what her friends in class told me, it went down exactly like what you can see here.

Except when the teacher had to pull my daughter off him, the boy wasn’t smiling and clapping like Finnegan. (Photo By M Gasglow)

After the principal finished her investigation into the matter. She informed me that my daughter’s week-long suspension would be cut to a day. A day levied on the principle that fighting is wrong.

This story brings up another unwritten rule. There is wisdom to giving lesser punishments to people who may violate the letter of the law, but not the spirit of it.

This is what the NFL did in regards to Andre Johnson and I’m glad for it.  The NFL didn’t decide upon a lesser judgement because they were worried about the marketability and competitive balance of a Thursday night game the following week. They acted wisely to uphold the spirit of the game. Johnson is one of the NFL’s better citizens. If you judged wide receivers based on how much they call attention to themselves, Johnson would be second string on local rec football league rather a regular at the Pro Bowl.

Just like my daughter’s confrontation the fight between Johnson and Cortland Finnegan didn’t have any verbal sparring leading up to it, but there were attempts to appeal to authority to diffuse the situation. When authority lost control of the potential safety of its players, the player – in this case Andre Johnson – took matters into his own hands to protect himself.

If you watch the NFL.com tape of Johnson and Finnegan in this game, the Titans corner was like a classic bully trying to take his victim off his game. Finnegan baited Johnson play after play with hands to the face. That is, when he could actually get in the vicinity of the receiver that was besting him most of the day.  When Johnson had enough he lobbied the official, who gave a priceless wide-eyed nod and a grin as he said knowingly, “oh, I’m watching him every play.”

But the official didn’t do anything when he should have.

When nothing happened Johnson opened a can of whoop ass on Finnegan. It was self-defense; a kind of thing where you protect your boundaries as a human being. Just like my daughter who easily whipped this kid trying to mess with her, but only because she was given permission to have enough pride in herself to not let someone try to make her feel powerless.

When my daughter and Andre Johnson unleashed that can it was no talk and all action.

What I enjoyed the most about this beat-down was what happened afterwards. Johnson was awarded the game ball from coach Gary Kubiak, who clearly enjoyed watching his abnormally well-behaved receiver take matters into his own hands. Although Kubiak said the game ball was for reaching a career-catch mark, we know it was really for putting the smack down on Finnegan. Kubiak was grinning ear to ear when Johnson apologized for the altercation. So was the rest of the team.

And the NFL gave a semi- but not completely contrite Johnson an ejection from the game, a $25K fine, and no suspension.

My daughter’s school gave my semi-contrite daughter detention, and a one-day suspension that wouldn’t go on her record.

Like Andre Johnson, my daughter gets it. She felt bad about losing her temper and she didn’t like getting violent. But she knew she exhausted all of her options and didn’t see another choice unless she wanted to be physically harmed. Instead of feeling powerless or questioning herself, she feels confident and safe about her choices.

Although I didn’t award her a game ball, I didn’t punish her, either. Instead, we talked about what happened – at her favorite pizza place. Okay, so maybe I did reward her.  She deserved it for  understanding the spirit of the game that makes you successful in life.

10 responses to “Walk On The Wildside: Unwritten Rules Of Football (and Life)”

  1. Sometimes important lessons in life come through difficult experiences.
    And we, as parents, need to be able to recognize when to allow our kids to confront life on their own…hopefully with insights gained through our input as their mentors. You did good Matt!
    And kudos go to your daughter for standing up for herself when all else failed!

  2. When I originally heard this on The Audible, I immediately put Mr. Walman at the top of my list of people to listen and read. Im a fan! hats of to Mr. W for keeping it real!

  3. You just never know what you’re going to get when you take a chance. This response was a pleasant surprise! Sincerest thanks for the responses. Wow…

  4. Matt, this is awesome. I’d share it more, but I don’t want any of my buddies who play fantasy football to know about your site. It’s gold.

  5. Nice parallel!

    “she was given permission to have enough pride in herself to not let someone try to make her feel powerless.” – Love this line I think it says a lot.

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