We're about halfway into the football season, and my mind is therefore (un)naturally occupied by the San Diego Chargers, who have all but perfected the art of breaking their fans' hearts. Case in point: they recently made history by becoming the first NFL team ever to lead a game by 24 points at the half then lose it by double digits. They took a chance to own the AFC West and strangled the breath out of it over 30 excruciating minutes of playing time. "Implosion" could be the Chargers' middle name.
As if this weren't bummer enough, it completely eclipsed a magical moment that had been more than ten years in the making: Quentin Jammer scoring the first touchdown of his career on an interception of Peyton Manning. A blown play sent the ball sailing right into Jammer's arms, and even though his face was obscured by his helmet, you couldn't mistake his giddiness as he skipped neatly around a tackler and kept on going until he was gone. I could swear he paused at the fifteen-yard line, as if to say, "Really?" or maybe just to savor the moment. I could almost swear the last Bronco paused with him: "You go, man. You've earned it." But I'm sentimental on the subject of Quentin Jammer.
Jammer got drafted by the Chargers as the fifth overall pick back in 2002. He's now in his eleventh year in the league, playing a highly physical version of a highly physical position, cornerback. I first admired him for his stoicism and his quietly fierce commitment to doing his job right by his own lights. These qualities were thrown into high relief when Antonio Cromartie joined the Bolts in 2006 and soon came to personify everything Jammer wasn't: acrobatic flash & self-loving swagger. In his years with the Chargers, Cromartie made about as many spectacular interceptions as he fathered children (soon to be twelve by nine mothers). Jammer just kept making tackles and breaking plays while raising three boys with his wife, Alicia. He mentored Cro and later defended him when teammates grew impatient with the younger man's lust for the hero's cape. (Now with the Jets, Cromartie is finally stealing an occasional taste of life as a wide receiver.)
Last season, Q wasn't so steady. He drifted out of coverage, becoming an easier target for opposing quarterbacks than he'd been in years. His timing was off and his hands were sloppy. Refs noticed. Every broken pass seemed to draw a yellow flag. Jammer looked overamped one minute and lost the next, suddenly not a man you could count on.
Maybe not in the short run. But a few months ago Jammer sat down with Kevin Acee, a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and laid it out just the way he's been doing forever: the no-apologies, hard-tackling truth. He told Acee where the fog had rolled in from. His marriage had come apart, and so had he. He'd spent months dazed by sadness, convinced that his failures as a husband and father made him a failure as a man and human being. But he learned otherwise. As Acee tells it,
"He first tried to hide his depression from his mother and younger brother, to whom Jammer has been a father of sorts. He did have a close friend, Ian Kennedy, who would not let Jammer push him away. And when Jammer informed his family of his troubles, they responded only with support.
'The thing I’ll take away from that is you don’t go through that alone,' Jammer said. 'Talk to somebody. Somebody may snap you out of it ... I learned people really care about me and love me for me.'
He said there was no magical moment that got him up from the floor.
'Just time,' Jammer said. 'You go out and you heal. You heal the best way you know how. You see all the people that support you and love you. You find out they all care about you. It gradually happened. I just got a little bit more happy, a little bit more happy. It just got a little better every day.'"
It's hard enough from the sidelines of our Ram Tough culture to speak plainly and without bitterness of pain, of need. It's a lot harder when you're on the field, playing out our communal fantasies of strength. Q spoke to Acee just weeks after a stadium full of people had celebrated the sadly abbreviated life of Junior Seau, who committed suicide in May - he'd seen how a man can get crushed by the mythologies he shoulders.
We women are hardly immune, especially when we get to thinking that the world will grind to a slow halt without our cheerful encouragement. ("I'm good." "It's all good." "Hangin' in.") In my own periodic struggles with depression, I've found it very hard to reach out, and vanity has been part of the reason: I want to think of myself as someone other people turn to for comfort and support.
That said, the public display of vulnerability doesn't usually entail an existential crisis for women the way it so often does for men. "Manly" is a brand of sprung steel trap, and you can hear the jaws snap shut a hundred times a day.
Sometimes you can step past; sometimes you need a sledgehammer to bust your way to safe ground. Brendan Ayanbadejo, a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, has been speaking out against homophobia for years, and he recently added his strong, clear voice to the campaign to preserve a newborn Maryland law that enshrines the right of gays and lesbians to marry. This exercise of a free mind and a compassionate heart (Ayanbadejo "happens" to be straight) inspired a state delegate, Emmett C. Burns Jr., to write to the owner of the Ravens, "requesting that you take the necessary actions... to inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions."
Enter Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe - with sledgehammer - in a letter to Burns published on Deadspin:
"[W]hy do you hate freedom? Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different than you, or act different than you? How does gay marriage, in any way shape or form, affect your life? If gay marriage becomes legal, are you worried that all of a sudden you'll start thinking about penis? "Oh shit. Gay marriage just passed. Gotta get me some of that hot dong action!" Will all of your friends suddenly turn gay and refuse to come to your Sunday Ticket grill-outs? (Unlikely, since gay people enjoy watching football too.)"
A week later, Burns relented:
"Upon reflection, [Ayanbadejo] has his First Amendment rights. And I have my First Amendment rights. … Each of us has the right to speak our opinions. The football player and I have a right to speak our minds."
Very generous of you, Mr. Burns.
Love & Truth 1, "Manly" trap 0.
Update: Bless their mighty hearts, voters in Maryland, Maine, and maybe Washington (still counting, but looking good!) have come out in support of marriage equality. Score!