Essay by Elaine Neil Orr
A question: “Why did you make your male protagonist in Swimming Between Worlds a football star?”
A Friday night in 1964. We cut across the high school grounds, a canopy of hardwoods overhead. Fall leaves crunch beneath our feet, giving off a smell of old books. To our right, dusky brick buildings hover like monoliths of a forgotten age. I’m called by the bright lights in front of us, but I want to linger too, under that canopy with my father. In this odd American year when I am in fifth grade in Easley, South Carolina, we don’t seem to have as much time together, just the two of us, as we did in Nigeria where I was born and grew up, a daughter of missionary parents. My mother is a nurse and teacher; my father a business manager at the mission hospital, and my youth has been shaped by savannahs and rain forests and enormous outdoor markets and large Nigerian churches led by Nigerian preachers who speak in any number of languages that aren’t English.
My father and I continue until we’re at the top of a hill, the stadium falling away below us, a great green theatre. This is my first American football game, though I’ve heard legends about the sport. My father was a quarterback playing in Allendale County, South Carolina, in the 1930s. If he wore a helmet, it was leather. Now he has chosen me, the younger and athletic daughter, to receive the legend of football. My father’s athletic prowess is a central myth of our family. He wins tennis tournaments on the mission field, floating like a butterfly, to borrow a phrase from Muhammad Ali. That evening, though, it isn’t tennis that draws us but American football with its peculiar oblong ball that could only have been invented by a trickster god. What I learn that year is:
Ten yard lines
The perimeter of the field
Boys look good in tights
How to keep score
The white boys of the Easley football team are the Green Wave. They move like a school of fish and I think of them in their green liquid field as magical beings, energy harnessed in tights that fit like skin. Helmeted, the players lose their individuality, all but the quarterback and the running backs. They stand out: the thrower; the catcher. Like my father, they are heroes. I’m stamped by this memory: the cool night air; the glory of the long pass, the tumult following touch-downs. But the real reason I remember it is because I was chosen as a smart and adventurous daughter, worthy of the legend of football. Fleetness leads to glory and an oblong ball is more perfect than a round one. Surprise is the chief element of the play.
The following summer, my family returns to Nigeria for three years and I don’t follow football. But I don’t forget it either. I’m aware that my grandmother sends my father newspaper clippings about his beloved Clemson Tigers. The envelopes arrive two weeks after the games.
The next time I see football is in my ninth grade year in Decatur, Georgia. I am old enough to go to the games with my sister. But our father carries us in the Chevy Chevelle that we drive that year and I conjure his presence, sitting in the row behind us. Our team is the Bulldogs, less felicitous than the Green Wave, but I am even more enthralled. We dress in our warmest hand-me-downs and coats. Through some algorithm, we manage to sit near the field on the far right bleachers of the home-team side every game. We’re closer to the action than I remember in Easley, almost on the field. In foul weather, it turns to muck.
When the action swings in our direction, I’m riveted. I learn cheers: push’ em back, push ‘em back, waayyyy back; hold that line; shake it to the left, shake it to the right; come on Bulldogs, let’s fight fight fight. That last seems uncouth to me but I belt it out. Where else can I be uncouth? At the same time, I am utterly devoted to the lithe and nimble quarterback, who seems to me something like King Arthur: noble and true. This year I hear phrases I don’t quite comprehend:
I easily comprehend “sack” and “blitz.”
For the first time, I notice the cheerleaders and know I will never be one. That particular train has left the station. I can’t do a cartwheel or kick that high. Still, football is an arena where we all win, even when we lose, which we rarely do. We exhaust ourselves in the thrill of the action. I knew it then, though I couldn’t have said it. Football is sexy.
Decatur High has a deep bench and African-American boys are half of it. Between offensive plays, all the boys huddle like they’re praying, their arms around their teammates. This scene fires my Baptist missionary kid soul. It’s the best thing I’ve seen in America, far more inspiring than anything I’ve witnessed in the youth group I attend at First Baptist Decatur. The games are free. I don’t have to repent.
Being a third-culture kid, born and reared outside my parents’ passport country, and in the high stakes environment of high school, I’ve become acutely aware of my outsider status, belonging fully neither to the U.S. nor to Nigeria. I don’t know how to dress in this country of Villager blouses and pleated wool skirts. I don’t know the lingo. My hair isn’t right. Something in my very soul doesn’t fit.
Yet I fit at a football game. The sport is played like chapters in a book. One team is in possession, as a character has a point of view or a chapter has an arc. There’s a goal: get down the field, by inches or yards, or a Hail Mary pass. Any gain is good and sometimes the fantastic play is not as thrilling as the hard-scrabble plays that earn a first down: by yards and feet and sometimes mere inches. In a book, the hard-scrabble series is the chapter that sustains the tension though nothing much happens. There’s more book, more time, more field. Always there’s the question: what will happen? Because almost anything can. A runner on the other team can fumble the ball (a character makes an error in judgment). An interception can occur (a character finds an unexpected opportunity). A last minute touchdown can pull out a win (they marry after all).
Even in the rain, runners move with the agility of dancers. Some deep knowledge of my father is crystalized. Time can’t catch him. He will never die. The story will never be over. Football is my witness.
Summer swings around and I leave again for my true home, Nigeria. But not for long. A year later, I am handed a one-way ticket to the U.S. and leave parents behind to finish high school in Arkansas, where my sister is in college. I feel even more an outsider so I join the pep squad, though I know it’s for would-be cheerleaders. There are enough of us to make it cool. We sew red mini-skirt jumpers and string tiny beads on thread for matching necklaces and at games we shake our red pom poms to stave off the bitter cold. One of my best friends’ brothers is the star quarterback and he really is a good guy. He reminds me of my father, the way he walks lightly in the hallways of the high school and floats on the field. Even his angular, slightly off-kilter face is like my dad’s. Once, when it isn’t winter, he asks me to go water skiing with him, and who knows what might have happened if I had actually learned to ski. But I didn’t.
Still, I love the game and the team—the Badgers—all the way to the state championship game, which we lose.
But before we lose, we are a team and I am on it. And this, along with the game’s sudden speed, the miracle of a perfectly-thrown ball, and the whole wizardry of men dancing out of a tackle is why I love American football. It’s a story we tell ourselves about our striving. Football is really something to talk about. It’s town theatre that gets taken to the drug store and the cafeteria and the dorm room and the family dinner table and social media.
When our son is in elementary school, my father begins to take him to college football games. I teach at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and back in the early 90s, a grandfather can take his grandson on the day of the game to purchase a ticket in the green of the end zone for ten dollars. Later, when our son is a pre-teen, my husband and I take him. We’re the Wolfpack at N.C. State, where we have just enough of a history of winning to make our underdog status inspired. As it happens, but for different reasons, our son is also an outsider, especially in middle school. He’s smart and a little awkward in his too-tall body, nerdy in glasses. Sports becomes his avenue to the inside game. When we enter the stadium, we are all in, as my father and I were part of the Green Wave so long ago in Easley, South Carolina. At the N.C. State games, we are participants in a carnival, here for the sport, for the weirdly oblong ball, for the uprights, for the painted faces. We are here in downpours when we wear our red slickers and stay to the bitter disappointing end. We were here on crisp fall days when we can reach the sky and touch heaven and our team wins, and I remember my father, who hasn’t really died but only floated off somewhere, into the land of ancestors.
When she was in her nineties, my mother was still talking football, especially N.C. State football. Perhaps it was a way of holding the torch for my father, who died twelve years before she did. Someday soon, my son will take his daughter to an N.C. State football game, and my father will still be running, just ahead of them, toward the uprights.