I have been thinking a lot about Ross Gay lately. Gay’s work is synonymous with discovering joy—something that can be easily dismissed as simple “happiness”; as if the concept of being happy is simple, when, in fact, we know it to be deeply complex. We spend our entire lives attempting to be slightly happier than where we are at this particular moment. This beach vacation would be that much better if I were sharing it with someone I love. This meal was exquisite, but do you know what would make it better? A slice of chocolate cake. One more sip of bourbon. Another highlight reel catch where our guy somehow taps a foot on the green, leaving a sliver of grass before the canvas shifts to absolute blankness.
Of course, this type of happiness is tied up with general capitalist concepts—happiness automatically means “more” of something. Striving for less is something that seems antithetical to our own happiness. It seems odd to wish ourselves smaller, but it has its moments—those days where we want to be less present; less here. I have spent the last four weeks in a state of brutal limbo—I had a breakthrough COVID case that hit me subtly on a Thursday evening while walking my dog, before hitting me not so subtly the next day, as my head filled up like an aquarium where someone dropped a packet of gelatin; an awful thickening that made it feel like what was inside of my sinuses was screaming to get out. I watched us play our first full-capacity home game in two years in a daze on an entirely different side of my couch—the Alabama football watching experience over the past 20-some-odd months has been truly bizarre; instead of my usual seats around the stadium, or pacing back and forth in the high school gymnasium vibes of The Houndstooth, I have spent most of it on my couch in silence, trying not to wake my wife or my dog in moments of extreme exuberance or dread. I do not remember much of anything from that game, though that is not overly surprising—I have forgotten many parts of many games as I have watched them in various states of sobriety and attention; checking scores and highlights while at fall weddings in between lulls in conversation and music, amongst family and friends who are less invested in the game than I am, so I have to take my fandom down a notch subconsciously. I am here, but not here. It means something to me, but I am able to sit still.
A term amongst Alabama fans is “joyless murderball,” coined by radio host Mark Ennis to describe the type of football that is most enjoyable to Alabama fans—an anaconda-like squeezing of the souls of their opponents where running backs will get chunks of yardage at a time, setting up short-yardage situations on 2nd and 3rd down, bleeding the clock down before turning it over to the defense, who will quickly snuff out any plausible threat. It is the ideal and believed “ur-form” of Alabama Football—simultaneously nostalgic and of the moment. It is deeply apparent with the way that college football is played these days that “joyless murderball” is not a sustainable way to play; offenses have simply gotten too good and so a significant amount of points need to be scored to try to stay relevant and ahead on the scoreboard. Nick Saban famously calls it “fast-ball” approach—and in an interview where he could see the writing on the wall, he said “is this what we want football to be?” a final plea to slow the game down and make it the methodical plod that Saban’s teams were infamous for.
I have been thinking about Ross Gay because the writer Ayokunle Falomo had a tweet while in the throes of COVID that read “Idk I just wish when people talk about Ross Gay as a writer of ‘joy’ they also mention how deeply sad & sorrowful catalog of unabashed gratitude is”. I have been thinking about misconception a lot when it comes to joy—from what it is that brings me joy about the things that I love, to critiques of Ted Lasso for being without conflict and simply “happy” all of the time when there is a darkness and deep depression underneath, to why I love college football so damn much that it literally causes me to eat too much pizza, cause my heart to flutter, and have to lie horizontally on the couch while I wait to see if Fresno State has one more touchdown and two-point-conversion in them at 1:30 in the morning. Gay himself talks about this misconception: “Joy is my subject. I hear people talk about joy meaning something like happiness, but the joy I’m talking about, the joy I’m reaching toward, is informed by the profound sorrow that we’re constantly in the midst of. The joy I’m interested in — sometimes I call it “adult joy” or “grown joy” — it’s not just happy. The joy I’m talking about makes it absolutely clear that I’m not alien from you, and furthermore that I’m not alien from the earth of which we are expressions. It’s the depths of that feeling.”
It is sad out there. I can’t list the ways in which It is sad out there because it will make me sad, but you know as well as I do that it is sad out there. I know that college football is not devoid of this sadness in the same way that all of the other things that bring me true adult and grown joy: the long nose of my adopted greyhound, the way my wife’s mouth widens when she laughs when I tell a joke I’ve been thinking about that has just an audience of her, when my friends’ son desperately wants to show me a Mario Maker level he has been working on for my input, while using me as a human ottoman. I know that these things do not exist in a bubble of solely joy, but instead rise above a world that tries to keep it buried under a toil of mulch and dirt and shit and whatever else. It is the joy that rises. It is the joy that I reach toward.
I spent the past four weeks wishing that I was not here—that somehow I could disappear for a while and suddenly reappear. After recovering from COVID, my wife and I were put in a situation where we were anxiously awaiting results for something that we thought would never come—again, I will not list the ways in which it is sad within and sad without. But there were days where I hoped for a deep sleep and an awakening at a time when there was an all-clear. I felt as if I was shrinking inside of myself. I felt small. Lesser than I have ever been—trapped inside of a body that felt far too big for my emotional state but also somehow bursting at the seams with anxiety, as if a swarm of bats could come fluttering out of my mouth and fingernails at any second. It is so much to feel so small.
After Alabama’s victory against Ole Miss, Michael Casagrande of AL.com claimed a brief return to “Joyless Murderball,” as Alabama running back Brian Robinson ran the ball 50 times, easily the most by a single Alabama running back since the days of Derrick Henry, Alabama’s posterchild for psychopathic bludgeoning behavior—a serial spree of 5.4 yards a carry as a perfectly-jelled offensive line smothered defensive tackles in clear-plastic tarps you’d find in crime scene investigation television shows.
“It’s not really how we want to play,” Saban said, “and it’s not how we played all year and it’s not going to be the style that we want to continue to play with. We have to do the things we have to do to try and win the game.”
“And you, again, you, for the true kindness
it has been for you to remain awake
with me like this, nodding time to time
and making that noise which I take to mean
yes, or, I understand, or, please go on
but not too long, or, why are you spitting
so much, or, easy Tiger
hands to yourself. I am excitable.
I am sorry. I am grateful.
I just want us to be friends now, forever.
Take this bowl of blackberries from the garden.
The sun has made them warm.
I picked them just for you. I promise
I will try to stay on my side of the couch.”
–from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, by Ross Gay
Alabama lost on Saturday. Long time Alabama fans know the general script to beat Alabama—win the turnover battle, have a mobile quarterback and some wide receiver playmakers, and hope that things get wacky enough to sneak out a win. I have joked a lot with friends and students that the vibes seem way off (again, the joy rises above!) but one has to imagine that the vibes are off everywhere—college students are returning to in-person instruction after a year and a half of no attendance policies and choosing to attend class from ones’ bed. There is a collective trauma that no one is ever truly going to recognize or reckon with until we are forced to—an adage in athletic training is emphasizing that time off is important and that one should rest before the body decides to rest for you. The vibes in this game were way off: you can look to a desperate need for a Flagrant 1/Flagrant 2 system in targeting, or taking three timeouts into the half, or getting a momentum shifting punt block TD effectively turned into a successful field-position flip after giving up a kick-off return, or running pass plays on 3rd and one, or running pass plays at the goal line, or running pass plays on the road in a hostile environment full of future folks taking massive advantage of farm subsidies while railing against the federal government and the dadgum socialists. We should have never been in a position to escape with a win, but found ourselves in that exact position, only for the dead and dormant Texas A&M offense to resurrect like Lazarus or that other guy they love, and rattle off their only two offensive scores of the second half in the final five minutes. And hats off to TAMU and Jimbo, but it’s not about them. It’s never about them. It’s about you. It’s about us. And it’s about how we got got, about how we saw this coming, about how we didn’t wear our lucky shirts, or we didn’t respect the Aggies enough as fans, or how we laughed about golf metaphors, or how we loved too much, or too little, or how we were distracted from the task at hand because the world was just too goddamn much for a little while.
Ross Gay played college football. He was a tight end and a defensive end at Lafayette College, one of the game’s most historic colleges—first fielding a team in 1882, and competing in college football’s longest uninterrupted rivalry game, against the Lehigh Mountain Hawks. Gay equates college football with being an unmovable object—of obstruction and blocking, of steadfastness and inevitability. “I think for any number of reasons, I have wanted to participate in the brutal fantasy of not being movable. I’ve wanted to imagine myself as a discrete creature that is not movable. You know, I grew up playing college football, and a lot of my training was about how to be unmovable. But to be moved, it’s all kinds of things. It’s tears, and it’s shock and it’s flabbergasting.”
The world takes joy in things shifting—I am reminded of a time when at camp, my friends and I decided we wanted to push a giant rock down a hill. We spent hours loosening the ground around the boulder—of rocking the boulder back and forth with tree branches and worn-out fingers. The feeling we got when the rock started rolling was a moment I’d never forget—watching it catch a few trees on the way down, bouncing off of them and continuing its short and sloping descent into the river below, before ending with a satisfying splash and the water hitting our ankles, us chasing the boulder to the river’s edge.
If joy is something that is a collective endeavor between people, joylessness is too—Alabama loses and it is time to get our jokes off: fire Pete, fire BOB, fire Nick, fire Greg, fire Big Al, fire the bus driver, fire ourselves for caring too much about this dumb sport but not enough to wear the right pair of shoes or make the good buffalo chicken dip, or not enough to stay in the bathroom because we converted a 3rd and long while we were in there. We are joking but we are not joking. We are sad, but we are “sports sad,” which is a different sad than constant dread, though we know that sports sad can turn on us faster than a Jamo sluggo. Ted Lasso, misunderstood king of grief management told us that there is something worse than being sad, and that is being alone and being sad, and that’s the great thing about sports—is that you’ll never be sad alone. Real sadness—now that can be some lonely, small, scared and beautiful shit. It can make you feel lesser than you’ve ever felt. But that sadness that comes from your team falling short—that is something worth sharing.