Have you ever tried to teach someone the game of football? I’m betting you have, and I’m betting it didn’t go well, because football is deceptively complicated for something that’s a combination of a car crash and spandex. About a month ago, I attempted for the umpteenth time to teach my mom the game: the basics, if only so she could appreciate my sadness, joy and excitement as a fellow fan rather than as a parent who delights neutrally—win, lose or draw—in the fact that I myself care so much. And for the umpteenth time, I was greeted with laughter, the kind that signals both disinterest in a subject and amusement at how earnestly someone is trying to drum up interest for it. Sort of like how you reacted in high school when your calculus teacher tried to teach you “a shortcut,” probably with a grin, and there was a LOLWUT moment in your soul because the effort was commendable but the objective was impossible.
When I sat down with Mom this last time, though, I FINALLY had the magnificent idea to use a visual aid. This was right after the Chargers game, which the Ravens won in overtime on account of that surreal 4th & 29 conversion by Ray Rice, and I felt compelled to make her understand the gravity of the win. I couldn’t translate the unholy difficulty of that fourth down without explaining some football fundamentals, so I whipped out a sheet of paper for an impromptu crash course, right there in our living room. I’m proud of my chicken-scratch, even with its glaring deficiencies—including the horrible goal post pictograms, the lack of definition for essential terms like “drive” and “penalty,” and the end zones named for the Ravens and Browns when the whole point was to put the Chargers game in perspective. (My only defense is that I considered “drive” too weird to explain at the time; it’s micro AND macro, “a collection of all your attempts to gain 10 yards, but counted separately in between the other team’s … erm, ‘drives!'” [Not helpful or necessary.] As for “penalty,” once you engrain the meaning of “1st & 10,” you REALLY don’t feel like destroying the sanctity of it by talking about procedural abominations like 2nd & 25.)
Down and distance, the life essence of football, is the hardest thing to explain. Ask someone who is interested in learning the game, “You’ve heard of ‘1st & 10,’ ‘3rd & BLAH,’ right?”, and they will almost always say yes while not having the slightest whiff of what those phrases mean, leaving you with the gory realization that you are starting from scratch—you alone are about to make or break how football is perceived by this weirdly blank slate of a human. “The first number is what down it is, and the second number is how many yards you have to go to get new downs,” I said. What is a down? Despite my terrible definition on the paper, which is not so much a definition as it is a list of examples, my mom eventually understood that a down is any attempt at moving the ball forward, and that a team is always trying to move the ball at least 10 yards forward within three attempts—”unless they are desperate, and then they will use the fourth attempt?” she parroted after about 20 minutes of coaching, at which point my brain short-circuited from glee. Then I demonstrated how to punt a football in the middle of the room, since that what a team usually does with its fourth attempt/down, and she delightedly said she had seen people do that on TV before. Progress!
(Secretly though, I still don’t think my mom grasps the whole down and distance THING. I tried to explain the movement of the ball forward [or backward, in the case of a failed play] with relation to our carrying Ralphie, the family dog, to the bathtub from our current location on the couch. “Let’s say it’s 10 yards from this sofa to the bathroom, and we have four tries—really, three—to get Ralphie from here to there.” I asked my mom to imagine, on the first try, that I carried Ralphie forward four yards before stopping. Ten minus four is six, so when we resume carrying, it’s 2nd & 6, right? Right. She got that easily. But on the second try [DOWN!], I presumed some household thing would trip me/somehow send me flying backwards two yards [let’s just say it’s the ghost my dad claims once pushed him off the ladder to our attic], and it took me a long, long, LONG time to convince her this would make our situation 3rd & 8, not 3rd & 4. Something about the fact that a team is REWARDED for amassing yards by having those yards DEDUCTED from the 10 is inherently confusing. And I would bet significant money she has forgotten this nuance by now. BUT I WILL ALWAYS RETEACH IT.)
The second-worst thing to have to explain to someone is whatever the hell is going on with the arrangement of the numbers on a football field—an arrangement that actually makes total sense from the perspective that each team needs its own side of the field, kind of how each team has its own half of a basketball court (which is the analogy I used, since basketball is the oldest team sport my mom has followed on account of her dad’s local fame as “Zip” in the ’50s). But this is just another thing that discourages people from caring about football. Numbers do not work how the NFL says they do! They don’t ascend, then reverse! Try explaining to someone that if you have 1st & 10 on “your own” 45 and get the 10 yards needed for “a new set” of downs (Yes! They roll over!), you end up on the opposition’s 45 and not “the 55,” DESPITE THE TRUE FACT you have progressed 55 yards toward the end zone.
The dual complication of down and distance in addition to field numbering has been known to cause Dangerously Severe Confusion in non-male children under 13, the elderly, people who aren’t American, and moms.