Football in Fiction

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As I write this, it is Super Bowl Sunday. Now, I have no dog in the fight (My Panthers are, in fact, in the midst of blowing up and starting all over again). However, I do love the hubbub that surrounds the event: The millions (billions?) of people watching, the commercials throughout the game, the food (THE FOOD). My family has always loved making it into a special occasion. My father will then turn around and do it again the following week with Daytona, which hasn’t been my bag for some time. YMMV.

It has been suggested to me that I take this topical moment to speak on including sports in fiction. Although I focus on historical fiction, my list of qualifications to speak on sports include having followed, watched, coached, and generally been involved in athletics nearly since the womb. I will speak primarily of American football here, as that is my forte. (To the non-American audience: Yes, I know there isn’t much “foot” in “football” in the States. I just work here). If you are thinking of including football as part of your story, consider the following information.


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Listen: You might see the occasional football movie (Rudy just came up on YouTube TV as an option as I write this). As a general rule, the conversations taking place in the huddle are dare I say romanticized (“If we don’t score, Rudy can’t get in the game!”)

First of all, fewer and fewer teams even huddle anymore. In the age of spread offenses, in which offenses spread out as far as legally allowed by the rules in order to create more space (and in doing so, include more receivers on the outside to burn the defense where it has the fewest numbers), teams like to go “no-huddle” and call plays in. In the NFL, this is a matter of the head coach or offensive coordinator talking to the quarterback via the radio in the latter’s helmet. The QB then calls the play to the rest of the offense using hand signals or code words (Think Peyton Manning yelling “OMAHA OMAHA”). In college and high school, this happens with hand signals from the sideline (typically the HC/OC in concert with backups; one is the “live” call and the rest are dummies), or with picture/cue cards with symbols representing the play (again, one is the “live” call). Note that the exact same thing is happening on the defense before the snap.

Linemen are shouting calls making adjustments while the defense is trying to disguise blitzes (rushes from linebackers and defensive backs to disrupt the play) and pass coverages. In high school, the ball has to be snapped in under 25 seconds. In college and the NFL, 40 seconds from the whistle at the end of the previous play. All of this is to say there’s not a lot of room to wax poetic in between plays. There may be a little chatter in the erstwhile huddle (and perhaps of the off-color variety), but often players are busy catching their breath and listening to the play call as it comes in.

(Oh, and while all that is happening, officials are doing their jobs too.)

Overused Tropes

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I can more or less count on the same things taking place in a football story (book, film, or otherwise): A receiver who can’t catch. A wily veteran quarterback and/or coach on his last chance. An underdog team who generally doesn’t know which way the helmet goes on.

Please, I beg of you: try something fresh. These tropes have been really and truly used up. There’s scraping the bottom of the barrel, and there’s taking a backhoe to it. This is in the latter category.


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Finally, if your story comes down to something exciting happening in the game, consider a few more items:

-The athletes you see on TV are no doubt some of the fastest and most incredible athletes on the planet. But do keep in mind they’re wearing equipment all over their bodies, which adds an extra layer of complexity to the things one can do on the football field.

-Time management is something that haunts even the best coaches and players. You see it every week if you are a follower of the college and professional ranks. Teams use timeouts at disadvantageous points in the game, meaning they aren’t there when needed at the end of the half or game. Fans gasp and gnash their teeth when the clock ticks down to the final seconds while the team is scrambling to get into position. Receivers run the wrong route (or slip or trip, etc.) in the most critical points in the game. This happens even to the professionals because they are some of the most anxiety-inducing moments in sports. This is a great place to explore/add conflict.

-Momentum is a real thing, as much in football as it is in any other sport. When things are going well, REALLY well, it’s as if one team is playing a totally different game while the other team, although equally versed in the sport, is committing unlikely errors, or worse, playing out the string and letting the game get away from them. BUT. Sometimes this momentum can in fact turn on the strangest moments. A fumble where an untouched player simply loses the ball from his grip; a bad call that goes against the team with the huge lead. A little spark of hope for the downtrodden suddenly swings the game in the opposite direction. It could even be something you couldn’t hope to see happen in the sport a second time if you waited the rest of your life. These weird turns happen way more often than the average fan might realize. In fiction, it’s best to save one as an ace in the hole. Remember: Improbable is not implausible. Make it work within the story.

So enjoy your Super Bowl Sunday, if you observe this most unofficial of holidays. And may we all make it to work in the morning!

One thought on “Football in Fiction

  1. Great article, Joseph! I think it’s really interesting to be able to think of new things and avoiding tropes when writing about athletic activity in stories, regardless of the genre it’s in. I’ll have to keep this all in mind the next time some sporting activity comes into play in my writings!

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