Friday, September 12, 2014

Finding a Parallel between Football Knowledge and Urbanism

The last few posts, about the candidates and tax measures on the upcoming election ballots, have been a trudge.  I’ve been wearied by the effort of picking my way through a minefield of possible misstatements, trying to find the best words to explain how I’ll vote.  And I suspect that many readers have been similarly wearied in their efforts to follow my carefully-placed footsteps.

Nor am I quite finished with the elections.  I have at least two more election-related topics that remain untouched.  But those can wait until next week.

Today will be lighter fare, as I acknowledge the beginning of football season by telling a personal anecdote about my first experience with football.  I’ll end with drawing a parallel between urbanism and football knowledge.  It isn’t my best insight ever, but it makes me smile, which is a pleasant sensation after the disheartening task of scanning the ballot options.

In my heart, I’ll always be a baseball guy.  There’s something about the crack of a bat on a balmy summer evening that can’t be matched.  The camaraderie and conversation around a slow-paced but strategic baseball game trumps a body-crunching football game every time.  I’ve attended some memorable football games, but I’ve had some memorable times with friends at baseball games.  And I’ll always prefer the memories of friends.

Besides, I mostly quit attending football games two years ago.  I’m unsure that there’s a solution to the head injury crisis, but I’m quite sure that few are willing to risk killing the golden goose.  I still enjoy the occasional game on television and am thrilled that my alma mater has started 2-0, but no longer wish to sit in the stands and watch young men sustain life-altering brain injuries for my entertainment.

But football has nonetheless been a part of my life, all the way back to the day when I first held a football.  I think it was during August 1961.

During my early school years, my family lived in a town east of Los Angeles.  The home was a typical 1950s tract home on a good-sized lot, but with parks and playgrounds far beyond my mobility options.  So I spent much of my playtime with the boy next door.

Greg was exactly one week older than me and we were otherwise well-matched.  There were other kids in the neighborhood, but because of age or differing interests, they were rarely part of the action.  Instead, it was Greg and I playing our weekends and summers away.

There was even a gate in the fence between our yards, allowing play to commence without the formality of a knock on the front door.  And the play areas were divided between our backyards.  My yard held the basketball hoop, tetherball pole, and swing set.  Greg’s backyard wasn’t as well equipped, but had a large rectangular area of grass, enough to approximate a baseball field for a pair of youngsters.

And play baseball we did, or at least some truncated version of the game.  Perhaps two youngsters, one bat, and one ball don’t seem like enough pieces for a game of baseball, but we found a way to entertain ourselves for hours.

However, there was a hiccup in the spring of 1961.  Greg’s family made an addition to their house, a family room that occupied all of our right field and a big chunk of center.  Where we previously had a normally-shaped, if diminutive, ballfield on which to play, we now had a dark brown stucco wall looming just beyond the baseline between first and second.  If we’d had a sense of baseball history or strategy, we would have named the wall the Chocolate Monster and begun batting left-handed.  But we lacked both, so we continued our games as before, trying to ignore the intruder.

Perhaps taking pity on us, Greg’s father tried to give us an alternative, buying a football for Greg during a shopping outing that summer.

Upon returning home, Greg rushed over to show me his new possession.  And to download the knowledge of the game he had gathered during the ride home from the store, the entirety of which was “You can run or you can pass.  And if you don’t punt on fourth down, you’re stupid.”

And so there we were, two eight-year-olds, not quite clear on what a punt or a down might be, but absolutely sure that not punting on fourth down was stupid.

In my recollection, our fascination with the football was short.  Perhaps our ballfield had been butchered, but the draw of the ball and bat remained strong.  However, the memory of that first encounter with a football never faded.

Over the years, I learned much more about the game of football, not only about punts and downs, but also about bubble screens, draw plays, and delayed blitzes.  And in the memory of that knowledge gain, I can see a foreshadowing of my growth as an urbanist.

Drivable suburbia is the equivalent of the rudimentary knowledge of football.  “Put the housing here, the retail over there, and the office park across town.  And if you don’t immediately start complaining about traffic, you’re stupid.”

Whereas walkable urban development, with its multiple and interrelated elements of transit access, walkable retail, urban plazas, sidewalk cafes, parking strategies, and varied housing options, is the equivalent of a fully-nuanced  understanding of football.

And just like a football team becomes more successful as it grasps and implements more elements of the game, so do cities thrive as they move beyond a rudimentary land-use model.

Some may wonder if Greg and I remain in contact after all these years.  Unfortunately, no.  My family moved to Northern California after my third grade year.  We came back to visit Greg and his family a year later.  But a year is a long time when one is ten.  Our interests and fourth grade experiences had taken us in different directions and we had little in common.  The long afternoons of playing on the grassy rectangle were irrevocably in the past.  I never saw him again.

Occasionally, I look for him on-line.  He’s now living near Las Vegas.  But I don’t feel motivated to contact him.  If we’d drifted apart as ten-year-olds, we’d be strangers in our 60s.  But I still remember the eight-year-old Greg with affection.  And I’ll never forget his judgment about punting on fourth down.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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