poems about football

2 posts

Football and Poetry: As Natural as Pepperoni and Pizza

If you polled one hundred high school football players, asking how well football and poetry go together, you’d probably find unanimous agreement that they don’t. Emphatic agreement, even. Shut-up-and-pass-the-eye-black agreement, I dare say.

But sometimes youth has much to learn. If you polled one hundred 50-year-old men who played high school football “back in the day” (as everyone says “up in this day”), you’d find a more nuanced response. Some would better understand the poetry in hiking and hitting, rushing and passing, kicking and scoring.

In fact, I’ve traveled this gridiron before, sharing three football-themed poems, including one of my own. Then, upon receiving a copy of Al Ortolani’s new chapbook, Hansel & Gretel Get the Word on the Street, from Rattle, I found another good football poem.

The theme of this chapbook is high school in general, which makes sense when you learn that Al Ortolani taught English for 43 years (eclipsing my record by a whopping 18 years, bless him).

But it’s the 17th poem in the chapbook that gave me pause. In poetry, pause is good. It means a poem is on to something bigger than itself. It means the reader is thinking, “Hmn.” It means the reader is about to become that special being he likes to be — the rereader.

Thus, along with the three you can find via the link above, I’m adding Ortolani’s poem to the Super Bowl Hall of Poetry Fame. (I can because I own it.) In simple terms, it finds a simple truth about football and what the game means to boys who take it seriously. It originally appeared in Aethlon: The Journal of Sports Literature. See what you think:


Game Prayer
Al Ortolani

Maybe it’s the way boys
look at each other before the last game,
their eyes wet and glimmering with rain.

Maybe it’s that I catch them
in these shy moments of waiting,
turning the world like a pigskin,

flipping it nonchalantly, low spiral
drilling the air. Maybe it’s this
moment before the splash of lights

before the game prayer
before you run from the door.
If so, forgive me

for seeing you so vulnerable,
in that quiet moment
before the helmets.


True, football is a team sport and feeds off the energy and will of the group, but it’s bigger than that. It has individual meaning to each player, a meaning each kid would be hard-pressed to put into words. Because words like “shy” and “vulnerable” wouldn’t come to mind. Because they don’t seem to belong.

And yet they do.

Poems Inspired by Football

Did you know that Super Bowl Monday—the day following the N.F.L.’s championship game—is the most called-in sick day in the United States? Talk about the tail (football) wagging the dog (country)!

As for those going to work, they will no doubt burn some water-cooler time discussing the merits of Super Bowl commercials, even to the point of grading them. So get your red pens out, fans, and see if you agree with the Chicago Tribune‘s writer.

As for me, football is mostly a reminder of my youth. And apparently I’m not alone. Here are three football-inspired poems, the last by me, and the first by people more famous than me (for me it’s 4th and 20 with a minute on the clock—but hope, and apparently Tom Brady, are eternal!):


Football Dreams
by Jacqueline Woodson

No one was faster
than my father on the football field.
No one could keep him
from crossing the line. Then
touching down again.
Coaches were watching the way he moved,
his easy stride, his long arms reaching
up, snatching the ball from its soft pockets
of air.

My father dreamed football dreams,
and woke up to a scholarship
at Ohio State University.
Grown now
living the big-city life
in Columbus
just sixty miles
from Nelsonville
and from there
Interstate 70 could get you
on your way west to Chicago
Interstate 77 could take you south
but my father said
no colored Buckeye in his right mind
would ever want to go there.

From Columbus, my father said,
you could go just about


First Practice
by Gary Gildner

After the doctor checked to see
we weren’t ruptured,
the man with the short cigar took us
under the grade school,
where we went in case of attack
or storm, and said
he was Clifford Hill, he was
a man who believed dogs
ate dogs, he had once killed
for his country, and if
there were any girls present
for them to leave now.
No one
left. OK, he said, he said I take
that to mean you are hungry
men who hate to lose as much
as I do. OK. Then
he made two lines of us
facing each other,
and across the way, he said,
is the man you hate most
in the world,
and if we are to win
that title I want to see how.
But I don’t want to see
any marks, when you’re dressed,
he said. He said, Now.


And finally, my own entry, from my most recent book Lost Sherpa of Happiness:

Trip, Memory
Ken Craft

It starts with the sound of a whistle.
The smell of cigar smoke
riding bareback on October air.
The cheerleaders’ “We got the T-E-AYY-M,”
the dry prayer of their pom-poms.
Me and the boys, uniformly cool—brave
in our home whites and eye black,
our grass-scarred helmets,
our nonfunctional mouthguards,
throwing Hail Mary’s and dropping f-bombs,
our bodies bolting
and dangerous with weedy want.

That’s all it takes—a somewhere referee’s
somehow whistle. I’m 13 again.
I haven’t even begun to think about thinking.
The smell of tobacco is a promise,
nothing foreboding.
And the sight of fallen, windblown leaves
rolling toward my cleats is just that
because my veins breathe and bulge as Coach yells
and my blood hits hard to feel the bruise of pleasure
and there’s no such thing as symbolism
because death is only something cowboys
and Indians do on black and white TV.


NOTE: Want to read a fourth football-themed poem? Jump ahead to this post I wrote later  which includes a football poem by Al Ortolani.