by Elizabeth deGraw Renna

If you can believe it (and bear with me), I’m actually going to write about football.

Inspiration can strike at odd moments. Or maybe I will qualify that a bit and explain that sometimes an experience or situation will trigger an idea or pique my curiosity and I feel compelled to explore it and to explore the words involved. Sometimes after I’m struck by something, the words and ideas just start coming, of their own free will it seems, and the only thing I can do is take notes.

I say all that first to prepare you – and myself – for some reflections related to or inspired by a moment right before a football game started on TV a couple weeks ago. I support my state’s team and watch their games every Saturday with my significant other, but that’s about the extent of my football interest. (I didn’t know the rules of the game until I got married!)

So, here’s that moment in time: It was the tail end of the pregame show and the network was showing the home team out on the field (not my team, by the way). They weren’t warming up by throwing and catching balls to each other or by running practice plays. What they were doing caught my eye because it seemed so unusual to me. The players were all lined up in neat rows on the field, facing the stadium of fans, and they were warming up the crowd! They seemed to be following a choreographed series of warm up moves that were half exercise and half dance moves. The crowd was right with them, also moving to this exercise/dance pattern that only they knew, team and crowd of fans together. I have never seen something like that before and I was struck by the tradition or the ritual feel to it.

Tradition, noun

– A custom handed down

– A set of such customs viewed as a coherent body of precedents influencing the present

Ritual, noun

– The prescribed form of a ceremony

– A ceremonial act or a series of such acts

– A customary or regular procedure

Custom, noun

– A practice followed by people of a particular group or region

So, traditions as in customs handed down. Customs as in practices followed by people of a particular group and this group’s habitual practices. Some sports-related examples might include:

* The pep rally on Fridays before high school games.

* Having a band in the stadium (I wonder how that tradition originated?) for the purpose of getting the crowd excited and supporting the team. The band, I’ve noticed, responds with specific songs depending on what’s happening in the game. Touchdowns are celebrated with the school song, whose words avid fans know. Some bands play ominous or suspenseful sounding music right before a kickoff or punt, perhaps trying to rattle the opposing team a bit. Some teams fire a cannon or trot a mascot dog or horse around the field every time there’s a touchdown. My state’s crowd ritual is to release helium balloons in the team’s color to celebrate the first touchdown. Bad for the environment, probably, but very celebratory.

As the Saturday game began I couldn’t help myself from taking a few notes, so the list of rituals or traditional customs grew:

* The celebratory chest bumps and “leaping chest bumps” that players exchange after a touchdown is made or an amazing play unfolds that saves the moment from disaster.

* People in the stadium spinning towels of support or giving each other high fives for great plays made on the field. Particular gestures of support, like a tight-fisted, crossed-arms gesture that my team uses to urge the defense on.

And then I thought about the rituals that individual athletes engage in: lucky shirts worn under their uniforms, a customary way of getting dressed in a certain order, kneeling in the end zone in a ritual of thanks. I noticed that day that the kicker on the opposing team always squeezed the football in a particular way and then, backing away from the ball slightly, he would jump one time, body low but knees coming up high, his personal ritual of warming up and preparing to kick the ball.

I could probably go on.

I’m sure there are similar rituals and customs that could be described and explored for every sport, for every individual team and their fans. Traditions, rituals, and customs bring a group of people together. There’s a feeling of familiarity as rituals are enacted and a feeling of “We’re in this together”. I think the customs and rituals are a big part of the appeal of being a “fan”.