It begins on a familiar patch of ground. The front lawn. The backyard. Maybe the vacant lot next door. Uncle Joe Bob Jim throws a pass. An 8-year-old cradles the ball between his forearms and chest. When the 8-year-old learns to throw it back with a spiral, ecstasy kicks in.
So a game of catch is how it starts. But the older relative is soon replaced by other kids. Huddles start to take shape--in the wheatfields and cornfields of the Midwest, on the prairies of Texas, along the beaches of the West and South, even in the streets of the East and North.
Young quarterbacks quickly assert their qualities of leadership. They draw pass routes in the dirt with Popsicle sticks. Socially, an evolution occurs. Kids who can run, catch and throw inherit the "skilled" positions. Fat kids and slow kids are assigned the menial tasks of snapping the ball, or getting in somebody's way.
In neighborhood football, there are no double down-and-ins, no Z-42 Blows, no stunting 3-4 defenses. Only a self-appointed quarterback, saying: "Bubba, you go to the blue Chevy and cut for the fireplug. Eddie Joe, you fake to the flower bed and take off for the cedar tree. Rest of you block. Burrell, if you hup it to me too low again, I'll kick your ass."
In the meantime, many of America's young ladies are learning about eye shadow and practicing kick turns, dreaming of some glittery moment as a UCLA song girl or a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader.
It is one of life's continuing mysteries that pep squads never lose their pep. . . . The high school team can be down by 42 points in the fourth quarter, but on the sideline a cluster of bouncy blondes or brunettes will be chanting:
Tuck in your shirt.
Pull up your pants.
Come on, boys,
You still got a chance!
Maybe it has something to do with the teacher, the demanding woman who always seems to be in charge of the pep squad: Magda Goebbels.
"You're not doing it right, Martha Ann!" the teacher bellows. "Either do it like Susie does it or go to study hall!"
Martha Ann examines Susie with envy. Susie is a siren. All the moves, a hand on her curvy hip. Martha Ann would like to imitate Susie, but something within her won't permit it. What Martha Ann wants to explain to the teacher, although she doesn't know how yet, is that Susie is 14, going on 30--a bimbo ahead of her time. . . .
Two paths lead to the stardom of high school, college and the pros. One requires more imagination. That's the sandlot game. The other requires more discipline. That's organized kiddie football, principally the Pop Warner League, the counterpart of Little League baseball.
Launched back in 1929 by a Philadelphia stockbroker and named for the venerable old coach at Carlisle, Stanford and Temple University, Pop Warner football now encompasses more than 4,000 teams in 37 states and Mexico, the warriors ranging in age from 7 to 14.
In organized football, the 8- or 10-year-old may seem bewildered at times, but he'll surely look stylish in his globular helmet and $200 worth of vinyl, polyurethane and rayon gear.
If the kid likes to "hit," he'll soon find that loyalty, teamwork and the competitive urge have become built-in character traits.
Along the way, he'll experience many emotions. He'll know what it's like to hear a shrill whistle being blown at him by an ominous figure in a striped shirt. He'll hear muscular coaches yelling at him. And he'll also be swept up in the adoration that flows from the grandstands. Mostly, he'll learn to pick himself up off the ground. . . .
But it's not all streamlined uniforms and the cheers of family and friends. . . .
At some point in his teen-age years he will undoubtedly have to ask himself if it's truly worth it to hear the following lecture on the sideline from a furious grownup.
"Billy Joe, you ain't got a gut in your body. You've let your team down, your folks down, your coaches down. You've embarrassed the whole community. Now I'm gonna give you one more chance to go in there and hurt somebody. . . . And if you don't, you're gonna be runnin' laps and doin' push-ups till your pecker drops off!"
Thus, in the grand tradition of American athletic encouragement, men are molded, stars are born.
Excerpted from the book "Football," photographs by Walter Iooss Jr., text by Dan Jenkins, to be published this month by Harry N. Abrams Inc., New York. All rights reserved.