On the morning of our latest Great American Football Hangover, and on the day of the night of our last big bowl game, a few minutes on youth and possibility.
My boss asked me late last week if I "had any thoughts on the merits and demerits of the system in which Matt Barkley and Montee Ball decide to stay in college, while Alshon Jeffery and Ronnell Lewis declare for the NFL draft."
I did not.
I still don't. Not really, anyway. The NFL intake mechanism for its raw materials, the draft, requires very young men to make what seem like very important decisions. Its feeder league, big college football, suffers or benefits accordingly. The NFL gets what the NFL needs and wants because the NFL is the leading manufacturer of America's last successful product line, which is spectacle. Thanks to the great blond father, commissioner Roger Goodell, this will likely continue true for some decades to come, and The System As We Know It will remain The System As We Know It until acted upon by a more powerful universal force, which will be money.
School, as agents and uncles say, can wait.
Athletes burn bright and brief and every decision a serious player makes at the age of 12 or 18 or 20 seems now to ring with something like finality. And the one thing that struck me of my editor's question was that messrs. Ball and Barkley and Jeffery and Lewis are each 21 years old, and how much we ask of young men and young women when we require them to make life-altering decisions at that age. You make the choice not because you're ready to choose, but because someone tells you to make it.
And while I understand the momentous burdens of military service and the vote and legal drinking, of marriage and the right to sign a binding contract, at 21 I remember staring out the window of every coffee shop I wandered into, or into the mirror behind every bar, and wondering who in the world I was.
Identity crisis has always been the birthright of the (post)modern American. It's what accounts for the content of all first novels and the entirety of FM radio.
Artists and writers and accountants and plumbers succeed and fail early and late, but the window of opportunity for a poet or a painter or a regional sales manager opens in youth and usually stays open. A pro career ballin' is mostly over before the ink dries on the second contract.
Out of college, most of us start at the bottom, not the top, and most of us work our way up, not our way out. So going from big college football into the NFL has almost no parallel in ordinary life. Not the physical risks, not the commitment to pain, not the heartbreaking brevity. A career in ballet, maybe.
But it has an appealing simplicity. An athlete's future is always right now. An athlete's only hope is the present. His horizon is no farther from him than he can throw or bat or kick a ball. Seen from a distance it seems uncomplicated. In fact it's easy to mistake it for a kind of personal certainty.
And at 21 I wished desperately for that certainty, envied it, if only to know who I was and where I was going. Is mapping yourself into a limiting framework like football a kind of bravery? Or a kind of cowardice? Does it create order, or just the illusion of order? Is foolishness the defining characteristic of youth? Or is it only that the human brain remains unformed until much later than we ever thought?
As I grow older, there's comfort knowing that for every youthful lightning strike somewhere smolders an old, old fire. Einstein wrote up special relativity the year he turned 26, sure, and James Dean died at 24, and Sylvia Plath at 30. Mozart 35. But Vladimir Horowitz played his last concert at 84, and Saul Bellow published "Ravelstein" at 85, and it seems reasonable to me as I stare out the window of yet another coffee shop that I wait for Gabriel Garcia Marquez to deliver me another book before he's 86'ed. Keith Richards, somehow, is 68. Adele is 23 and Lady Gaga 25. Tim Tebow at this moment is 24 years old. How do we become who we are? How does anyone get where they're going? How much of Work is really Luck? How much of Effort Fate? Of Planning Chaos? Of Desire Faith?
In sports' illusion of certainty I often see some better version of my long gone self. How I wish I had been so sure of the world and its limits. So free of doubt.
Part of the attraction of Monday night's game -- of all games -- for me is to see youth served by that very certainty, by its own conviction that within the limits of the game and the night there is such a thing as cause and effect, such a thing as right and wrong.
What I worry for Barkley and Lewis and Jeffery and Ball, for you and for me and for Gaga and Tebow, is that it all comes and goes so fast. Not just youth or beauty or strength, but the illusion of order and its assurance of certainty and the incomparable promise of knowing at last why you're here.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.