The Fourth Down©Averyell A. Kessler

It’s finally football season and time to fess up. I am an addicted, sports page reading, ESPN watching, college football dependent, who lives for Saturday kickoffs, Corso’s headgear pick, and late-night re-caps. I can describe a spread option, dissect the AP and Coaches polls with my sons, as well as the guys in the grocery store, and know that a flea flicker has nothing to do with insects. I also know the importance of the fourth down, especially in a make or break, white knuckle, win or lose Armageddon battle. My father taught me.
When I was ten, Daddy took me to my first football game. I had no idea what would happen. During the glory days of Jackson’s exciting double headers at Memorial Stadium, the draw was irresistible. As soon as the SEC came to town, he immediately purchased season tickets. On a shiny bright day in October, we climbed into our Chevy and headed to Memorial Stadium, just the two of us. Can’t remember whether Ole Miss or Miss State played that afternoon, but we cheered for the home team. As we pulled into the stadium parking lot, I heard college football for the first time. Bah, bah, boom, bah, bah bum! The deep thunder of bass drums surrounded our car.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s the band,” he answered, “Look. Here they come.” We parked and watched as hundreds of musicians in sparking uniforms and tall plumed caps marched in front of us. When the drum major blew his whistle and raised his mace, the buzz of snare drums ricocheted across the parking lot. Trumpets shook the sky and fluttering piccolos played in counterpoint to the melody. Wow! I was excited, and I hadn’t seen the first play. This was the fourth of July, a Christmas parade and the state fair all rolled into one. Daddy took my hand and we joined the tidal wave of humanity flowing toward the stadium entrance. He purchased icy cokes, parched peanuts wrapped in brown paper and we climbed steep stairs, found our seats and settled in. The bleachers were hard, narrow, and long way from the field. The sun was a fiery furnace; we were hot, breathless and packed in together like baled cotton, but I didn’t care. It was a fun cracking the peanuts, digging out the goodies, and dropping the shells on the floor. At one o’clock sharp, players burst onto the field, and the game began. Midway through the first quarter, I asked a question.
“I don’t understand,” I said. Both teams had made several fruitless trips up and down the field. The band wasn’t playing, the crowd was lethargic and sweating like sun burnt hogs. I was losing interest. “What’s happening?”
“Each team gets four chances to go ten yards,” he answered. “If they do, they can keep the ball and try to score. If they don’t, the other team takes the ball. Each chance is called a down.” Then he added, “nobody wants to give up the ball – ever!”
That’s football, in a nutshell. A gridiron guidebook for the uninitiated. As Daddy patiently answered my unending questions, I began to watch more carefully. Soon I knew who the quarterback was, the difference between offense and defense, and why the kicker was so important. It was a treat to see the cheerleaders shake pom poms and turn cartwheels, as well as watch coaches shout, wave their arms, and pace up and down the side lines. “I like this,” I thought. Then our team scored. It happened suddenly as a home team as a player burst from the pack and galloped down the field like a racing greyhound. The fans went crazy, the band revved into overdrive, and I jumped up and down crunching peanut shells into oblivion. I don’t know if Daddy realized that his young daughter would evolve into a fanatic fan so quickly, but there I was, cheering my heart out. Happily, the home team won
On the way home, it was Daddy’s turn to ask a question. “How did you like the game? “ He already knew the answer.
“I loved it!” I was breathless. “Can I go again.”
“Sure,” he replied. “That last touchdown was a humdinger!”
“Yes. And we won!” I said, speaking the finest words in sports fan lingo.
“What if they hadn’t gone for that last fourth down?” he asked.
“I was afraid they’d kick the ball to the other team,” I answered.
“Not always,” he said. “Sometimes, you just have to take a chance and go for it.”
Boom. Another lesson in a nutshell. You’re right, Daddy. Sometimes you have to take a chance and go for it.
I left the stadium with a sunburned nose, a cotton candy face, and a thorough knowledge of every bathroom in the immediate area. I fell asleep that night with bass drums still booming in my brain, as well as the jubilant roar of the crowd as a single player ripped down the field and the stadium erupted. It was one of the last wonderful daddy/daughter days we spent together before growing up barged in and I became too sophisticated to go anywhere with my father. But he introduced me to a lifelong interest in sports as well as the infinite pleasure of seeing the real thing up close, of listening to crowd and the infinite joy of watching someone burst from the pack. He gave good advice too. “Sometimes you just have to take a chance and go for it.”

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