So many things happening in the world right now, and all that springs to the pen is “Deflategate.” Do I care that the New England Patriots’ footballs mysteriously lost a few p.s.i. between the first quarter and halftime of their AFC Championship game versus the Indianapolis Colts? Am I joining the chorus of outrage over what people are calling “shenanigans,” if not outright cheating?

No, but it stirred a few memories. Sometimes you just write what you’ve got. Today, it’s nostalgia.

needleI played with underinflated or overinflated footballs most of my childhood. The genius who invented the scheme of injecting air into an inflatable ball (and it hasn’t evolved much since the glory days of Knute Rockne) decided it should be accomplished via a flimsy hand pump connected to a long, hollow aluminum needle. The needle was inserted into a tiny valve whose logical but inflationally-inconvenient mission was to remain tightly sealed at all costs. An Austrian weightlifter might generate the force necessary to push the needle through the valve, though the average American father would suffice if the needle was first moistened with a little saliva. Employing either the Austrian or the American, the action resulted, at best, in a needle bent into a right-angle. At worst, the needle would snap off inside the ball.

We rarely owned an air pump. When we did have a pump, it was usually missing the needle, which for some unknown reason was always sold with the ball, not the pump, and immediately lost because it was fastened to the ball with a microscopic strip of brittle cellophane tape manufactured in some hellish sweatshop on the other side of the globe. If we didn’t lose the needle, we stepped on it, which bent the needle into a right-angle or snapped it into two pieces in accordance with its design parameters.

flat-footballWhen some quantum instability in the fabric of our universe caused a working pump and an unbroken needle to be simultaneously present in the local space-time continuum, the pump never had a pressure gauge. The very idea was ludicrous. The only air pressure gauges of my acquaintance were attached to hoses at the local gas station, and those devices were useless for inflating footballs. Lacking any precise way to measure the amount of air inside the ball, we pumped until we couldn’t force any more air through the needle, or until our arms got tired. More frequently, we pumped until we broke both needle and pump and returned the universe to its proper equilibrium.

In any case, air pressure, over or under, did not perceptibly improve or degrade my gridiron performance. I can testify that an overinflated football bounced better than an underinflated one.

Most of my organized youth football took place among the misty redwood forests and sulphurous paper mills of Northern California, where it had just stopped raining, was raining, or was about to rain 90 percent of the time. Without tender loving care from an expert equipment manager, leather footballs disintegrated in this environment. Since we weren’t budgeted for a full-time manager, and our team’s storage facility was the coach’s leaky backyard tool shed, all the footballs we used were rubber. They were slicker than goose grease no matter how much or little air someone pumped into them. This did perceptibly degrade my performance.

It was a time before the advent of gloves fabricated with all-weather sticky materials. Our nearest equivalent was a generous coat of aerosol “spray bandage,” a substance remarkably efficient at adhering fingers to each other, rather less effective at adhering fingers to the ball, and useless in medical applications. No matter. We employed such weapons and took such advantages as we could find on our fields of friendly strife, though our local community frowned on using tacky spray to help grip the ball.

Consensus opinion held it was unmanly—and borderline shenanigans.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


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