Twice now, as I enter my forties, I have picked up a new sport. First I took up tennis, which I have always enjoyed watching and is known to be a game one can play well into the gray-haired years. And a couple months ago I started playing Gaelic football, a bruising, I hope not bone-crushing, but definitely high-speed, um, melee more than an actual sport, which perhaps no one of any age should play and about which I knew almost nothing.
I would plead sentimental reasons for taking up an Irish sport, except that I am not at all sentimental about my ethnicity. And yet as I recently limped home from practice, foreseeing a bruise spreading across my ribs in the shape of my friend Tom’s arm, exactly as it had struck me during a ball-handling exercise, a popular saying about my ancestors came to mind. From a poem by G.K. Chesterton, it says the Irish are the ones “that God made mad, for all their wars are happy and all their songs are sad.”
Gaelic football is a game for happy warriors.
The rules might have been devised by someone who kinda liked soccer but had trouble staying awake. In addition to moving the ball with your feet, you can catch it with your hands and pass it by punching it or drop-kicking it. When running with the ball, you must, every four steps, drop it down to your toe and kick it back to yourself or bounce it. It’s not required that you punch, strike, or molest other players, but it seems to happen a lot.
During the first few practices, I froze whenever I got the ball. The summer heat made it tough going, but even more so the presence of these men, a couple of whom might be chest models for superhero comic book illustrators. Most are several years my junior, one or two still wearing jerseys from college football or wrestling programs as they claw at my arms and knock me with their rock-hard shoulders.
And the moves of this sport were completely unfamiliar. I felt like someone who, while getting mugged, tries out a self-defense technique he read about in the Sunday paper. Often I wondered why I came back for more.
I said I was not sentimental about my ancestry, but some things do get me. Crazy old Irish guys who call grown men lads and spout terrific nonsense without pause, all while dispensing canny advice—that kind of thing, I admit, does get me.
Our club had one, it turned out. When I showed up for my first official game, he was standing on the side of the field with a stringy mane of gray hair, a curious handlebar mustache, and a hand extended in my direction. “That’s a champion smile you got there,” he said in a thick brogue. “Protect it at all costs. It’s your most dangerous weapon.”
It was a big day for the club. For the first time ever, we were fielding a full 13 players. Only we had no substitutes; still, it was a milestone.
Our captain is this thin, handsome guy, very organized, a fine athlete, but who always seems a tad pensive as he goes about building his team. His brother came that day, surly, yelling at the refs, and speaking in a mock Irish brogue when the other team’s captain called him out for throwing elbows. And we had a fan. The captain’s redheaded girlfriend, dressed perhaps for cocktails in the Hamptons, stood alone on the sidelines cheering absurdly even as we were many points down.
The most I can say for myself is that I kept my defenders too busy to help double-team any of the better players on my squad. And though I was intimidated by one opponent who put his thick fingers to my Adam’s apple in a deft show of gratuitous malice, I took great pleasure in the sight of him, during the second half, wrestling on the ground with one of the brawlers from my own team.
My smile remained more or less intact; my 41-year-old body less so. I learned that I need to be the cat burglar of footballers, sneaky, fast, and light on my feet, because I am not going to overcome anyone with my strength, and I really don’t like getting punched.
The best part is that while I am dodging giants and screaming for the ball I am totally undistracted. The needling questions that poke and prod at my fragile ego—Will I succeed professionally? Will my wife and kids continue to love me? Am I wearing enough sunscreen?—are on the sidelines with my cell phone and car keys.
The worst part is that my days as a Gaelic footballer are probably numbered. So it is fortunate that I also like tennis.