Despite these critical cautions, idolatry and worldliness are not the whole story, not by a long shot. Evil exists only by corrupting that which is good, and in football there remains considerable good to be savored and preserved. Football, to put it differently, may lead not to the forfeiture of grace but to a richer experience of it. And like most experiences of grace, it involves people and takes root in a place. For me, that place is Pittsburgh.
Having lived here for eight years now, I sense more fully the region's rhythms, the slow shifting of seasons and sports, each sport with its season, each season incomplete without its sports. The traditions surrounding high school football run especially deep, I've learned. In our introductory history class, I require students to write research papers and urge them to use local sources. It's the world of football that many of the local kids turn to, rooting out the legends and stories, investigating and re-telling tales of yore. The most memorable papers recount the students' own participation in rituals and rivalries that go back decades, often to the early 20th century.
These young researchers are, I think, laying hold of a way to keep faith with the world of their childhood. This world was, at its best, a place of grace, with football near to the heart of it. College, they uneasily sense, offers not a way to settle into what they know but a course that will shake them from it. The authors they read, the people they meet, the training they acquire: Much of it prepares them for departure from their homes—especially likely given the area's declining economic fortunes in these post-industrial, post-local United States. In this uncertain climate, high school football feels like the ground itself. So they dig in.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are a touchstone, providing Pittsburghers with a sense of place no matter where they live. No matter where they must go.