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When Five Minutes Take 20

A Guide to Sharing Football With Your Mate

by Charlie Hudson


“ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?” sings Hank Williams, Jr. in the opening moments of Monday Night Football – words which generate shouts of enthusiasm from your mate and send you to the second, no doubt smaller, television in search of something like “Sleepless in Seattle”.

But if, like many of us, you really don’t want to lose contact with your significant other from the pre-season games of August until the Super Bowl in January, this is a handy guide designed to help you follow the game. It has taken me a number of years, but I have learned to enjoy football enough to comfortably share some of that time with my husband.

I should emphasize one important point before I proceed. There are varying degrees of football fever and if your partner is one who becomes affixed to the television, seeking out any game played on any channel at any time of the night or day, you probably don’t need to read this guide since it might be easier to catch up on all your projects, go shopping or whatever.

That said, let’s start at the beginning. A game is divided into four quarters, each fifteen minutes long with a half-time break of twenty minutes.  That should mean a game lasts one hour and twenty minutes, but it doesn’t work that way.

The twenty minutes during half-time are twenty clock minutes, like any normal activity. The fifteen minutes of each quarter, however, are game minutes, which means the game clock only counts the seconds that the ball is in play. Therefore, the clock stops for things like when the ball is run out of bounds, a player is injured or other similar events. Each team is also allowed to call three time outs per half, so the game clock doesn’t count that time either. In other words, the 15 minutes in each quarter usually takes 30 minutes, or more, of regular time. That’s why a football games lasts for at least three hours and why you shouldn’t start something tricky like a Béarnaise sauce when your mate tells you there’s only four minutes left in a game.

Speaking of food; this can be a contentious issue. I’ve learned that even though the half-time provides an alleged pause for meals, the half-time show with scores and highlights from other games is equally distracting. The key to a smooth mealtime is to plan foods that either sit and simmer in case the game goes into overtime, or better yet, eat in view of the television with no thought of dinner conversation. My greatest successes have been lasagna, chili, gumbo, stews and sandwich fixings. Pizza is of course the easy way out, and don’t forget critical grazing items of chips, popcorn, nuts and pretzels. There’s a good chance that after your partner has eaten two entire bags of corn chips with salsa, there won’t be room for the Duck a L’Orange you lovingly prepared.

But back to watching football. Each team is divided into an offense, defense, and special teams. The offense is where the quarterback plays, the defense comes on when the other team has possession of the ball, and the special teams are on at different times, but always when the ball is first kicked. Now, there is a dizzying array of terms such as guards, tackles, receivers, backs, linemen, etc., which are continuously thrown about and an area of on-going education. What it comes down to is that no more than eleven players from each team can be on the field during the time of play.

The game always begins with a toss of a coin. Whichever team wins the toss has a choice. They can have the football kicked to them by the opposing team or they can kick the ball to the other team. A team can only score points if they are in possession of the ball, so usually whomever wins the toss wants to have the ball kicked to them.

Next you have what is referred to as drives and plays. The whole idea in football is to move the ball down the field in order to score. We’ll talk about scoring in a moment. Anyway, from the time a team has the football, they have four chances (downs) to move the ball at least 10 yards, which makes the first down. (This may be strange since you get four downs to make a first down, but it makes sense to football fans.)

If the team in possession of the ball can’t move the ball 10 yards or more, then they have to give the ball to other team and then they have four chances (downs). If they can make the first down, they retain possession of the ball and keep going until they either can’t make the first down, or they score. The drive includes all the time they have the ball and it may be a successful drive, which results in a score, or it may be an unsuccessful drive, which results in the other team getting the football. Each time they do something with the football, it is a play.

The team also chooses whether they want to pass (throw) the football or run it (keep it on the ground). These kinds of decisions lead to hours of discussion as fans and commentators talk about game strategies, the wisdom of selecting passing or running, the merits of how teams conduct the plays and so forth.

Now, during the drive, you can have a turnover, which is not a pastry, but is when the team who has the ball does something wrong and allows the other team to legally get the ball. The most frequent reasons are because the quarterback throws a pass that someone on the other teams intercepts or someone carrying the ball fumbles it and an opposing team member grabs it. There are many rules, however, which impact when one of the referees determines a turnover has occurred. These determinations can also be a source of arguments for players and fans alike.

This then brings us to the subject of penalties, one of the basic causes of emotional outbursts. For a game that fundamentally consists of large men slamming into each other, there are an incredible number of rules. The correct players must line up in the correct place at the beginning of every play and the tackling, running, and impact of two hundred and eighty-five pound linemen are governed by complex regulations. If you watch football often, you can begin to understand some of the simple ones, like offsides, when one player jumps forward too soon and no one else is moving. Many other rules, such as what is, and is not, pass interference can be confusing. Just be prepared for reactions any time a referee throws a yellow flag onto the field to indicate a penalty. Working through penalties also stops the game clock, by the way.

All right, let’s say a team has driven the ball, gotten several first downs using their offense successfully against the other team’s defense -- see how you’re catching on? -- and now they are close to the end zone, the area at the goal posts. A player has to cross into the end zone, in full possession of the football, to score a touchdown. In this case, cross into really means get the football into, so that if the player is tackled with his body outside the end zone, but he’s holding the ball inside, it counts.

A touchdown in worth six points. After the touchdown the scoring team gets another choice. They can have their kicker go for the extra point, worth one point, or try to pass/run the football again for two points. Their best chance for success is with kicking, so that’s what most teams choose.

The other scoring situation is a field goal. Let’s say the team got close to the end zone, but could not make it into the end zone before the fourth down. If they are close enough, the kicker will come out and try a field goal, which means he kicks the football from wherever the ball was at the end of the third try (down), and hopefully gets it between the goal posts. A field goal is worth three points, but the team doesn’t get to try for an extra point after a field goal. I have no idea why, but that’s the way the game is scored.

Now that we have covered the fundamentals, there is one final word about the length of football season. The regular college season runs September through the beginning of December. Between December and New Year’s Day are the College Bowl games which are played between selected teams that are supposed to be the top teams in the country.

Professional season is longer and starts with pre-season and exhibition games in August; the regular season is September through December and the playoff season lasts until mid-January. The teams in the playoffs will be narrowed to only two teams that compete in the Super Bowl late in January. As you probably already know, the Super Bowl is essentially sacred.  It may also be the perfect time for you to surprise your mate by actually watching the game while a savory pot of chili or stew bubbles aromatically on the stove (all right, you order pizza instead). You sympathize when the referee makes a bad call and nod in understanding when the favored team completes a winning drive.

So the next time Hank Williams, Jr. shouts, “Are You Ready for Some Football?” you can reply, “Not always, but every now and then it’s okay.”