Timothy B. Spears is the vice president for academic development and a professor of American studies at Middlebury College. He is the author of 100 Years on the Road: The Traveling Salesman in American Culture and Chicago Dreaming: Midwesterners and the City, 1871–1929.
On Writing Spirals
Anyone who follows American sports knows that football is the ultimate team sport. When I began the first draft of Spirals: A Family’s Football Education (October 2018) I must have had this truism in mind because the result was a brief history of college football that covered all the salient facts but had little to say about the personal elements, the father-son dynamics that rooted the sport in my family. I knew I wanted to show why I, a third-generation Ivy League football player, had come to play the game, even to detail an anxiety dream I began to have in my forties, when I would wake up in the middle of the night, thinking I was back at Yale but then realizing I was really a middle-aged guy ill equipped to take the field. But the desire to reflect on my personal story took a backseat to my fascination with the sport’s institutional history. Consequently, my first attempt to write this book buried the lede.
To an extent, my challenge was stylistic and literary. I struggled to find the right proportion of family stories and cultural history, to know when to use the first or third person, and to modulate the voice of “I” when I wanted to speak from a personal perspective. Given my academic training, my instinct was to maintain a critical pose, resisting the call to memoir that friends encouraged me to consider. But I also wonder if my years playing football reinforced my reluctance to embrace the personal. After all, I had played on the offensive line for eight years, ten if you count junior high school. I knew my job on the team was to block and support, not to pick up the ball and run (at Yale, we linemen were called “toads”). So how could I imagine myself as an author and highlight my own story?
But I had a good history to tell. My grandfather was an All-American guard at Dartmouth in 1915, who after graduation played on the Canton Bulldogs with Jim Thorpe, attended medical school, and then had a Hall-of-Fame coaching career at several major universities during the 1920s and 30s. My father, on the other hand, was a fullback and linebacker, a BMOC athlete who captained the Yale football team in the 1950s, was tapped by Skull and Bones, but contracted polio when he was twenty-six. Although he walked with a pronounced limp for the remainder of his life, his golden athletic career, along with my grandfather’s minor celebrity status—he coached the legendary Bronko Nagurski at the University of Minnesota—formed the mythic backdrop for my own upbringing. Of course, I played football, and, of course, I went to Yale and played the game there. Of course, that feeling of inevitability is also a myth, the product of the unusual intertwining of sports and education in my family history, a narrative that is peculiarly American if only because the United States is the only nation in the world where athletics play such a prominent role in higher education.
Ultimately, I realized I had to write in a more personal voice in order to tell my family’s history. Eventually, I reorganized my chronological narrative into smaller chapters that go back and forth in time, a format that allowed me to draw connections and make distinctions across generations. All the while, I tried to keep my primary subject in focus: the powerful ways in which football shaped the educational opportunities for the males in my family. If I have been true to this history and done my job well, Spirals may offer insights that are almost as big as the game we played.