There’s something about football that just lends itself to the melodramatic emotions of our youth. It’s the closest socially acceptable approximation to gladiatorial combat young men in our modern civilized world can pursue, and as such, it tends to hold an honored place in our hearts. The gridiron is where we proved our mettle; Where we found that toughness within us we always hoped was there.
And then, just like that, it’s gone. For most of us, football ends right around when real life begins, and you’re left with no choice but to trade in your pads and passion for a steady job and a pile of bills. Although I once had college football aspirations, an injury cost me that opportunity, and I found myself working as a race mechanic alongside a dozen other “coulda beens”–if only we’d made that one last tackle, dodged that one block, or chased the dream while our knees were still strong enough to hack it.
I joined the Marine Corps at 21 years old and with no intention of finding my way back onto the field. I had found my way to rugby after my college football “career” ended, but as I checked in to my first duty station at 29 Palms, California, neither was on my mind. That is, until I noticed the battalion team practicing just a few blocks away from my barracks room.
The next season, I earned myself a starting spot on the battalion team, which led to a spot on the base team, and eventually, to the first of two Marine Corps championships. Those successes, however, were hard earned… as playing ball for the Corps wasn’t quite like it had been back home in the hills of Vermont.
You’re playing against Marines, some of whom are battle-hardened veterans.
As Al Pacino once so eloquently put it, football is a game of inches. For all the strategy, practice, and technique involved, football is one of the few places left that sheer toughness remains a high-value commodity. Sometimes, when everything else is even, it’s the guy that’s willing to hurt that’ll get the job done. Sometimes you have to choose between the game and your safety. Knowing that reaching for that ball thrown across the flats against a zone defense will almost certainly mean taking a helmet to the sternum and choosing to do it anyway isn’t something you’re taught. It’s just who you are.
In most leagues, you’ll be lucky to find a few players willing to throw their bodies into the grinder for a “W.” In the Marine Corps, we already live in the grinder. Infantry units field teams between combat deployments, Marines attend football practices between training rotations in martial arts and on the rifle range. Mental and physical toughness is a prerequisite to success in the Corps, and as such, the playing field is ripe with men willing to hurt in order to achieve their goals.
Service members thrive on competition (and that can really suck).
Playing football in the Marine Corps comes with a level of competitive social pressure that can really only be compared to some high-level college teams. When you’re on a squad with a shot at some trophies, you’re representing more than the team itself, you’re representing your unit. The commanding general may not give a sh*t about your last inspection, but he does about the score of this week’s game. A slew of wins can make you feel like a celebrity, but a bad loss can make you ashamed to show your face at work… or in front of your commanding officer.
Marines, perhaps more than other services, are in a perpetual state of competition. Like Ricky Bobby, if we aren’t first, we’re last… and nobody’s going to let you forget it.
The Corps always comes first.
If you play football for a successful college program, you’re expected to keep up with your grades, but otherwise, the sport is your job. Marine Corps football can be a lot like that–with the obligations of the sport occasionally taking precedence over other duties (like when you go TAD/TDY for away games), but at the end of the day, the Marine Corps is a warfighting institution.
Infantry units, for instance, often had their seasons cut short by field requirements or combat deployments. Players on your team would be pulled from the roster to augment a deploying unit. Last season’s star quarterback may miss this season because he has to travel for training or worse, because he’s been injured or killed since we last took the field. Football is a way of life for most that love the sport, but nothing supersedes the Corps. We’re Marines first, football players second, and if we’re lucky, we eventually get to be old men writing stories about our days with an Eagle, Globe, and Anchor on our helmets.