Sport as theatre is far from a new concept. After all, sport is, at its best and most pure form, drama. With its cast of thousands, there are heroes and villains. There is melodrama, tension, excitement and, inevitably, tragedy.
Thinking back in recent times it is remarkable quite how many of the playoff games in the NFL that we have witnessed which not only live long in the memory but provide sub-plots, intrigue, controversy and those very ingredients that make theatre such a compelling medium.
The excellent book ‘America’s Game’ by Michael McCambridge, the meticulous and detailed account of the development and growth of the NFL from its infancy over the course of half a century to the all-encompassing global entity of today, highlights the vision of the NFL’s first commissioner, Pete Rozelle, in his envisaging of the impact that TV would have in transforming the sport throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
Transforming sport as theatre into living rooms exploded the popularity and aura of the NFL, just as Rozelle anticipated. TV (and its modern day extensions) alone cannot sustain this theatre, though. It facilitates it, but is not the reason for it. The game is what counts. And this is what the NFL playoffs continually deliver.
And the past weekend’s wild-card round of games did so in spades. And in doing so they saved the best until last.
What narrative there was. A night game under lights at Soldier Field. Two iconic franchises. Underdog stories. A back and forth battle. The hero (Nick Foles). And of course, the villain (Cody Parkey).
It was the culmination of a slate of games that bucked the trend of the vibrant young tyros. Defense stymied offense; points were at a premium. But when it mattered, as the final act beckoned, at Soldier Field, both offenses flickered into life.
Mitchell Trubisky shook off his struggles to allow the Bears to dream. Foles, though, the leading man, of course, was not to be outdone. He leapt back into action, went to the well once more to conjure up yet more magic and put the Eagles ahead. His accomplice, Golden Tate, repaid the Eagles the draft picks they gave up to secure his services mid-season.
Yet, remarkably, we were not done. Trubisky rallied once more and the Bears were back. The final act had one more twist. And what a cruel and fatal blow it was. It was as devastating a finale as any of the great composers could muster.
Who knows what Parkey, who had nailed his first shot that was called back due to the Eagles icing him, was thinking. Did it create doubts? Did he alter his trajectory? Whatever it was, the infamy was his. His name in the annals of history. A dozen headlines. A thousand curses.
It is no more than a couple of seconds but feels like an eternity. The ball snapped. The kick is struck. And you can only wait. A faint drift and the blow is struck. Not once, but twice. First the upright, then the crossbar. Elation. Despair. The victors. The vanquished. We catch our breath. We move on.
It is this that keeps us coming back. It is for happenings like that which keeps us hooked on the spectacle. It is this where the NFL keeps on delivering game after game, year after year. It is that theatre. It was what Rozelle imagined.
No other sport delivers quite like it. Here’s to the rest of the playoffs.