When I was a girl, the only college football games on television on Saturday afternoon involved teams whose nicknames I did not understand (Sooners, Buckeyes) and whose players’ names all seemed to have not enough vowels. I had no connection to Oklahoma or Ohio, Nebraska or Notre Dame and it took me a long time to realize that I watched not for the competition itself, but for the broadcast. I watched so I could hear Keith Jackson.
I probably heard him call thousands of plays over the years, but there is one call – probably because it said less about football and more about life – that I will never forget. It was late in the game. The quarterback of the team that was trailing had not had a good game. He’d been intercepted. His completion percentage was negligible. He sat on the sidelines looking like, as Keith would probably have said, a whipped pup.
Conversation in the broadcast booth turned to whether the coach would, when his team got the ball back, put in another quarterback. The starter clearly didn’t have his best stuff. The back-up was pretty good. It would make a lot of sense. And maybe the back-up could surprise the defense. Maybe there was a miracle waiting to happen.
The camera got a close-up of the head coach — dressed in a coat and tie, notes rolled up in his hand, yelling out instructions as the offense took the field. And there was the quarterback, the starter, the struggling starter running out with them.
"Well," said Keith Jackson in that stentorian voice that never lost its Southern accent, "looks like the coach believes that you dance with the one what brung ya’."
I have no recollection of how the game ended, whether the quarterback crafted a storybook ending or walked away the goat. I remember only that with those few words, an expression that, surprisingly, I’d never heard before, Keith Jackson presented me with an axiom that over the years has become something like a koan, a paradox upon which to meditate, a question with more than one answer, a story that in the telling and re-telling I somehow get closer to intuitive truth.
On that day, that autumn Saturday so many years ago, I understood the story to be about loyalty. The coach put the starting quarterback in for the final set of downs because of a previously affirmed allegiance, a declared determination to perform certain acts in support of a common goal. The act may well have been less a demonstration of confidence than a dare to condemn. No matter what happened, no one could fault the man for being loyal.
It is another autumn Saturday and I am outside working in the yard. The car radio is tuned to the UGA pre-game show and the volume is turned up loudly enough for me to hear it as I re-set the concrete edgers around the hosta bed. One of the broadcasters mentions Keith Jackson, long retired to California and endless rounds of golf, and with that mention sends my mind careening back to the unnamed coach and the quarterback with whom he chose to dance. For the first time in a long time the koan appears, its feet (iamb, anapest, molossus) skipping, then tromping, then running breathlessly through my thoughts, looping around and around until I am nearly breathless myself.
I am staring at the clouds. They are high and white, appliques fused to the pale blue baby’s bib of the sky. It has been 40 years since I so assuredly analyzed the coach and the quarterback, their relationship and the dynamics of the moment Keith Jackson memorialized with a quaint colloquialism. I have experienced my share of interceptions; my statistics have been less than stellar in any number of categories. And I understand now, in this moment of re-examining and re-telling, that it was not simply loyalty that put the quarterback back on the field. It was trust.
Loyalty is strong, but it is often blind. Trust is its companion animal. It prevents loyalty from stepping out into traffic and alerts it to unexpected changes in the environment. Trust knows when to abandon calls for reason and disregard demands for explanation. Trust can see in the dark.
And when the game – or something more important – is on the line, it is that ability to see in the dark which will determine who gets to dance.