Sunday, May 27, 2012

NY Jets #61 - Part 3

The Jets appeared to have drafted Greg Gunter #61 as a center-guard in 1985 from CW Post, and yet there are few mentions about him as a professional football player, except in little notes added to articles about Mark Gastineau. The web site FamousWhy, which offers the kind of spectrum analysis of worldwide human fame that I think an unknowing alien species would perform if it wanted to understand Earth culture, lists him as a "Taurus." FamousWhy lists most people as "personalities," which according to them means politicians' wives, models or porn actors. Greg Gunter is an "athlete." We are, all of us, possibly one of those things, or all of them, whether we know it or not. (I have no idea what that means.)

George Lilja #61 appears to be none of those things. In fact, the center from Michigan, who played for the Jets from 1983-84, is much more than that. He was lucky enough to play for the Cleveland Browns during the last great years of the franchise - Marty Shottenheimer's mid-to-late playoff teams, and yes, he started the January 4, 1987 double-overtime playoff victory over the Jets, which means he blocked against the very same defensive front line composed of former teammates from two years before.

Much of what I've found out about Lilja indicates that he is defined most by his religion. According to his Wikipedia page, his parents "brought him up in a Christian manner" - a manner that remains with him today. What being a good Christian means can vary, depending upon whom you ask. Whatever the definition, being a "Christian" now has manifold political implications in our present environment. If you are Christian in the United States, then apparently you are more likely to vote one way, while an agnostic is likely to vote another. I don't remember that always being the case when I was growing up, but this is what the current political dialogue seems to suggest.

I grew up a Roman Catholic, which meant that I was, technically, a religious minority within a religious majority, which was a little confusing if you went to college in New England while your family had relocated to Memphis, Tennessee. During summers between college years, I worked in an auto parts warehouses around Memphis. I worked in the packing division, loading things onto trucks with a forklift; it was the only time in my life when I was allowed to operate a piece of cool, heavy machinery. I was at the shrink-wrap machine when an older worker came over to me with an affectionate hand on my shoulder, telling me he'd be very happy if I attended service at his church. It was an invitation you got in the South, as common as someone asking if you'd like a ride home in the rain. People were always trying to get you to go to their church because I think they were told that it was the way you got to heaven; you invited people who weren't destined for salvation to see the path made available to salvation. It was only polite.

I told this man that I was Catholic and went to church with my family at parish down by the river. At this, he became troubled.

"That's terrible," he said.

"Really?" I asked.

"Son," he said, as if I had strayed onto the path where there were lots of hungry bears, "you're marked by the devil."

"The what?"

He shook his head. "I don't think I can do anything for your kind. You're a member of the Beast's tribe. Read Revelation, son. It's all there." He walked away, dismayed. The Beast's tribe sounded like a fantastic biker gang, but I knew that it was I who was being demonized.


We are two tribes, aren't we? Separated into the red and blue colors of the electoral maps in our old American history textbooks, we are now encouraged to demonize one another, often at the bidding of a media that relishes and is nourished by conflict of any kind. We are, in fact, re-enacting our oldest conflicts as a country, yet we don't always seem to know why. Government is not completely evil, as people are made to believe; corporations are not all inhuman, as others would have you expect. Yet there we are - Tea Party zanies vs. 99 Percenters, never wondering what we might have in common.

Reading a 2003 online Christian publication on George Lilja's life after football, I see this:

Understanding his imperfection, George has made the Bible and prayer to be his guides when speaking to people of ages ranging from high school to adult. George has thoroughly enjoyed using his gift to edify the church and speak to the lost. For him, it has been very rewarding and fulfilling. The journey that has since been traveled by George has been truly radical and exciting.

"It's a journey that the world just doesn't understand," he said.

I know that I am a part of "the world" he mentions above, and not apart from it. I live in it, and I try to do good within it, and I don't consult the Bible to address my own imperfections, of which there are many. I search for something he and I have in common. The article points out that he struggles with things just as I do:

Throughout his life, George has struggled with worrying. It has been one of the biggest struggles that he has had to face. In his heart, he has realized how worrying is a sin of distrusting God, and in thinking that his circumstances were bigger than God.

Worrying has always been a part of my life, too. I do not remember a time in my life when I was not in some way afraid of something, or anything. I remember being afraid of lightning, of school, of other kids, of being humiliated, of bullies, of making people angry, of monsters in my dreams, of drowning in water, and of armies in the middle of the night. It's human to worry, and it's not a sin against God, but I know that a little boy who worries about his football team losing all week is not a boy who is handling his fandom normally. The worry I felt leading up the the 1987 Divisional Playoff Game in which George Lilja played his small part was paralyzing. The feeling of dread that accompanies every game, every week of the football season is in some way part of a larger anxiety drawn from that event, and it also has its DNA in everyone in my extended family who has been beset by anxiety, depression and drinking.

Now that I'm a grown up, I can take medication to block my worries, to treat it like the diagnosable disease I feel it is, while George Lilja might see worry as a human imperfection in the first place. It's true that we don't have control over much of anything in life, but I feel that one of the things over which I have no control is my anxiety; though I can blunt it, I can never really make it go away permanently. I feel that the implication is that since I suffer from it, someone like George Lilja would say I have seen myself as greater than God. But I really don't.

Is he demonizing someone like me? No. And I don't want to demonize George Lilja, either. Maybe he feels I'm one of the lost, as someone who needs a ride in the rain. So be it. I can live with that. I've taught Fundamentalist Christian students whom I was convinced saw the flames of Hell lapping all around me, regardless of what they thought of my teaching. So be it. Perhaps someone like George Lilja and someone like me can indeed live in the same place and yet not tear our country apart. Now wouldn't that be nice?

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