Tallahassee, Florida–Doak Campbell Stadium–1990
I’m at my first college football game. I should feel ecstatic. After all, I’m doing my first really crazy thing as a freshman in college, something my parents would disdain doing, something I was rarely allowed to do when I was under their roof. And there are 80,000 people around me who are screaming and chanting and thrilled to be doing this same thing.
The stadium we’re in has been nicknamed “The Erector Set” because it’s entirely made of steel, one giant oval bowl made of thin crisscrossed beams and steel floors. Even the seating is made of cheap extruded aluminum in long benches. The entire thing literally quivers and sways with the weight of all the people stamping and waving. It’s equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, because the whole thing acts like the world’s biggest sounding board. It magnifies the crowd noise to a jet engine roar. It makes the marching band sound like the blast of trumpets that brought down Jericho. To overcome the noise, the commentator’s voice has to be amplified to a shout that can be heard for miles in every direction–I know, because I could hear him clearly for the miles it took to get here from my dorm.
But it’s 98 degrees, I’m standing in the blazing sun on what feels like the back of an animal that might just shake us all off at any moment, and I’m the only sober one crushed between the dozen “friends” who insisted on taking me to the game. And they’re not the only drunk and rowdy ones. The entire student side of the stadium is filled with what looks like frat boys and sorority girls all one hidden drink shy of puking on each other. The stink is an unthinkable blend of sweat, tanning lotion, piss, sunscreen, Jack Daniels, vomit, and makeup beginning to run in the heat…and I don’t wear any.
I wanted to enjoy this, as an adult on my own for the first time, among other adults doing their own fun things. Instead I’m surrounded by people acting even more thoroughly like children. And their choice of things to get childish about is dangerous. Everyone is staggering drunk. No one sits–everyone stands on top of their narrow bench seats. They sway and lose their balance constantly. I’ve already been knocked off my bench twice by a surge of falling bodies that took out entire seating sections. Some drunk jackasses ten rows back had decided that it was fun to watch the people falling down like dominoes; I see them pick themselves up out of the trough between benches, laughing. They josh each other around as they wait for everyone else to pick themselves up, too…just so the jackasses can deliberately fall down on us again. The group I’m here with not only don’t see a problem with it, they think it’s hilarious. Meanwhile, I’m already covered in bruises.
I’m feeling very alone in the middle of all these people.
Then, as everyone is almost upright again, I see the jackasses suddenly get very excited about someone coming down the aisle steps from the higher seats. There’s lots of pointing and babbling at each other and then, to a man, they erupt into what I can only describe as fanboy screams. It’s like a rock star is passing them by. I’ve heard that FSU has quite a few famous alumni, so I wonder if perhaps it’s one of them. Suddenly everyone else is craning to look, too. Everyone, including the jackasses, has forgotten about getting knocked down.
I see a huge guy, wearing a dapper yellow polo shirt tucked into khaki shorts. He looks like Mr. Clean, plus a big handlebar mustache and minus the earring. He’s as crisp and put-together and sober as everyone around him isn’t. And yet, he’s beaming–one of the biggest, most genuine smiles I’ve ever seen on a guy that imposing. He is visibly thrilled to be here at Doak Campbell, surrounded by all this noise and craziness. It’s obvious there is no place he would rather be. It’s like he’s breathing the experience in alongside the oxygen in the air, and getting sweetly, gratefully high off both.
The friends who brought me here are sophomores, and they immediately know who they’re looking at. They begin clawing at me for balance as they jump up and down on their benches and point in excitement.
“Oh my God, it’s Fred the Head!”
On top of his bald head is a perfect Seminole logo, lovingly and accurately hand-painted by a skilled artist. It must have taken hours. I’m close enough to see that somehow, he’s not sweating the paint off in this insane heat.
He’s mastered the art of moving quickly through adoring crowds. The trick is never to stop. Keep moving and you can’t get mobbed. He knows this, and he’s using his size and presence to keep plowing down the aisle steps at a slow but steady pace. Even the jackasses give way without bothering him too much. And it’s obvious he’s headed toward the TV crew waiting at the bottom of the stairs, field-side. The producer is beckoning him for a closeup.
For just a moment, Fred slows when he’s next to me on the stairs. The woman with him looks a little alarmed, and checks for another way out of the mob she knows will harden around them. But he deliberately takes that long moment to look me in the eye.
Maybe I’m wearing a look of confusion as to what the hubbub is about. Or maybe I just look as long-suffering as I feel. But a complicated expression goes across his face in answer. His face plainly says, “I see you. It’s crazy out here, isn’t it? People are being kinda rowdy. But hang in there. I promise you’ll see why I love it here. It’s worth it.”
And suddenly he’s back up to speed and plowing through the crowd again. The crazier fans are jockeying for position around Fred at the rail. But even the rowdiest is careful not to jostle the big man or his female friend too much as he grins and bends down to show his head to the camera. Even the craziest of the crazies is thrilled, not to be the center of the shot, but just to have the honor of being the screaming fool pointing at Fred’s head.
Suddenly, I’m feeling much kinder toward the fans around me, and I decide to be kinder to myself, too. I excuse myself to get a cold drink, and end up in a gate-crashed nosebleed seat with room to spare. I can actually sit down in my so-called “terrible” seat, because no one else wants to be up this high. I’m feeling much better about life in general. I can breathe. I can stretch. I know the group I was with hasn’t even noticed I’m gone. And as the game itself becomes a wild ride of highs and lows–as the crowd pays less attention to its drunkenness and more attention to the game–I begin to see what Fred the Head loves about this place. It’s 80,000 people screaming their hopes for the players and moaning with them in their defeats. It’s 80,000 people celebrating a common goal. It’s loud, and rowdy, and sweaty, and hotter than the ninth level of Hell, but for those few hours I forget my life and revel in our team’s successes…just like Fred.
Tallahassee, Florida–Tennessee Street–1998
I’m stopped in morning traffic on my way to a job I hate. It services my student debt load the way a victim might plead with a loan shark not to break her legs. The morning drive has become a daily battle to screw up my courage, to face myself alone in the car for twenty minutes, as I ask myself why I’m there and which choices brought me to that standstill and how I might rescue myself. I have yet to arrive at anything like salvation.
Horns far behind me blare, in a vector that’s coming steadily closer despite the fact that no one is moving. Like the wave at a football game I can guess how long it’ll take to get to me. I glance in all my mirrors and can’t tell whether the horns are for some emergency I cannot see, or for me. The driver behind me doesn’t seem like a bad guy; he looks as confused as everyone else. I can only wait for whatever disaster it is to reach me, and I’ll accept the damage and move on with what passes for my life.
The horn right behind me sounds. The traffic in front of me still hasn’t moved. There is nowhere I can go, so the horn can’t be for me. I check my mirrors again. The guy behind me is waving at someone on the sidewalk. I crane to look.
Beside my car suddenly is Green Lantern.
I mean to say, it’s a skinny guy jogging in a homemade Green Lantern costume. Green booties over his running shoes, green and black bodysuit with the big Lantern symbol, green cape, green gloves, green mask. Above the mask he has a thick shock of wavy brown bedhead. He also has an elbows-flailing head-down long-legged lope, and I don’t remember Green Lantern ever having a cape. But even for all his awkwardness, the guy’s pace is as enthusiastic as his waving to the stopped cars. He’s past my line of sight and gone quick. He’s certainly faster than I am in my car.
Every driver around me is grinning, waving back, sounding their horns. It takes me a moment, but I add a little meep to the chorus of thanks. Even I feel momentarily rescued from my life.
Only later, after I’d seen Fred dozens of times at both home and away games, did I realize that the stadium police used him as a strange form of passive crowd control. Wherever he went, people would immediately forget whatever stupid, dangerous thing they were doing and erupt into celebration that Fred was there. Such was his presence. Such was the infectious nature of that huge, huge smile.
He had the gift of making you feel like you were the only one in the room…even if that room had 80,000 screaming drunks in it…even if the room was your living room on the other side of the country from the game, and you were only seeing Fred on your TV. As TV people sometimes say, “The camera loved him.” And that only happens when the person on camera loves everyone. He was a presence much larger than one body, even a body as massive as his. Every TV crew in America knew it, too. And so did we Seminoles fans.
Green Lantern made every commute into downtown feel just a little bit more fun. Over time he branched out into several different costumes: Batman, Robin, Green Arrow, even something all yellow at one point (though I couldn’t tell what–I never saw him closely enough that day, I was running late). He became a repeat story among locals: If he didn’t show up for a run, everyone wanted to know where he was and if he’d come back. He always did, often with a new costume.
Fred the Head and Green Lantern had an awful lot in common. They both lived large, and brought a lot of joy to people. Whenever they were around, everyone wanted to follow their progress, like a shooting star across the sky.
They also both disappeared young. Fred died of a heart attack caused by a congenital blood clotting disorder just two years after I first saw him. He was 38 years old. He’d been a fixture at every FSU game for the better part of a decade. I don’t know if there was ever a news article about Green Lantern–I only ever heard rumors that he died of cancer. Whatever his fate, it happened quickly. He visibly wasted after just a few short months. Then one day he didn’t take his run alongside Tennessee Street, and though I hoped to see him return in a new outfit, I never saw him again.
The hole Fred left in the FSU crowd was palpable. Over the years, other fans tried to fill that hole with only partial success. The longest-running was a pair of goofy boys we nicknamed “the devil twins,” who showed up to every game clad only in horns, tails, a towel wrapped around their swim trunks, flip-flops, and body paint in FSU team colors. But no one, no matter how big in attitude, could replace Fred the Head.
I have often wondered if he knew about the clotting defect–if he knew he was living on borrowed time. It might explain that hugeness of spirit.
I’m certain that Green Lantern knew what was happening to him, whatever it was. No adult wakes up one morning and says, “I’m going for a run alongside the most heavily traveled street in town while dressed as a superhero.” A person might go to a hospital dressed that way to cheer up kids, sure. Or a person might show up to a Halloween party that way. But to commit to running miles, day after day, in the worst heat imaginable, dressed in several homemade costumes…that takes a level of dedication that requires, but perversely can’t be founded upon, a special kind of insanity. It’s a form of insanity that makes your need bigger than any social stricture you’ve ever been raised to be fearful of.
So how did these two people become so much bigger when faced with something awful? What is the prerequisite for such meteor-bright living? How do you live like a burning Roman candle while dying, when those people around you who have all the theoretical time in the world keep living such tiny, contracted, boxed-in lives?
The answer can’t merely be that a doctor looked them in the face and said, “Put your affairs in order.” I’ve had that happen, and it didn’t lead to any flowering of my spirit. If anything, it caused me to contract even further into my life than ever. I take no risks at all now. I’ve signed away even the most manageable of the risks that I used to take, and I was never much of a risk-taker to begin with. There are days that I’ve become so tiny and fearful that my heart races at the idea of going to the grocery store. I have to take Valium to get through a half hour plane ride. Even the idea of fulfilling some bucket list of adventures just makes me scared and overwhelmed. On a good day, when I try to relax, I can feel that my entire body is balled up like a clenched fist.
I don’t glide through massive crowds with a smile on my face like Fred did. And I certainly don’t pelt alongside Tennessee Street looking like Green Lantern.
So what was their secret? What did they learn that I haven’t yet? And do I have to actively be dying in order to learn it? I really hope not.
Luckily, I’m not at all convinced that being afraid of dying is the thing that sets off a rush of voluminous living. I’m not even convinced that “voluminous” is the correct word I want…and I think that’s for a reason.
Fred and Green Lantern hadn’t become something more than themselves. They’d just become more of themselves. When faced with the abyss, they committed themselves fully to what they saw as the only things they could be. Fred became the ultimate FSU fan because he couldn’t imagine being anything less. Green Lantern doubled down and down again on running around in superhero costumes because that was the one thing he wanted to focus on.
I keep beating myself up for not being crazy, taking risks, living loud…but what if those were things I never truly wanted in the first place? Yes, the anxiety thing is definitely less than an optimal response to my situation…but who says Fred the Head and Green Lantern never suffered?
When faced with the possibility of the abyss, I’ve become more myself. I’ve doubled down on family, on living quietly rooted in one place, and on living with integrity and care for those I love.
This is not something to be ashamed of. It’s also not something to be compared to people like Fred the Head or Green Lantern. It’s simply not apples to apples. I’m not a former FSU football player who loves the camera, and God knows I only ever run when chased.
I’m just me, an introverted writer who loves the hell out of her family and friends. I’ve never wanted anything more than to be surrounded with those I love, quietly, serenely. And when those I love can’t be here with me, I want nothing more than a book in my lap and a cup of coffee at my elbow.
Fred had his head, Lantern had his fluorescent green. At my desk, I’ve got my Sermons.