“The NFL on CTE” by Arlo Voorhees

Arlo Voorhees



I worked overtime when I was eight—
shoveled manure, fed the calves
or any task my Dad would ask
so once a week I could stay up late

for the Monday Night game on ABC,
the guttural drawl of Hank Jr.’s call,
“Are you ready—for some football?”
“Yes,” I’d yell at the box TV.

I had the den to myself those nights;
I’d gorge on Shasta and saltines
while my heroes clashed upon the screen,
an epic battle brought to life.

Football was my early art—each drive
a portrait of heart and hustle—
embellished by grit and muscle,
and framed by the will to stay alive. 



On Tuesdays after school, I’d sprint
the dirt road home from town,
strap a helmet to my chin
and re-enact each crucial down.

Flecked by evening dew, I dreamed
the Big Blue Wrecking Crew—
LT, Banks and even McGrew
paced red zones of fallen leaves.

Such was the foliage in my head
as Simms dropped back through frozen stalks
and I, Bavaro, would feign a block
then explode around the heifer shed.  

A seamless play action-fake!
The defense frozen in their stance!
See Bavaro shake ’n’ bake
and break into a touchdown dance!



Of course, I didn’t know back then
that football was a gladiator game—
rich folks courting desperate men
to test their fate for a chance at fame.

Nor their amoral authority—
cheerleaders to feed our bestial whims,
a Budweiser than thou pitch within 
the dark bark of Spuds MacKenzie.

Oh to return and at last rewind
those yellow ribbons used to tether
the NFL and our troops together
and sever God from overtime …

Yet thanks to panels of populists,
the formula still works for NBC
but what about for CTE?



If I only knew the league ignored
years of peer-reviewed reports,
and my heroes left the game injured
irreparably, and just for sport.

Still their trick plays persist—
the concussion protocol charade:
15 seconds to establish
the lack of damage to the brain.

Watch Seau on a delayed blitz
as Bubba Smith joins the scrum
while Turner and his lunch pail ethic
takes on Sash to spring a run,

but here comes Duerson flying in
to dislodge the ball helmet first—
re-covered by Belcher for the win,
while the sell-out crowd goes berserk!



Sold out for beer, bread and circus
as players vie for pollice compresso
and shrewd GMs observe and ask us,
should he stay or should he go?

Yet what of the official rules of play,
those yellow flags devised to cite
like soldiers watching worlds away
the differences between wrong and right?

And how to re-brand childhood,
that All-American farm boy
running routes through fields of gold,
a Rockwell painting titled, “Joy”?

Perhaps we should start with Iron Mike,
or is that conduct unsportsmanlike?




All names mentioned in section IV belong to former NFL players who suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) before their deaths. Iron Mike is the nickname of Mike Webster, the first former NFL player to be diagnosed with CTE. 


from Rattle #60, Summer 2018
Tribute to Athlete Poets


Arlo Voorhees: “The only farm kid at school, I relied on sports for the irrational confidence that made me believe I could ‘fit in’ despite the cow manure on my legs. My experience as a club, high-school, college, and semi-professional soccer player taught me Kunitz’s desire, desire, desire before I even knew what poetry was. Humans trying their hardest to kick a ball into a net reminds me of the poet wrestling with the sublime. I still play soccer today in an over-30 league. It grounds me in a critical space and time and frees me from the shackles of worry and regret. On the pitch, I seamlessly belong.”

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