Juan Carlos Pena
Love at First Lights
Updated: Sep 24, 2020
The lights drew me in. Over the thick South Jersey pines, the lights resembled what I could only relate to a spaceship straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. That was the first time I remember feeling cold air in my lungs. It was the autumn of 1987. I’d been in the United States for just a few days and I only knew a couple of words in English. That first week in the New World was filled with ups and downs where fears of not being able to communicate came to life. Although that fear felt crippling at times, I took solace in the awe of this new place. Computers amazed me. I marveled at the size of my school and my first few bus rides each felt like their own great adventure. However, nothing that I experienced that week would prepare me for my first Friday evening in America.
For the first time in my eight years of existence I saw my breath leave my body. While watching my breath float into the autumn sky, I noticed the lights for the first time. Almost in a hypnotic trance, I felt as if a beam came down from the lights and whisked me through the woods to the source of the lights. When I reached a clearing in the woods, I heard the sound. I could only relate it to thunder, gunshots or a car crash. The loud and sudden banging noises were followed by whistles blowing in a way I could only associate with a traffic cop. There was a crowd of people standing by a fence blocking my view of what was directly under the lights. Once I mustered the nerve to walk to an unobstructed spot along the fence, I stepped up. Barely reaching my chin over the fence I finally saw the source of the noise. They were not much bigger than me. They looked like astronauts or robots at first. They moved in unison like the toy soldiers with which I’d spent countless hours playing. When the action started my heart raced. I watched one of the small soldiers run around the field being chased by what to me could only be related to Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner, except there were eleven coyotes. But unlike the cartoon, the Road Runner could not elude his pursuers. He was taken down in a swarm and I genuinely feared for his well-being. The next thing did it for me. In a shocking turn of events, the whistle blew and the coyotes all went to the Road Runner and helped him get back on his feet. I thought he was dead one minute, and as soon as they lined up, he was up and running again. What a game! The burst of action followed by a friendly pause to get your team in order was an organized chaos that completely enamored me to the sport of football.
I spent my first fall in America on the benches next to that field. Every chance I got, I raced to the park after school with my notebooks to do my homework and watch the kids practice. The desire to understand football increased the urgency with which I needed to learn to speak English. Although the season ended for the little soldiers in the park, the grown ups were on the television every Sunday. By the time Christmas arrived I was educated enough in football to ask for my first Starting Line-Ups action figure. I had a favorite player now and almost predictably, it was Dan Marino. As an immigrant kid from the Dominican Republic, Dan Marino was an easy name to pronounce. He looked tan at all times but especially when his veins popped out of his neck while yelling at a teammate who missed an assignment. To lock him in as my favorite, he happened to play on a team with a cool Dolphin as the mascot. For a kid from the Caribbean it was an easy choice. Until that Christmas, I filled notebooks with scribbles of formations and X’s and O’s. I used random action figures like G.I. Joes, He-Man and even a safari kit full of animals to create a virtual eleven vs. eleven. With Dan Marino, my team had a quarterback. That same Christmas I got a surprise stocking stuffer at my aunt’s house, John Elway. Now it was game on!
I spent my first few years in America trying to assimilate to the culture. I read as much as possible, watched movies and listened to music. But my biggest influence was an old VHS tape of NFL’s Greatest Hits. That tape was such an important part of my life that I played hooky from school in the sixth grade to watch it undisturbed. I learned two things that day. Don’t cut school was the first. The second lesson was better. Football was bigger and better than I could have ever imagined. Mr. Sabol narrated the history of football to me. I learned about Johnny Unitas changing the game. I saw Broadway Joe calling his shot. Fran Tarkenton scrambled for his life. Deacon Jones had the famous head slap move to get after the quarterback. Earl Campbell ran through a defense while having his uniform ripped to shreds. Jack Lambert scared me while Steve Largent and Lynn Swann amazed me. If football had my attention before that tape, now it was undivided.
Being the child of immigrant parents puts your love for football into question. I was born where baseball is king. It is a way of life in the Dominican Republic and there isn’t a close second option. In the 90’s football was considered barbaric and even today the sport has not gained much popularity on the island. As a pre-teen I was unable to properly articulate a case convincing enough to persuade my father to let me play football. I played tackle football every day after school, but that wasn’t enough. I wanted to wear pads and a helmet. At age twelve my dream finally came true. My uncle signed up my younger cousin for Pop Warner and that forced my father into letting me play. I will never forget the butterflies before practice and games. The smell of the grass, the sound of the coaches’ whistles, and the tribal like pregame chants all exceeded the expectations I felt that first night under the lights. It was well worth the wait.
Throughout my teens I played both football and baseball, but the latter was for family and the former was for love. While I was better at pitching a baseball than any other athletic feat I tried to achieve, I stopped pitching twenty years ago when I joined the Army, yet football still remained. I played intramural football in the Army and even gave thought to trying out for the Arena league. I knew I wanted to be more involved with football, I just didn’t know how that was going to be possible. That’s when I saw the future. One of my Sergeants started a fantasy football league, which I reluctantly joined. I knew my X’s and O’s and I was able to call out plays while watching games on TV, but fantasy football was for nerds, right? Boy was I wrong. In my first fantasy draft, beginner’s luck landed me the number one overall pick. It was 1999 and the consensus opinions were that Marshall Faulk and Eddie George were the candidates for the first pick. I did my research and every magazine I bought agreed, take Faulk or George. They were the equivalent of Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley today. I went against common opinion and drafted a rookie running back named Edgerrin James. He was a star in college and I knew he was going to be a special player, but he was a rookie. I can still hear the laughter from my league mates. At first I thought I made a huge mistake and I was sure my team would fail. My team ended up losing in the championship game, but it was no fault of Edgerrin James. He finished the year as the number two running back in fantasy. After getting that name right, I knew I would never stop playing fantasy football. I also found my way to connect with the game I fell in love with on that first Friday night under the lights.
Most of us never had a realistic chance to play in the NFL. After all, the odds of making it to the NFL are akin to hitting the lottery. Covering the league or being affiliated with it can be difficult to achieve. However, playing fantasy football allows us to feel like a part of the league and is a fun way to manifest your love for football. Fantasy can make you fit in at a new job or a new school. It can help you keep in touch with old college or military buddies. Fantasy can even help a family keep the lines of communication open. It can be played at church and some educators are even using it to help students get into math while teaching them probabilities and percentages.
Each Thanksgiving Day, per tradition, I’ll be out there spinning it down the sidelines to one of my cousins. Although that is as close as I’ll get to playing in the league, fantasy football allows my love of the game to manifest year in and year out. If real football was love at first lights, fantasy was love at first draft.