I was woken up on Sunday morning by a phone call, which ranks just below someone shouting “fire” in terms of God awful ways to be jolted awake on your day off.  It was my neighbor, a friendly guy with a gruff disposition and an equally gruff name: Grizzly.  Such is life in the woods of Georgia.

Grizzly, a Vietnam era Air Force veteran who once spent a few years in prison after getting caught transporting the most 80’s of all drugs, Quaaludes, comes off like the scary biker and ex-con you might expect.  He keeps to himself, building hot rods in his makeshift garage (that he proudly built himself) and working during the week as a welder.  For a guy in his mid-60s, he’s a formidable fellow; a lifetime of hard work, harder partying, and never seeing the value in excuses has weathered him into the sort of man I get along well with; and it isn’t uncommon for the mustachioed, tattoo-covered old guy to lumber his way up the street, and down my steep driveway, to deliver homemade fried rice and the like to my pregnant wife, usually accompanying it with a candy bar or pack of cookies “for the baby.”  In his mind, that’s just the sort of thing neighbors do.

I’d argue that he’s done me more favors since I’ve moved in than I may have in return, though he’s never asked me for one himself, so when his trademark voice, which sounds like gravel being fed through a wood chipper, asked if I could come up and give him a hand with a tree that was coming down, I got right to it.

We spent the next few hours trying to find the right combination of pulling the tree with his truck and my weak little Honda with chains and cutting the tree in the right places to avoid it falling through his car port or the power lines leading to his house.  It was hard, exhausting work, which we punctuated by cutting the tree into pieces that we promptly split between our houses and a third neighbor that we knew could use the firewood.  By 3 p.m., I was headed back into my house to (hopefully) get to watch some football and maybe get some work done – when I checked my phone.

Dozens of notifications.  Texts, Twitter, Facebook, email – all about the same thing: football players kneeling for the national anthem, President Trump tweeting about it multiple times, and a plethora of people who either wanted me to know how they felt about it, or wanted to know specifically how I did.

Now, I love football.  It’s one of the few things my father and I had in common growing up, it taught me how to work through pain, how to take constructive criticism, and helped to make me the villain in every high school movie.  I was very much the stereotypical homecoming king, complete with red Mustang convertible (a salvage I loved with all my heart), prom queen girlfriend, and generally shitty attitude toward anyone I didn’t think was “cool.”  In my mind, playing football made me important, it gave me value, and that value gave me the right to speak from the elevated position of authority when addressing my fellow students.

The thing is, I was wrong. Midway through my senior year, I broke my leg in a game against Middlebury, Vermont.  It was a serious injury, that involved spending a week in the hospital, and, I believed, leaving the game behind forever.  For a guy that identified as a football player first, it was among the most difficult times in my life to that point.

I’d eventually find my way back to the game, playing two seasons as a starter for the Marine Corps’ West Coast championship team.  We only suffered a single loss in my two-year run on that squad, but throughout, I carried quite a bit less ego around with me than I did in high school – in large part because getting hurt, and having to leave the sport behind for a few years had taught me just how unimportant it is to those outside our football bubble.  It turned out, there was a whole world out there that just didn’t care about the game I loved so much… and I had to live amongst them for a time in order to learn that.  Of course, to me, the sport remains incredibly important.

That’s my bald head kissing our Marine Corps championship trophy. I keep a small version of it on my mantle to this day.

Which brings us back to my sweaty and exhausted return home on Sunday, swiping through messages and responding where I could.  Football players kneeling for the national anthem was everywhere I looked online and in my phone… everywhere but one place.  A single text message from my contact in Puerto Rico.

Things haven’t gotten better for the 3.5 million Americans living without power, and in most cases, without a source of fresh drinking water.  She’s scared, not only for her safety, but for the safety of her daughter.  She explained that she’s been seeing groups of people in the streets, often armed, and less and less of a law enforcement presence.  She knows the military said they’d be arriving with aid soon, but thus far, she hasn’t seen so much as a helicopter overhead.  She didn’t know that, according to the Defense Department, only six Navy helicopters and three U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey have been deployed to survey the damage to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands thus far, with more help hopefully en route.

She asked me if I knew the rules about flying with a dog, because she hoped to find a way out of Puerto Rico soon.  When I asked where she’d go, she told me she just needed a few days rest and a break, and then she’d be coming back to help rebuild her business, and her community.

I shut the TV off.  Not because I’m participating in President Trump’s suggested protest of the NFL, nor am I shaking my fist in support of a few dozen millionaires making a spectacle of themselves. I shut it off because I was dismayed, and frankly disgusted about how seriously we all were taking it.

In high school, I wrote a piece that won awards and led to a writing scholarship all about how hard it was to see the value in my young life without the sport I’d devoted so much of it to.  Reading it now is incredibly embarrassing – I had so much going for me, so much life ahead of me, but all I could think about was this silly game that I loved.  Now, America seems, in many ways, to be wrapped up in just as silly a sentiment – as Americans fight to survive in Puerto Rico, and we’re all more concerned with how American our football players look on TV.

Roads are impassable, power is out, and people are frantic in Puerto Rico.  See more images of the destruction here. (Image courtesy of Brenda Gallardo)

I’m sure that, in a vacuum, I could find it in myself to be mad at athletes that kneel for one of my favorite songs.  I’m sure that, without a significant tragedy looming over American citizens, I could muster another argument about the rights those men have, and my fervent defense for them.  But, as I got text messages from a young woman, an entrepreneur, a mother… an American who is terrified for her own safety and that of her family, I just couldn’t find it in myself to care about which football players I was supposed to like or not like based on the Twitter account of our president.

I think Trump gets a bad rap in the press fairly often. He’s a bad public speaker who often delivers legitimate points poorly, so the media chooses to vilify, rather than analyze what he’s saying.  Yet for some reason, no one seemed mad that he was spending his day complaining about football while Americans elsewhere were suffering.  I don’t expect him to hop on a plane himself, but it seems to me that helping our fellow Americans in need ought to be higher on all of our priority lists than a game, even if it’s one of the greatest mankind has ever played.

If we want to make America great again, or just greater than it already is (depending on which side of the political rhetoric you adhere to), we should be focused on what matters… and in my opinion, what some rich guys do during the national anthem just doesn’t to me right now.  Americans band together in their times of need, whether that’s heroic guys like Mark Detrick traveling to Houston to help those stranded in the flood waters of Hurricane Harvey, or some chump like me grumpily hacking away at a tree with a chainsaw from a ladder after Hurricane Irma – Americans are all on the same team when it comes to recovery, in the big efforts and the small.

When that song comes on the air, I stand, as does my wife, and you can bet my daughter will be raised in such a manner that she does too.  Christ, I have a version of the National Anthem on my workout playlist, so deep is my love for this country and for the ballad that represents it… but I also hope to raise my little girl in a way that lets her ignore the trending hashtag rages of the day and focus on what really matters, because if we’re willing to let Americans die while we work out our feelings about a millionaire protest, we’ve already lost sight of what this country, and its anthem, are supposed to be about.


Feature image courtesy of the Associated Press