Monday, August 17, 2015

Balls by Nancy Kincaid

On the jacket cover of Nancy Kincaid’s 1998 novel, Balls, the reader is told the book “should be required reading for any woman who’s ever been involved with a man who’s involved with sports,” and while that claim may be a bit exaggerated, this is an insightful, humorous and occasionally frightening look at college football. By my count, there are sixteen voices, narrators, in this book, all women. It is primarily the story of one of these woman, Dixie, who, at nineteen, marries an ex-football star who is too small to make it in the pros, but who cannot leave football behind. Instead, he becomes a coach who quite quickly rises to the position of head coach at Ham U. In Alabama, where football is a kind of religion, Coach Gibbs (Mac), begins his coaching career with a team that wins few games, but due to Mac’s ability to recruit players, especially black players, he puts together a solid winning team, and when an old respected coach retires, Mac ascends to the throne with his young wife and two young children in his wake.

Each chapter in the book allows a different woman to describe her relationship with football and either a husband who is obsessed with football, or a son who hopes to come to fame and fortune via ball.
It was not by accident that God created the world in the shape of a ball. I came to understand that early. All the men in my life imitated God in this way by making small worlds of their own out of balls.  
As a girl, when I watched men pass the pigskin, pitch the cuveball, perfect the jump shot, I understood that they were playing war. What I didn’t understand was that it wasn’t just a stupid ball they held in their hands, but the whole world being tossed about from man to man—like a game of keep away. 
From me.
While Kincaid obviously wants to describe the big business corruption in college football, and the toll football takes on the bodies and dreams of the players, she is sympathetic towards not only the mothers of the players and wives of the coaches, but also the players themselves who see football as their passport to the American dream.

Kincaid meticulously chronicles Coach Mac’s meteoric rise and sudden fall from grace and the parallel dissolution of the marriage of Dixie and Mac. I loved the stories of the coaches and players, but even more the subtext of the women and children who are essentially orphaned by their men’s obsession. Rose, Dixie’s mother, is one of the more intriguing voices of the many narrators. She understands long before her daughter does that women and children are secondary to balls, and that women who see or know too much are in peril.
Dixie is a pretty girl. I hope it doesn’t ruin her life. 
There are worse things than not getting chosen, like getting chosen too early. Or getting chosen too often. But you have to live awhile before you can know that. 
Dixie’s smart too, which if she isn’t careful can destroy her about as quick as anything else. I tell her, “Being smart can be a real detriment to a woman unless she knows how to go about it tactfully.
There are two other voices that recur throughout the book, Francis Delmar, the wife of an under-coach who never quite makes it to the big time, and Lilly, the mother of Jett, who played college ball with Mac and goes on to be a great star in the NFL. Lilly has given up on men as husbands or close friends, but is a fiercely protective mother. Both of these woman provide wonderfully wise and humorous commentary on the toll football takes on the lives of women.

Mac is not a bad man, and in fact is honestly dedicated to his players and their welfare. During the football season, he works from early morning till late at night allowing is wife and children to become afterthoughts. And the off-season, that is the recruiting season, is even worse. He travels around the country, wooing players and their parents, his at-home time seeming more like visits than really coming home.

When Mac comes home he seems delighted to have stumbled upon such a happy household where everything’s clean and pretty and he’s treated as if he were one of the family.
We make a home where Mac is a welcome visitor. “Drop by anytime,” we seem to say.

The story, itself, is an interesting and complex one, and I don’t intend to reveal many of the details. Suffice it to say that the storyline is very similar to Kincaid’s own life. Kincaid married at nineteen, raised two daughters, returned to college as her marriage deteriorated, and after her divorce, remarried the head coach at University of Arizona, so she knows intimately the lives she describes.
I first came across Kincaid in a wonderful novel about the south, Crossing Blood, in which she describes the lives of two families living side by side, one black, one white. The novel I’m talking about today shows the same sensitivity towards and understanding of race relations that caught my attention in the earlier novel.

While this is not a great book, it is a very good one, and it is indeed, “the novel every football widow will want to read.”

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