At the snap of the ball, the 300-plus pound bodies smash into each other, battling for position on the field of painted lines.
Bones crack; ligaments tear like string cheese. Collisions at 8.4 tons of force leave some men inert on the ground, but more often than not, nobody gets carted off the field. They shake it off, pop back up, get back in the game.
Above these young gladiators, a nation of orange climaxes in unison, thrilled because, hey – it's football time in Tennessee.
Like most young American men, I was raised to have a healthy appetite for football. Though I never played under the lights, memories of backyard glory days still bring a smile to my face; during one game, I slung one of my buddies to the ground, bashing his skull into the dirt. He was dizzy for a few minutes, and I was mildly apologetic.
But mostly, I felt warm and powerful. To this day, my buddies and I still talk about the hit.
We, however, aren't the only ones talking about hits. The untimely deaths of former NFL players such as Junior Seau and Ray Easterling have drawn scrutiny to the massive collisions players endure, raising questions about the long-term effects of the most intrinsic part of football. According to a study conducted by the NFL, 2,000 players suffered 4,500 injuries in 2011– a 225 percent rate of injury to the players whose names we wear on our backs.
What validates their non-stop ride to brain damage, early onset dementia, depression? Is it the fact that we like to watch it? The fact that we pay to watch it?
I hope it's neither, I fear it's both and I think it's something else entirely.
The players – it's their sacrifice. It's their decision to endure pain to reap glory. They choose to fight for touchdowns in spite of mounting evidence that every touchdown comes at a cost of more hits and, therefore, more long-term side effects. They know what they're getting into, and they do it anyway.
There's a section in Hilltopics, UT's handbook, about hazing. It describes hazing as "any intentional or reckless act by one student ... directed against any other student, that endangers the mental or physical health or safety of that student, or which induces or coerces a student to endanger such student's mental or physical health or safety."
At the Orange and White game on Saturday, 68,548 fans showed up to watch students intentionally endanger other students; on the sidelines, we observed teammates encourage each other to hit harder. When they succeeded, we roared in frenzied unison. We celebrated masochism, because "no pain, no gain."
Hilltopics takes no issue with this, clarifying that hazing "does not include customary athletic events or similar contests or competitions, and is limited to those actions taken and situations created in connection with initiation into or affiliation with any organization."
Our football players risk the end of their careers at every down – they have to, if they want to have a career at all. We, in turn, reward their risk with our adoration.
Depending on their ability to hurt and be hurt and keep playing, they get to be stars. But if they come off the field, someone else can bear our worship. And if they stay off the field, someone else can wear their jersey. The broken bodies fade away, and newer, fresher bodies are carted in.
But this carnage is not hazing. These gladiators go willingly to hit and be hit, to be glorified as gods and commercialized accordingly. They decide to endanger themselves for our entertainment, and people like me will remain entertained as long as the players will play. You can't take violence out of football, and at this point, you can't take football out of the American zeitgeist.
But when the bodies leave the field in stretchers, I wonder if our football heroes ever regret their decision.
I hope they don't. I hope our admiration, their fame, makes the game worth the pain. I hope the memories last longer than their knees did.
R.J. Vogt is a junior in College Scholars. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.