How Radiolab and football won me Spanish friends

Peyton Manning haunts me.

I’ve never met the Broncos quarterback. My feelings towards football are of vague distrust. From afar, Manning has always seemed like a nice enough guy. But I’m coming to hate him.

I’ve met more avid Peyton Manning fans in Europe in my semester studying abroad than in my entire summer in Colorado Springs. In a taxi in Rome, in bars, at coffee shops — every middle-aged European man I’ve met seems to have a soft spot for the Denver MVP and expects to impress me with his specified American cultural competency.

Recently, I went to a cafe for an intercambio with two Spanish men to practice Spanish and English respectively. Manning, predictably, joined the conversation.

“No me gusta mucho el fútbal americano,” I said.

An iPhone timer went off, indicating it was time to switch to English.

“I don’t like football very much, but I do know one good story,” I said.

And this is when I recited my favorite podcast.

Radiolab is far from alone. I often spice conversations with something gleaned from an old episode of DecodeDC, On the MediaThis American Life, Invisibilia, Serial, or what I manage to catch of Radio Ambulante.

Radiolab: Ghosts of Football Past

I cut the U.S. nuances I couldn’t translate to easy English — ethnic, racial, and class tension of a Native American team playing the white man’s game on their home field, American men seeking to live up to their fathers’ physical and violent masculinity in an era without a Civil War or the Wild, Wild West, big words — and left what they would love.

Nov. 24, 1907. This was before there were as many rules are there are now. A team called Carlisle was playing the best team in the league.

The other team was bigger. They were stronger. Carlisle was stuck, on the other side of the field, far from their end zone — uh, goal. The other team was going to win.

Then Carlisle did something weird.

One of their receivers — the guy who catches the ball — got pushed off the field. He was out of bounds. But he kept running. He ran behind the people watching, around the crowd, back onto the field, and into the end zone — goal.

Carlisle throws the ball. And he catches it.

So that’s why American football has the rule that you can’t go back onto the field if you’ve been pushed off.

It’s about underdogs. It’s about history. It’s about playing smarter, not harder. But, more than anything, it’s about what all cultures, including Spanish, seek out to feel more alive: a human story.

I once interviewed a sports journalist and University of Kansas alum, Frank Deford, who described sports as “drama.” He said he hated covering games. Fans don’t need to pick up the paper to find out last night’s game’s final score. What he loved covering was the human backdrop.

However ambivalent I feel towards Peyton Manning — I sighed at my mom as she yelled at our television from the couch during this year’s Super Bowl — he was right. American football is compelling, human drama.

And it was a good enough story to win over two Spanish intercambio friends.

You can listen to the full episode online here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Sorry for this cheesy #tbt, but here's me and my hot date last Friday night at the Piazza Barberini in Rome.

A post shared by Emily Donovan (@emdonskc) on

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