Review: A myriad of issues at the heart of America’s game in ‘X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story) at Berkeley Rep

Former San Francisco 49er Dwight Hicks helps audiences understand our "Warrior Ethos" in "X's and O's (A Football Love Story) at Berkeley Rep. (Photo by kevinberne.com)

Former San Francisco 49er Dwight Hicks helps audiences understand our “Warrior Ethos” in “X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)” at Berkeley Rep. (Photo by kevinberne.com)

I grew up in a barbaric time for young men. Battle Royals on a bed and the quest to not get thrown off, ACTUAL pile drivers on thin carpet, and boxing in the garage inside of rings made with yarn, wearing socks for gloves. The sock was supposed to take the sting off the hard slap that landed in the unexposed area. Did it work? Nope.

Let’s just say the early ‘80’s was a dangerous time for young boy energy.

Another thing I loved to do? Goal line stand with the little bro. Two yards on the carpet on our knees, crashing into each other as we tried to score a big touchdown in the frozen tundra of our living room. I had four years on the guy, and used every ounce of my advantage and my otherwise wussified frame to crush his spirit as I celebrated another touchdown.

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(L to R) Current player Anthony (Eddie Ray Jackson) and former player Frank (Bill Geisslinger) share their feelings on football. (Photo by kevinberne.com

Our barbarism was built on our local Super Bowl heroes – Jim Plunkett’s Oakland Raiders and Joe Montana’s San Francisco 49ers, the thick mud of Candlestick Park providing a gridiron romanticism replicated on our front lawn, much to the chagrin of our father, who had to deal with torn up grass quite often.

I don’t know when my enjoyment of professional football came to a close. Certainly, to this day, I have a much greater passion for college football, pulling for the alma mater with the price of tickets only a fraction of what a seat would cost in a professional football palace of jeans. And this year’s Super Bowl game found my parents, my wife, our three daughters and I taking in a dolphin show instead of a pre-game show.

Berkeley Rep’s production of “X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)” examines what the play calls our “Warrior Ethos,” the primal part of our being that forces us to cheer a big, bone-rattling hit as we thirst for more.

The show focuses on many vignettes in presentational style that use the game of football as the through line. There are philosophical discussions amongst three young fans about what it means to be a football fan in an age where pleading ignorance to the game’s dangers is no longer possible. There are ex-players who list their surgeries the same way a kindergartner lists the alphabet. And there are wives at different stages of their marriage – as the protected woman shielded by a virile Adonis, and as the protector of that same Adonis who now functions as merely a shell of himself. And just as painfully, a son who longs for better times with the man he calls “Dad.”

The play is written by KJ Sanchez with Jenny Mercein, clearly playwrights with much passion about the subject matter (Mercein’s father is a former Green Bay Packer). Their play is based on many interviews from former football folk, smartly directed by Tony Taccone on a pretty, football-centric set designed by Todd Rosenthal, featuring a tight cast that is stretched in many different directions. The cast portrays multiple characters, with each actor finding the character’s motivation and heartbeat with truth and pathos.

If you are a regular viewer of programs like “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” or E:60 on ESPN, the play might not glean a lot of new information. But what the play does for 80 minutes is smartly and neatly tie everything together in a tight timeline that showcases the beginning of football in the later 1800’s, attempts to ban the game based on so many fatalities, and the logic behind keeping it in the forefront of our sporting identity. The nation’s presidents confirmed that identity, most notably President John F. Kennedy, who had many legendary games with family members as a rite of manly passage.

There was also much humor and poignancy in the use of multimedia, one of the funnier yet disconcerting pieces of archival footage involving an inventor who creates a ridiculous metal helmet. In order to prove the helmet’s effectiveness, he rams himself head first into brick walls, the wall bouncing him back like a raquetball. His point is taken – helmets protect the skull. What’s missing is what the helmet doesn’t protect – the brain. A doctor points out that an eggshell may protect the egg, but does nothing to save the yolk. This type of pragmatism is strong storytelling.

Other fascinating moments in the play have everything to do with where the game is headed on a socio-economic level. Boxing has become what people fear football may become – a sport with young men who may not have the economic ability to play something else a little less taxing on the body. Elite quarterback prospects attend elite prep schools, anchored by parents shelling out big bucks for top name quarterback gurus to mentor their child. Yet the men protecting that quarterback will come from Mississippi and Texas, some of the less well-off states in the Union, argues a conflicted fan. The play presents evidence in the form of two team pictures, which reflect the societal paradigm shift in today’s game.

Telling all these stories was a strong cast, the biggest name recognition going to former 49er great Dwight Hicks. His smoothness and eloquence as a former player playing a former player gave the piece a sharp truth, a walking indication of all that is great and terrible about football.

Other cast members were sharply effective. Bill Geisslinger had a quality stretch of characters, from various tough guys to a funny little cameo as a Raiders fan. Yeah, THAT kind of Raider fan. The skulls, the patches and a little vulgarity. And Eddie Ray Jackson, Anthony Holiday, and Mercein’s characters engaged in some critical conversation that reflects society’s conflict with supporting this particular sport on many levels other than just the safety angle. Marilee Talkington effectively shared much of the exposition as a physician, introducing the audience to a term as common in football nowadays as “hike” – CTE, aka Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, brain trauma built from repeated blows to the head.

As a dad with daughters, the question of playing football will probably never come up. Yet for so many, playing football is a brotherhood, a bond, and a lot of fun for those who love the game. So much of what makes the game brutal is what makes the game great.

“X’s and O’s” does not shy away from these issues. But it certainly asks a fundamental question – is it worth it?

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre Presents “X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story)”
Written by KJ Sanchez with Jenny Mercein
Directed by Tony Taccone
The Word: A tightly crafted story which covers the issues nicely of the game of football, and why we love it so much.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Through March 1st
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA 94704
Tickets range from $29 – $79
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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