High up on a mountain, along the constellation of blue spray-painted rocks that demarcates the nebulous Israeli-Lebanese border, Randy Moss is putting on a show. He’s just hauled in his eighth catch of the game—a 55-yard bomb—from Tom Brady, bringing the New England Patriots just three yards away from cutting the Indianapolis Colts’ lead to four. The tank battalion commander and I are going nuts.
Even after a month together on the same claustrophobic Israel Defense Forces military outpost, I’m not sure what the hulking commander’s name is. After all, he’s a senior officer charged with overseeing the entire base, and I’m just a grunt charged with not screwing up. We call him “sir,” and he responds with dispassionate commands and instructions. If he would call me anything it would probably be “worthless,” which I would affirm with a “Yes, sir.”
But after more than three quarters together watching Middle East Television’s broadcast of Peyton Manning and Brady lead their undefeated teams in the most anticipated matchup of the 2007-08 NFL season, Sir and Worthless are high-fiving pals. In America, we’d be at the bar, sucking back beers and arguing whether Brady or Manning is the greatest quarterback of all-time. Instead we’re in Israel, seated on something shredded and lopsided that resembles a couch, sharing a bag of Bamba peanut butter snack, arguing whether Brady or Manning is the greatest quarterback of all-time.
Personally, I’m a Manning guy, but Mr. Commander is all about Brady, who reminds him of Joe Montana, his absolute favorite player. Sure, Brady’s great and reminiscent of Joe Cool, who thrived in Bill Walsh’s disciplined system, I acknowledge, but Manning creates the system and transforms mediocre receivers into All-Pros. He tells me I’m wrong, that the Patriots wouldn’t have a system without Brady.
I nod and concede that he makes a good point, not because I think he does, per se, but because his bicep is the size of my head. And either way, out here in no-man’s land, I’m content losing the Brady vs. Manning debate while watching the maestros face off against each other in their primes.
The truth is, I didn’t even realize this game was happening. How could I? It was around midnight local time when my guard shift ended, and I hadn’t slept for more than three hours in a row since my last furlough, which was who knows how many hours of guarding and foot patrolling ago. When my fellow infantryman arrived to replace me at the guard post overlooking the roads veining across the valley below, I catatonically trudged toward the barracks, toward three more hours of REM-less sleep.
Wanting nothing more than to find the one empty mattress hidden among the stacked triple-decker bunk beds, I noticed the television screen flickering in the empty lounge. I decided to take a quick detour to turn it off and found myself mesmerized by the action playing out in front of me. I had entirely forgotten about football Sundays. I could allow myself just a few more minutes.
I leaned my M-16 against the reinforced concrete wall, released the Velcro of my bullet-proof flak jacket, and plopped down on the musty cushions, which exhaled a cloud of dirt, dust, and despair. I was in heaven. One minute it’s Manning barking out audibles, urgently pointing at defenders, zipping passes to Reggie Wayne, and the next minute it’s Brady dropping back, bouncing in place, pitching strikes to Wes Welker.
A booming voice interrupts my bliss.
I turn back and see the blue light from the television refracting off the base commander’s smooth dome.
I instinctively check that my shirt is tucked in, boot laces tied.
“Tell me,” he says in Hebrew, sternly, before switching to English. “It’s Brady versus Manning?”
He pauses in the entrance and, without averting his eyes from the screen, shuffles toward the couch and falls back into its coarse embrace.
I ask him how he started liking football, which in this part of the world refers to soccer. He tells me that he always enjoyed playing rugby growing up, so American football wasn’t too alien to him. Flipping through channels as a teenager, he caught a few minutes of Joe Montana and the 49ers. He’s been hooked ever since.
We sit together, screaming at the television, cursing the interceptions and fumbles that are making our heroes look human. And now Brady’s strike to Moss has the Pats poised to score and we’re out of our seats, pacing back and forth, just two guys watching football, unconcerned by our surroundings.
The Patriots line up, Brady calls for the ball, effortlessly fires a touchdown pass to Welker, and, with the extra point, the Pats trail by a field goal.
The commander catches me glance at my watch and laughs. Sleep can wait. Army protocol can wait. Everything can wait. I realize there’s no place I’d rather be right now. Manning is getting the ball back.
Aaron Kaplowitz served in the Israel Defense Forces from 2006-2008, after which he went looking for Tom Brady’s hat. He works at the Israeli Embassy.