An Ode to Hard Knocks

I love watching my football boys … as long as they’re not actually playing football.

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: HBO, Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: HBO, Getty Images

Like Taylor Swift, I have come to love football through unconventional means. Though I am not dating any six-foot-five tight ends — out of respect for my husband — I am watching Hard Knocks.

Before this summer, I would no sooner have turned on Hard Knocks than I would intentionally watch the literal NFL. The weekly HBO football docuseries follows one NFL team through their training camp as they prepare for the upcoming season, and its preseason iteration has somehow been airing for over 20 years. Since 2021, the show has followed another NFL team through the current season. I had not willingly seen football since I was a teenager; why would I tune in to the granular behind-the-scenes vagaries of a professional team, aired in virtual real time? (Episodes come out on Tuesdays, and NFL teams apparently play on Thursdays, Sundays, and Mondays.)

Then I saw Aaron Rodgers and the mentalist.

In August, a clip started circulating on Twitter/X of a doubtful Rodgers being mentalized by Oz Pearlman, who correctly displayed a card Rodgers had been thinking of, then transformed the deck in Rodgers’s hands into a goldfish sealed in a clear, rectangular box after safeties coach Marquand Manuel told Pearlman he was thinking about goldfish. The team’s collective mind is blown — “What if you would have picked a giraffe, though?” one player says to Manuel in awe — and Rodgers seems delighted to have been fooled.

I too was delighted to see Rodgers looking foolish in a way that did not involve him doing something like explaining why he doesn’t need the COVID vaccine or, say, implying late-night hosts committed acts of sexual impropriety with Jeffrey Epstein. So I went on Max and streamed every available episode of Hard Knocks: Training Camp With the New York Jets. I only realized it aired concurrently with reality when the season ended with the Jets excitedly preparing for their first game with the Buffalo Bills — a game that had permeated even my mostly football-free media bubble because Rodgers had, in the first few minutes of the first quarter, torn his Achilles tendon and ended his season. “Wait,” I said to my non-tight-end husband. “This just happened? Why do they let them film this? Can they get cameras back up?” He told me, with the patience of someone explaining liberty to a starfish or mRNA to Rodgers, that the filming crew had moved on to the season’s successor, Hard Knocks: In Season With the Miami Dolphins. I had a new favorite show.

With their helmets off and faces and desires exposed, you see how achingly young the players are. When they’re not bashing bodies or slouching into their seats during lectures — I am assured by NFL Films they are not bored, but merely relaxing heavily between extreme physical exertions — they’re jumping on each other, or coming up with special handshakes, or excitedly talking about getting new piercings, or buying each other presents they demand be opened in front of them. According to NFL Films senior director Steve Trout, this is authentic and not for the benefit of Hard Knock viewers. “One of the things we’ll say in the first meeting is, ‘Guys, if we see you acting up for the camera, we turn it around and we turn it off,’” he says. “And a lot of teams will have that guy and we’ll know ahead of time.” I had always thought of football players as big, violent men; they’re mostly big, excitable boys, with the exception of a few relative elders like Rodgers, who has indicated he is as skeptical of sunscreen as he is of vaccination and mentalists. You can tell!

Seeing the sizes of the players’ bodies and responsibilities juxtaposed with their luscious, ephemeral youth is the core of the show, underscored (and sometimes directly addressed) by Liev Schreiber in droll voice-over. In one In Season With the Miami Dolphins scene, they’re listing their favorite Christmas movies — Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa loves Elf and Home Alone — and the next, someone’s career may have ended. One minute, I’m rewinding an episode to watch Jaelan Phillips’s profligate butt muscles during practice, and by the end of the episode, his Achilles tendon has ruptured.

Between practices, the interstitial scenes are soothingly competent and repetitive. Sod is rolled up and laid down, helmet stickers applied and air bubbles pushed out. There is order backgrounding the unknowable brutality that will end every episode.

A season lasts 18 to 23 weeks, depending on how well a team performs. Over episodes that cover the second half of the season, we meet the players’ families, which often raises the stakes enough that you’re able to put CTE out of your mind while you worry about whether defensive tackle Zach Sieler is going to have a good game the week of his wife’s baby shower and if they’ll have to move back into an RV. Anxious parents fly in and see incredible South Beach views from their kids’ apartments and seem to know as little about the rules of football as I do. (I really do need to learn how downs work at some point.) Partners self-consciously drink wine in full glam before forgetting themselves and crying when their husbands have a good game, or a wretched one.

Not all of the player-family dynamics are heartrending. A recent episode followed Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill and his new wife. He presented the union oddly, delivering the marriage news expositorily, in front of his beatific, nodding bride, as something between a next chapter and an implied act of contrition. A few days after the episode aired, Hill was served two paternity suits, and this week he allegedly filed for divorce.

I should clarify that my newfound love of Hard Knocks did not inspire me to watch any actual football outside of the show. “I think that might be our favorite kind of Hard Knocks fan,” NFL Films senior coordinating producer Keith Cossrow tells me, though he persists in using foreign (to me) football phrases like “pick six” during our conversation. Cossrow says Max, like all streamers, is “pretty vague” about specific numbers, but that viewership is more female and “casual” than any other NFL projects.

Which means there’s little game-tape review or talk about blocking schemes on the show. “The second they get into that X’s and O’s, we don’t give them any of that,” Trout says; that would be revealing info for other teams. But also: “That would be just boring television.”

This prejudice against boring television tilts the show more toward the personality side of coaching than the strategic. I love all the coaches and want them to identify what would make me perform my best, then shout-talk that at me at a medium volume. Jets head coach Robert Saleh is tall and has seven kids and runs up and down all the stairs of the stadium for exercise. He’s the first Muslim head coach in the NFL. He’s bald in a hot way. He’s so obviously a coach of a football team, it wouldn’t make sense for him to do anything else.

Meanwhile, Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel is five-foot-nine and has calves more slender than Barbie’s. He appears to exclusively wear joggers and designer shoes; at one point this season Tagovailoa and an elderly ref ask him why there’s a tag on his Off-White sneakers, and he explains, “It comes with that, and, I mean, you lose all street cred if you cut that off.” His speaking voice is nasal, and his motivational speeches and sideline patter are delivered in the tone of a young nerd instructing a parent to hold his leopard-gecko tank up during show-and-tell so his class can see it better while he explains that the lizard is omnivorous. And the baby giants respect him. Why wouldn’t they? McDaniel seems to always be right. He cares so much that I care enough to watch him watch a few seconds of game tape without even taking a break and looking at my phone.

Trout tells me NFL Films has been trying unsuccessfully for 60 years to follow a team all the way to the Super Bowl, in various documentary forms; it is their Holy Grail. And on January 13, in spite of myself, I turned on bona fide football and watched my big boys play in a Wild Card game against the Kansas City Chiefs to see if they were going to continue the NFL quest.

The game was long — about the length of four episodes of Hard Knocks, and without Liev Schreiber telling me how I was supposed to feel about what was happening and why. But even from my position as the dimmest football fan alive, I could tell things were going badly for the Dolphins. Taylor Swift was joyously doing something called “swag surfin’” in the Chiefs’ VIP box-seat area. Instead of throwing the ball to receivers and scoring touchdowns, Tagovailoa mostly did not do that. The Dolphins looked very cold in the -27-degree windchill, their breath in the frigid air as thick and visible as vape smoke in a Miami club. It felt unfair; the Chiefs are used to this kind of terrible weather, just like the Dolphins are acclimatized to having Ron DeSantis as governor.

The Dolphins lost, ending their season. I was surprised by how sad I was. For the boys, of course. For Coach McDaniel. But also for myself. There would be no more Hard Knocks for a long, long time.

An Ode to Hard Knocks