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A Terrible Towel to me used to mean nothing. It was this scrappy yellow thing on a table I thought my friend used to wipe his brow after jogging in the evening.

But that was before.

For more than three years I was the significant other to a rather neckless boy who worshipped big, meaty men pummelling each other, occassionally careening through the air and trading bottom swats on a long and dirty field of insecticide-treated Astro-crud.

It could never hold my interest, as would a PBS documentary on the history of the Ebola virus.

On Sunday, the television religiously popped on. The boy would hunker down on the couch, clad in sweats, a Redskins hat perched on his dome, wide eyes transfixed -- the way people look after six hours of non-stop night driving. With mind numbed from relentless ads for beer, crunchy fried snacks and trucks, he might cheer after a particularly good pummell or run. He would often stand when he did this. At the time, I had no clue what was going on, nor did I care. Nonetheless, he was patient, fervently explaining the critical play or the finesse of a particular pass.

``Come here, you've GOT to see this,'' he would shout, standing up, as the quarterback executed some feat. ``BEAUTIFUL.''

``Yes,'' I'd say, nod knowingly and return to removing some bug-infested flour from the pantry. At these times, I would ponder my life. Why did I not date that sensitive lad from work who read Alain de Botton and collected indie pop singles?

Despite playing the bells for two weeks in the high school marching band, I found understanding the game was the equivalent of comprehending Russian. It was foreign, strange and as male as jock straps, corporate CEOs and Trans Ams.

We did not talk much during those games. And when Super Bowl time came, he left a friend's house steaming after we spent hours taunting the sport, commenting on the beefy, lumbering creatures so far removed from our well-honed sense of sophistication and taste. Tennis, yes. And World Cup soccer, well, of course. Why not watch those strumming Alexi Lalas and the dred-locked Cobie Jones -- to ease the boredom of all that tireless running?

The Super Bowl -- and his disapppointment in my comprehension of THE GAME -- may have been the beginning of the end.

So it is with that twist that I reveal my latest transformation.

Arriving at a bar a couple of weeks ago to meet friends, I casually counted the half-dozen televisions on one pub wall. It was a run-of-the-mill sports bar. We were going to watch the Patriots game. I did not know who was playing the Patriots, but my social life, limited of late, depended on it for that day.

My friend sat on a stool wincing as one man pig-piled many others. I assumed a Patriot was under that pile. Despite the pile, Bledsoe and the gang were doing well. I knew quarterback Drew Bledsoe's name because of his ubiquitous burger commercials. He is also cute in the fabulously popular nice jock kind of way.

I watched the game because I had no choice. But what happened that afternoon was beyond my control. It was feigned interest that evolved, somehow, into something else -- a slight ember of intrigue. It was sort of like rolling your first Spanish ``R'' off the tip of your tongue. You've tried it unsuccessfully a dozen times. When you finally succeed, you try to figure out why and you can't. Such was my road to figuring out football.

That day, the fire was set. The Patriots lost by a hair to the Steelers, but would return to battle them again in the division playoffs. I knew I would watch the game. At home last Saturday, I snapped on my television with the 12-inch screen, snuggled under my comforter with a coffee and tuned in that game. While I was too humiliated to call a friend yet and ask the basic game rules I now WANTED TO KNOW. HAD to know. How many chances do they get to make a touchdown? How many yards does the team with the ball have to travel before they have to turn over the ball? Why do these refs seem to make so many bad calls? How many points for a field goal? And what in God's name is a point conversion?

It was so awful that I knew so little. I was amazed by the grace and intelligent of Kordell Stewart, the Steeler's QB. I even respected the lumpy men who worked so hard to protect him. Feeling humbled, and angry about a bad call on a helmut grab, I called my friend with the Terrible Towel after the game, which the Patriot's lost by a hair, again. My friend was quite excited, having waved his terrible towel all day.

I sucked all traces of pride and asked many questions of him. We talked for an hour. I found out that there are two lines on a team: offense and defense. They play at different times.

``You know,'' I told him at the end of the game rule lesson. ``Bledsoe's style reminds me of female figure skaters. When he throws I get that same feeling I get when Nancy Kerrigan does a triple lutz -- like she's going to mess it up and go sprawling. It's that same lack of confidence I have in Drew. The feeling that it'sgoing to get ugly."

``Really. That is very insightful,'' my friend said. ``That is what Bledsoe's known for: choking in the big game. I am impressed.''

Impressed with myself, too, I hung up the phone. Then I clicked on the Packers game. I need to know more. And I need to go burn my friend's Terrible Towel.