On the FDR Drive overpass by lower Manhattan’s Houston Street, a group of men begins assembling an hour before nightfall one steamy Thursday in late June. Some come from security, construction, or livery jobs, others from long subway rides or carpools from the Bronx or Spanish Harlem. A few have brought wives and children.
Ranging in age from 19 to 51, short and wide to superbly conditioned, they seem a ragtag group, but for the cleats around their necks, the footballs a few carry, and the insults, bro-hugs and daps they exchange as their number swells to a dozen and they head into the Baruch Projects and its 75-year-old playground. More than 90 minutes of grueling calisthenics and sprints in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, it’s clear this is an elite, disciplined group: These practices are every Tuesday and Thursday night it’s not raining or snowing, 40-plus weeks a year. As twilight falls, passersby ogle the regimented testosterone on field, though not for long: The spectacle of men bonding to face the realities of barrio life is fairly common, and it rarely lasts.
These guys do, because they’re Carver Mobb — the name from Spanish Harlem’s George Washington Carver Projects, where the core half-dozen grew up in the 1970s. A team for 21 years, they’ve been the powerhouse of New York’s half-dozen seven-on-seven rough-touch football leagues for a decade. Essentially two-hand-touch taken to bloodsport level, with two 25-minute halves, a mostly running clock, and referees to nominally control the mayhem, it’s the closest these weekend warriors will come to professional sport, though many are high-caliber athletes. Most played high school ball, but only a half-dozen of the 200-plus devotees I’ll meet made it to college; two were walk-ons for the New York Giants or Jets, one played semi-pro in Coney Island, another plays Arena football.
I was a big NFL fan growing up but am a casual fan at best now. Still, I’ve watched every Super Bowl since the Rams almost upset the Steelers 35 years ago. I’m sure I’ll watch this year’s game, too, but for the first time that I can remember I’ve entertained thoughts of skipping it because I find both teams so unlikable.
The book is terrific and I recently had a chance to chat with John about football writing and how he approached putting this collection together.
Alex Belth: When you read boxing or baseball anthologies, there’s usually a lot of material written before WWII. I noticed less material from the early decades of the last century here. What is it about the more old-timey football writing that makes it uninteresting?
John Schulian: I know how it must look: the old-timers don’t seem to get much love even though I’m an old-timer myself. What you have to realize is that football before World War II, and even for more than a decade after it, was hardly the cultural and economic behemoth it is today. Baseball, boxing, and horse racing ruled the sports pages and the nation’s imagination. Football had to be content with harbingers of a better tomorrow—Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski running wild, Slingin’ Sammy Baugh uncorking touchdown passes, George Halas and his fellow dreamers laying the foundation for the National Football League. It was swell that Fitzgerald and Irwin Shaw found inspiration in the games that gave old alums in raccoon coats a reason to howl, but the truth was still the truth: Football had some serious catching-up to do.
Beyond that, the writing it inspired was generally pretty dreary unless you have a high tolerance for adjectives, mixed metaphors, and stories dashed off by scribes who nipped from their flasks for four quarters. You’ll notice, for instance, that I made a point of not including Grantland Rice’s oft-reprinted paean to the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. To do so would have meant wading in the sludge of old Granny’s hyperbole, and I wasn’t about to risk scaring off readers that way. Instead, I went with an excerpt from his memoir about how he came to write the piece and, ever since, I’ve wondered how different it would be if Rice had been able to avail himself of today’s press-box replays and the locker-room interviews that were so scarce when he walked the earth.
Football is hard to cover under the best of circumstances, and the old-timers clearly suffered because of the primitive conditions under which they worked. I like to think that’s why I came up empty when I looked for compelling pieces by Heywood Broun and Damon Runyon. Both were memorable writers and, yet, when I read what they had to say about the sport, it seemed strained, uninformed, almost naïve—in other words, it was a lot like everything I ever wrote about hockey. I thought I would do better with Stanley Woodward, an ex-college lineman whose greatest achievements were as the no-guff, no-pandering sports editor of the New York Herald Tribune. I even knew a line from the Woodward story I hoped to use. When an inconsequential gaffe made a University of Michigan lineman the villain of a major upset, Woodward wrote: “Attributing that catastrophe to such a cause was like blaming the Johnstown flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona, Pennsylvania.” Let’s just say the line may have seemed so memorable because everything Woodward wrote before and after it was so forgettable.
Now I stand before you grateful that I was able to find what I did from football’s Pleistocene era. Grateful for W.C. Heinz’s visit with Red Grange, the first of the great broken-field runners, and for Myron Cope’s hilarious yet compelling interview with the self-named Johnny Blood, a vagabond as both a player and a coach. Grateful for Shirley Povich’s generosity when covering a football slaughter, and for the hat President Truman lost after an Army-Navy game, as if he knew Red Smith was looking for a way into a column. And if someone were to step forward now with a sheaf of the kind of pieces I couldn’t find, I’d be grateful for that, too. But it wouldn’t have changed football’s status as a stepchild in those early days, and if it pains you to read that, just hold on. Things got better in a hurry.
AB: I loved the Myron Cope piece. I know he’s best remembered as a broadcaster in Pittsburgh, but he had serious chops as a writer. He’s my favorite of the Sport magazine freelancers from the ’60s.
JS: Cope was an absolute joy to read whether it was in Sport or Sports Illustrated or even True, which in the Fifties and Sixties was always showcasing sports writing heavyweights like W.C. Heinz and John Lardner and stars in the making like Jimmy Breslin, Dave Anderson, and Jerry Izenberg. Cope fit right in thanks to his sly wit and affinity for exotic characters. One month he’d be writing about Bo Belinksy, Muhammad Ali, or a self-promoting football scout named Fido Murphy, and the next month he’d be telling the sad tale of the Steelers team that sobered up for a showdown with the Giants and got hammered in a non-alcoholic way. But mention his name in Pittsburgh these days and the Cope the locals remember wasn’t just the Steelers’ funny, passionate, idiosyncratic play-by-play man, he was the inventor of the Terrible Towel, which for hardcore fans puts him in the same category as Jonas Salk.
Myself, I’m a lot more impressed by a collection of his best magazine work called Broken Cigars, and I’ve never been able to understand why someone hasn’t reprinted it. But having said that, I’m here to tell you Cope’s greatest achievement was as an oral historian. Sports Illustrated sent him out to track down the seminal figures of pro football’s early days, and he came back in 1970 with the makings for The Game That Was, which did for the sport what Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times did for baseball. The Library of America didn’t want a lot of book excerpts in Football, but I never doubted for a minute that Cope’s interview with a free spirit—wild man, actually—named John McNally would make the cut. While he was migrating from one college to another, he and a teammate wanted to earn some pocket money by playing semipro on the side. They couldn’t use their real names, of course, so they searched and searched and finally found just what they needed on a poster for a swashbuckler movie called Blood and Sand. All the man who became Johnny Blood had to do after that was wait for Cope to show up.
AB: Beyond Red Smith and Shirley Povich, I awas taken with the column on Jim Brown by Jimmy Cannon. Those are not a pair I would have put together. I knew there’d be a Jim Brown story in this collection—how could there not be?—but I wouldn’t have expected one from Cannon. I know Cannon was a great columnist in his prime but his reputation has faded through the years. Were you looking for a Cannon piece specifically?
JS: I’ve been campaigning to put together a collection of Cannon’s greatest hits for the past few years, and though I’ve yet to find a taker, I always bring up his Jim Brown column when I’m bending someone’s ear. This is Cannon at his absolute best, spending the afternoon watching Brown trample the Giants and then taking what he saw in a direction that never would have occurred to another writer. Who else would have made the leap from a game that big to a recollection of the day he first heard Enrique Caruso, the great opera singer? Who else would have used the occasion to wax nostalgic about “the old neighborhood” and a barbershop run by a guy named—stop it, you’re killing me—Joe? But somehow Cannon makes it work with the magic he had when the stars were aligned and the wind was at his back. He was always stretching, always straining to out-write everyone, and a lot of times you could hear him grunting and groaning from the effort. This time, however, his words take flight, and the greatness on display is his as much as it is Brown’s and Caruso’s.
If you’re surprised to find Cannon writing about Brown, don’t be. The year was 1963 and Brown, to the best of my knowledge, had yet to rough up his first lady friend. Later, of course, it would become a recurring theme in his life, one I suspect Cannon, imbued with dry-drunk gallantry, would have used as a reason to tee off on him, disdain him, or both. But in or out of trouble, no one ever denied that Brown is a fascinating and complex character—perhaps the greatest running back ever, a movie star of some significance, a mentor for kids swept up in L.A. thug life. His name echoes through any number of the pieces in the book, and if I’d had more pages to work with, there would likely be one or two others devoted solely to him. God knows they’re out there, splendid work by splendid writers. But when I could only choose one, Cannon made it easy for me.
AB: What stuff did you include from the ’60s?
JS: Myron Cope would have been an obvious choice, but he was already in the book. The same with Bill Heinz, whose Run to Daylight! was the first great look at the brilliance and indomitability of Vince Lombardi. I had already committed to Heinz on Red Grange, though, and I never regretted it because St. Vincent inspired so much compelling writing. Leonard Shecter stirred things up with a profile of Vince Lombardi for Esquire that was so mean it made Mrs. Lombardi cry; I loved it in my Young Turk days, but when I gave it a second look all these years later, it seemed gratuitously cruel and, much as I admire Shecter, riddled with buncombe. Sorry, no sale. On the other hand, there was the Jerry Kramer-Dick Schaap collaboration, Instant Replay, the chronicle of the Packers’ 1967 season that ruled the bestseller lists and begat a stampede of as-told-to books. We’re talking about work done nearly half a century ago, and it holds up because of the authors’ commitment to the truth. Nor does it hurt that Lombardi endures as a subject to this day. David Maraniss, the superb Bill Clinton biographer, seized on the old boy’s staying power and delivered a state-of-the-art study of Lombardi. If I’d failed to include something from it, I’d be guilty of dereliction of duty.
I feel the same about the excerpt from Paper Lion, George Plimpton’s chronicle of his training-camp exploits as the Lions’ last-string quarterback. The grace and self-deprecating wit in Plimpton’s prose always reminds me of Cary Grant’s acting. But even without my confession that I’m a sucker for it, any literate football fan should see the Plimpton excerpt coming. I hope I’ve thrown readers a curve—pardon my mixed sports metaphors—by mixing in two looks back at the Sixties by writers from other precincts. First is Baltimore boy Frank Deford, the star in SI’s crown for so many years, lifting a glass to the city’s beloved Johnny Unitas. Then there’s Jennifer Allen recreating a New Year’s Eve with her father, George Allen, after he’d been fired as the Los Angeles Rams’ head coach on Christmas Eve. Happy holidays, huh? It felt good to include the excerpt from Jennifer’s book Fifth Quarter for a couple of reasons. One, she’s an incisive and fearless writer. Two, I was able to make amends in some small way for the many times I described George as the NFL’s answer to Richard Nixon. Yes, he could be pretty crazy, loving ice cream because he didn’t have to waste time chewing and writing me off as a Baltimore fan on first meeting simply because I’d worked on a newspaper there. But there was never any doubting his genius for defense or his love for the beat-up old pros who populated his roster. And here’s what should have convinced me that my opinion of George needed an overhaul long ago: Those old pros loved him back.
Jimmy Breslin, the ultimate New York columnist, loved old pros, too. I get the feeling from his piece on Y.A. Tittle’s last stand that he may have loved them most when they lost. They didn’t whine or bitch, they just picked themselves up and moved on because they knew they had done everything they could. It wasn’t enough, but it was all they had, and there was something noble about taking satisfaction in that, the way Tittle does when he can’t quarterback the Giants past the Browns.
Breslin, like Bill Heinz before him, knew the losers’ locker room was fertile ground for great stories. But every time he looked around before he began covering the city at large, he found more young scribes in there with him. It was all part of the seismic change that the Sixties brought to sports writing. The best of them threw off the shackles of clichés and rah-rah coverage and started serving up humor and social commentary. If they could work in a song lyric by the Grateful Dead or something Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, so much the better. On the East Coast, there was Larry Merchant, who had made irreverence and unblinking insight his stock in trade first as sports editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and, by the end of the decade, as a columnist at the New York Post. He knew something about football, too, having been a schoolboy star in New York and a self-described “last-string halfback” on Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma powerhouses in the Fifties. What Merchant knew even more about, however, was the cultural significance of Broadway Joe Namath. I think you’ll see what I mean in the excerpt I pulled from his book … And Every Day You Take Another Bite.
At the same time, on the other side of the country, Jim Murray was playing his Los Angeles Times sports column for laughs with a mix of joy and intelligence that hadn’t been seen since Ring Lardner and his son John were running amok. Murray looked at sports in a funhouse mirror, delivering lines that are still quoted in press boxes and around breakfast tables half a century later. And oh, did he have fun when the Jets upset the Colts in the Super Bowl: “The missionaries ate the cannibals.” You know that one’s in the book.
What you may have realized by now is that none of the writers representing the Sixties were hard-nosed, watch-every-practice, grill-every-source beat reporters. The guys who fit that description best were Paul Zimmerman, who made his bones at the pre-Murdoch New York Post and later moved to Sports Illustrated, and Will McDonough, the Boston Globe enforcer who punched out a Patriots defensive back. I suppose I should mention Tex Maule, too, because it was his story in SI about Unitas leading the Colts over the Giants in overtime that bore the headline “The Greatest Game Ever Played” even though he never used those words himself. Maule was a reformed trapeze artist and former public-relations man who became a tool of the NFL in its war with the ragtag but thoroughly enjoyable American Football League. (Enjoyable, that is, to those of us enthralled with 57-56 scores and old goats like George Blanda and Tobin Rote.) But Maule’s greatest sin in the context of this book was that he was a ham-fisted writer, which disqualified him from inclusion. Alas, Zimmerman and McDonough had similar artistic deficiencies, so their prose didn’t make the cut, either, and that’s unfortunate. Without the digging they did—Zim on the intricacies of the game, McDonough on front-office shenanigans—the stylists who followed them never would have had such a well-lit path to travel.
AB: Of course, a certain amount of the material in a book like this is going to be personality-driven. Were there any specific players or coaches you wanted to feature?
JS: It would have been a fool’s mission to try to make room for all the players who’ve been anointed as superstars and all the coaches who’ve been praised as smarter than Einstein. And big games? The nation turns its lonely eyes to them every weekend, in every NFL division and college conference. Biggest game of the season, biggest of the century, no matter how many times we’ve heard it, we still love to fall for it. Everything is outsized—the players, the coaches’ egos, the alumni pressure, the TV money—and the book could easily have wound up looking like it was on steroids. But I didn’t want to scare off people by turning it into a doorstop.
The best solution I could come up with was to select pieces that were, for lack of a better word, emblematic. You want quarterbacks, you’ve got Deford on Unitas and the pluperfect Charlie Pierce on Peyton and Archie Manning, which I like to think covers a lot of territory historically. You want linebackers, you’ve got Arthur Kretchmer on Dick Butkus, and while Kretchmer was no sports writer, I admire the way he parked himself next to Butkus and hung on for dear life. on the sideline and zeroed in on the guts of the game. You want coaching legends, you’ve got the street-smart novelist Richard Price putting his Bronx accent up against Bear Bryant’s tobacco-cured mumble and Gary Cartwright, a Texas legend, deciphering what went on under that hat Tom Landry wore. We’re talking about big names here—icons, if you believe in that sort of thing—but each piece reveals its subject as a human being. With all the blather and blare surrounding football, we need to be reminded of that occasionally.
It would seem more difficult to provide that kind of perspective in a game story—twenty-two large gentlemen in the equivalent of one freeway pile-up after another—but the beauty of the best game stories is they tap into narratives as unique as snowflakes. Of course, I can’t give you every great one ever written, but you’ll certainly get the feel of them when you read Dan Jenkins merrily tweaking Notre Dame for playing for a tie against Michigan State, and Leigh Montville hanging onto his hat after Doug Flutie’s magic act against Miami. And don’t let me forget Pat Forde weaving together the many themes of Boise State’s otherworldly Fiesta Bowl victory over Oklahoma—the trick play, the running back’s marriage proposal, the idea that a team from a state famous for potatoes could fly so high. It was one of those stories Americans love, the underdog triumphant, but in college football’s latest realignment, the power conferences have done their utmost to make sure you’ll never see anything quite like it again.
So if you don’t mind, I’m going to revel in my own favorite upset for a moment. There’s no story about it in the book, but there isn’t a red-blooded University of Utah graduate who doesn’t get all puffed up every time he thinks of it. I say this in full confidence because I happen to be one. Anyway, there the Utes were in the Sugar Bowl, the undefeated champions of the Mountain West Conference, whatever that was worth, and it certainly didn’t seem like much to mighty Alabama on January 1, 2009. The Crimson Tide strutted into the Superdome in New Orleans as if they were about to be served a tray of red velvet cupcakes, and the Utes bitch-slapped them with 14 fast, furious points. That’s right, Nick Saban: all those blue chippers of yours got bitch-slapped. They tried mightily to come back, and, brother, every Ute fan had seen that movie before. Start like your ass is on fire, go toes up before halftime. But not these Utes. Somebody else could roll over and play dead. They were going to knock the snot out of Alabama. Final score: 31–17. I’m not counting on a repeat performance any time soon now that the Utes are in the Pac-12 and praying they can break .500 someday. But I’ve still got my memories of that sweet, sweet Sugar Bowl. Damn, Nick Saban looked good with his tail between his legs.
AB: I like how you included profiles of icons like Butkus and Bryant that were written by non-football writers. The Price story, in particular, is such an odd pairing of writer and subject and yet the reader comes away with a vivid picture of Bryant. What is it about being an outsider that can make the writing and reporting so sharp?
JS: First, you’ve got to imagine the plight of the harried soul on the football beat whether for a newspaper or website. He or she has a million things to worry about—trades, roster moves, rumors, next week’s big game, players’ injuries, coaches’ lies, news stories, features, sidebars, blogs, tweets—and I haven’t even mentioned the editors who are constantly crying out for more, faster. My head hurts just thinking about it. I know there are some hardy souls out there who thrive on such pressure, but sooner or later it’s got to diminish either the desire or the time and freedom it takes to write something that’s both stylish and insightful. They reach a point where the job is as much about survival as ir ia anything else. Their eyes glaze over, and when that happens, they just want to see the finish line.
Not so Richard Price and Arthur Kretchmer. Price was a young literary lion when Playboy enlisted him to profile Bryant and Kretchmer was the magazine’s editorial director who may have used his clout to get the Butkus assignment. They could stroll in, hang out, and look around until they seized on things a weary beat writer, even in the days before the, might have taken for granted. These outsiders had landed on what might as well have been the moon, and thanks to their cushy magazine deadlines, they could revel in the newness and the strangeness of it all.
After reading what the two of them wrote, I gather that Kretchmer was less an outsider primarily—most likely solely—because of the friendship he seems to have struck up with Butkus. And if they weren’t friends, Butkus certainly didn’t mind his company. It wasn’t just that they had lunch together, it was that Butkus gave him the gift of blunt honesty, and got him on the sidelines for a Bears game, too. That way, Kretchmer could calculate the seismic force of each play, hear the cracks and the thuds and the grunts and the sound of a Packers defensive end telling the Bear across from him, “I’m going to kill you.”
Unfortunately, the Bears were dreadful in their patented way—a constipated offense and a defense that took solace for defeat in the number of bruises and broken bones they meted out. In the midst of such inferiority, there was Butkus with his unsurpassed genius for violence, playing on a knee that was essentially a garbage pail, trying to defy futility. Kretchmer was moved to ask him why he kept beating his head against the wall that way. It was a question the daily press corps had undoubtedly asked, too, but sometimes it’s the outsider, the guy who’s not part of the daily inquisition, who gets the best answer. So it was when Butkus told Kretchmer, “That’s like asking a guy why he fucks.”
Price never pried as pithy an answer out of Bryant during the week he spent in Tuscaloosa. Or if he did, he didn’t understand what the Bear was saying in that unfiltered-Chesterfield voice of his. But it all played perfectly into the pose Price adopted for the story. It was 1979, after he’d scored big with The Wanderers and before he scored bigger with Clockers and Freedomland. He went to Alabama as the ultimate fish out of water, a New York wisenheimer thrust into the land of Ku Klux Klansmen and Freedom Riders. He had an earring and the longest hair this side of Duane Allman, and he was intent on milking everything he could from the reverse of stereotypical urban paranoia.
Mercifully, the piece doesn’t come off as an attack on the South unless you’re sensitive to the mileage Price gets from his failure to understand a joke Bryant tells. “I guess that ain’t funny to you,” Bear says, scowling. No way Price can make himself confess that Bryant might as well have told the joke in Urdu. Price simply tacks his discomfort onto everything else he has felt during his visit to this strange land, and, wonder of wonders, he gets away with it. True, he doesn’t break any new ground on Bryant, but that’s not the point. He’s goofing on the Bear, albeit with a healthy dose of respect. But he’s also goofing on himself, and he obviously enjoys it, even revels in it. He might not have seemed very bright to Bryant, but he was smart enough to get out of Tuscaloosa in one piece.
AB: My favorite game story in the book is Tom Archdeacon’s column on Jackie Smith. The media crush that Smith faced after that game seemed relentless according to Archdeacon’s piece and yet he was probably the only one to notice and incorporate Smith’s son into his story. There were so many columns written about that game. What made Archdeacon’s stand out?
JS: It’s a masterful example of what a true craftsman could do in the days of p.m. newspapers if he kept his eyes and ears open. While the morning-paper scribes from the East Coast were racing to make, say, a 9 p.m. deadline, Archdeacon might not have had to file for the Miami News, may it rest in peace, until 4 or 5 a.m. If he was like a lot of us who had that luxury at some point in our careers, he used every minute of it. It’s obvious he stayed in the Cowboys’ locker room to the very end—it’s how he gets rich, novelistic details like a writer stepping on Jackie Smith’s towel and another one accidentally leaving a line of ink on Smith’s shoulder blade.
The most impressive move Archdeacon made, however, was to zero in on Smith’s teenaged son, who had come to see his father’s hour of glory in the Super Bowl and instead witnessed an admirable display of courage and grace in the wake of that dropped pass. Not every athlete handles a situation like this as well as Smith did, believe me. Some get nasty, some hide in the trainer’s room, some vamoose. But the good ones will stand there and face wave after wave of reporters, just the way they would if they were the hero instead of the goat. Smith was obviously one of the good ones. But a lot of writers were going to say that the next day. Archdeacon needed something that would separate him from their number, and young Darrell Smith, son of Jackie, was it. His presence provided a new dimension to the scene in the locker room and set the stage for his father as a sympathetic figure. I don’t recall if any other writer bothered to talk to the boy, but I covered that game and I know I didn’t. I caved in to my a.m. deadline and belabored the obvious by writing about Terry Bradshaw. When I read Archdeacon’s column the next day, I gave myself a 15-yard penalty for lack of imagination.
It wasn’t guilt or shame that moved me to include Archdeacon in the book, however. I was just seeking an ounce of justice. I’m not sure how many people read what he wrote when it ran—the Miami News’ circulation was pitiful—and here was a chance to give it a second life. Archdeacon was someone whose work I had admired instantly, and I always thought he deserved a wider audience. I can certainly think of a lot of magazines over the years that could have benefited from his prose. But he stayed with the News until it sank, and then moved to the Dayton Daily News, his hometown paper, where he’s still writing better than a lot of bigger names with bigger paychecks in bigger cities. In a way, I suppose, he’s like Jackie Smith, more of a nobleman than you ever expected to find in his calling.
AB: I also loved the John Ed Bradley piece because it talks about the game from the inside. I’m crazy about John Ed’s writing, though, so I’m biased. When you were putting together this book, did you know that you’d include one of his stories?
JS: Not only did I know John Ed would have a piece in the book, I knew which piece it would be. He’s written a multitude of keepers in his career, but he soared highest when he dug into his self-imposed exile from the LSU football program he had graced as a player and that haunted him for years afterward. Once his soulful, painful reminiscence ran in Sports Illustrated, it was obvious that John Ed had much more to say, and he said it in his memoir It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium. It’s labeled as a book about football, naturally, but it’s really about a young man’s struggle to come to grips with who he is. It’s about the human condition, which is what the best sports writing is always about.
The fact of the matter is, I don’t think of John Ed as a sportswriter, and I haven’t since the first time I read him in, I’m guessing, the early ’80s. It was a piece he wrote when he was at the Washington Post, and it began with him and LSU’s starting quarterback sitting on a hill on campus, drinking a few beers and wondering what the future held. The Post’s sports staff was brimming with talent then, the way it usually is, so finding terrific stories and columns was hardly a surprise, but this was so far beyond the norm that I was gobsmacked. Here was a guy who should have been taking baby steps at a powerhouse newspaper and he was producing work that fairly shouted he had books in him, serious books. That hardly qualifies me as a literary talent scout. There were lots of other people saying the same thing. But I’m still proud to have been there at the beginning.
AB: Did you make a conscious effort to include football stories from all levels of competition—high school, college, the pros—or did you just select what you thought was the best writing?
JS: A book like this is first of all about the writing, but it’s also about the voices of both writer and subject, and the players and coaches who are emblematic of something larger, an era, perhaps, or a signature style of play. Whether the writing came from newspapers, magazines, or books didn’t really concern me. Naturally, magazine pieces, crafted in relative leisure, are going to be more polished than newspaper pieces, which are often written in a race against deadline that leaves no time smooth out their rough edges. But sometimes those ragged edges give the newspaper pieces the immediacy and passion that makes them memorable, even collectible.
I knew from the outset that the pros and the colleges were going to dominate the book. After all, what’s football without domination even when we’re just talking about its literary side? But I wanted high school football in the mix, too, because it’s so deeply ingrained in popular culture. (It’s also deeply ingrained in me—I read everything I can find about my old school’s team.) The obvious book to turn to was Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, which is nothing less than a masterpiece. It not only reminds readers of the joy and pain of high school football—and of adolescence—it explores the otherworldly nuttiness that envelops the sport in Texas. So, mission accomplished, right?
Not so fast, buckaroo. The next thing I knew, I found “Friday Night Tykes,” a smart, insightful look at preteen tackle football in the age of concussions. Naturally, it was set in Texas, too. Bryan Curtis wrote it for Texas Monthly, which by now should have retired the trophy for the country’s best regional magazine, and he did it without getting up on a soap box or passing judgment or any of the other traps a lesser talent might have walked into. He just laid his story out there and let the reader make up his own mind. By the time I finished reading it, all I could do was borrow a figure of speech from the kids Curtis had written about: he was so beast.
JS: I was too dumb to be scared that I might not find enough first-rate material to fill a book. I’ve been reading great football writing since I decided I wanted to make a living playing with words in press boxes, and I knew it was out there. But I wouldn’t be foolish enough to tell you that football is a writer’s sport the way baseball used to be and boxing will be until they throw the last shovel of dirt on its coffin. There’s always been secrecy and paranoia in football, but it’s gotten worse over time. The evidence is right there in Roy Blount Jr.’s elegy to the freedom he had when he wrote . . . About Three Bricks Shy of a Load. Everywhere Blount goes on a visit to the Steelers, the team whose illustrious predecessors were at the heart of his book, he’s stymied by rules and badgered by nattering PR honks who would have been used for crow bait back in the day. And that’s no way to find out anything about anybody.
Great players can drift through their careers today as relative strangers to the people who cheer for them, worship them, maybe even want to be them. The coaches have always been on the secretive side—not enough prunes in their diet, I think—but writers could work around that. They learned to roll with coaches’ bland pronouncements and shameless prevarication because there were always players and assistant coaches who would tell them the truth or at least nudge them toward it. But for me, the real satisfaction in writing about football didn’t come from dissecting injury reports, and I sure as hell never wanted to loot a head coach’s office in search of a game plan. I probably wouldn’t have understood it anyway.
My aim was to find out what made the players tick. If I sat down with them—the good ones anyway, the ones who responded to thoughtful questions—I knew the odds of succeeding were in my favor. A lot of the guys I interviewed were incredibly bright and articulate, or they were blessed with wit and the kind of go-to-hell attitude that made them savor the massive collisions that happen on every play. If a writer can get 20 minutes with someone who fits either of those descriptions, he has a fighting chance to turn out something worth reading, at least for purposes of a newspaper piece or its Internet equivalent. For something longer, of course, a writer needs even more access. How much? Well, read Al Silverman on Gale Sayers coming back from a brutal knee injury or Michael Lewis on the high-wire lives of placekickers. Those weren’t done in a day, my friend.
The problem now as I see it—and I admit that I’m looking at it from a great distance—is that writers don’t have the kind of access my generation did. It’s that way in big league baseball, too, but football is the mother of managed media access. You’ve got staged press conferences, and only the head coach and a limited number of players are trotted out for them. Worse yet, everybody seems to be sticking to a script. Working the locker room seems to be a lost art, if indeed writers are even allowed inside. The best, or at least the most colorful, way to fight that is to do what T.J. Simers, the erstwhile L.A. Times columnist, used to do, and walk in anyway. He’d tell anyone who tried to stop him that he had a job to do, and he wasn’t about to be stopped. I confess I was never a fan of T.J.’s work once he left the football beat, but his balls belong in the hall of fame.
Much as I admire writers who aren’t afraid to tilt with the NFL’s windmills, I’m just as impressed by those who refuse to be fazed by the climate of secrecy. They’re scattered around the country, looking at football from fresh angles, turning out pieces so smart and well-reported and beautifully written that geezers like me are forced to admit that sports writing didn’t begin and end with us. Bryan Curtis, whom I mentioned earlier, is right there with the best of them. Wright Thompson, whose ode to Southern football is one of the book’s highlights, looks like he can do anything he sets his mind to as long as he isn’t writing about Elaine’s, the old New York literary saloon. (Save your tears, buddy. It was a dump whose time had long passed before you walked through the door.) Some day there will be another book like mine, and it will be brimming with memorable pieces by Thompson and Curtis as well as the young Turks I couldn’t squeeze into my collection. The bylines I’ve embraced will fall by the wayside, and time will march on. That’s the way it usually works, isn’t it?
AB: Speaking of the NFL, you covered the league when you were a columnist in the late Seventies and early Eighties. What was it like writing about pro football compared with the other sports?
JS: I was never a beat reporter, though that’s what the Washington Post hired me to be in 1975. I was supposed to back up the intrepid Leonard Shapiro, who I’m sure had years taken off his life by his constant battle to get to the truth about the Redskins. But I soon proved myself to be ill equipped for the job. Short attention span, easily bored, something like that. So I wound up doing mostly features, and most of the contact I had with the Redskins was when I wrote sidebars after big games, and of course every game they played was a big one in that town. Even their damn practices were big.
My first day at the Post—Labor Day, or close to it—the boss tells me I can meet the staff and find out where the men’s room is later. He needs me to cover the Redskins’ practice. I haul ass to Redskin Park, out by Dulles Airport, and start poking around for something to write about a team I may know less about than anyone in the District of Columbia and its surrounding suburbs. I look at the bright side, though. At least I’ll meet George Allen, the ’Skins’ coach. He’s been called the Richard Nixon of the NFL, and since the real Nixon is long gone—he lost one too many in ’73, I’m told—I might as well put myself on Allen’s radar.
I seize a moment after his press conference and introduce myself. He squints at me curiously, a John Wayne kind of thing.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
I’m about to tell him I worked on a paper there for the past five years, but he cuts me short.
“A Colts fan, huh?” he says, turning on his heel and walking away.
From that day forward, I’m convinced he thought of me as a spy, if indeed he thought of me at all.
It was no easy thing being around the Redskins, even in a limited capacity, and I’m sure it skewed my view of the NFL. Not that I didn’t encounter good men running other teams—Jim Finks and Ernie Accorsi were class acts—but the league wanted to control everything, including the media. When I became a columnist in Chicago, I went out of my way to make sure the league knew there would be no controlling me. If George Halas deserved to be smacked around—and he did, that churlish old tightwad—I was pleased to do the smacking. Was I always fair to him? No. But I was fair to his players and his coaches, and they mattered more to me than Halas did, even when I was roughing them up in print. Everybody else got it with both barrels.
That must have stunned whoever was keeping track of the press at NFL headquarters. The league was clearly on the rise, and first-rate writers—men and women I respected as professionals and valued as friends—were writing for its sanctioned Game Day program or working on telecasts that were filling the NFL’s coffers. The logical thing would have been for me to jump on board, but I’ve rarely been called logical. So a rosy-cheeked NFL factotum pulled me aside in the press box one Sunday afternoon and told me very solemnly, “You know, you’re not a friend of the league.” There was no fooling him.
AB: Concussions have become a critical part of the discussion when it comes to pro sports, and in recent years there have been several good profiles on the subject. Was it difficult to select just one?
JS: Granted, there’s only one piece born solely of the concussion epidemic that the NFL could no longer ignore, but pain—the physical kind, the kind that hits you like lightning—is a constant presence in story after story. The one that comes closest to predicting how concussions would become an issue is Mark Kram’s relentless “No Pain, No Gain.” I remember reading it when it first appeared in Esquire in 1992 and flinching at Ronnie Lott’s description of tackling someone so hard that snot sprayed out of his own nose. And then there were the after effects—the ringing ears, the brain that went blank, the breath he fought to take. We call it entertainment.
NFL players are our gladiators, and though we gasp at the collisions, cheer them, and cry out for more, I don’t think many of us realized what we were really watching until the New York Times and SI and all the rest of them started hammering away at the issue. The players accepted the likelihood that they would pay physically for offering up their bodies this way, but even they didn’t seem to grasp the extent of the wreckage inside their heads until it became an issue. Once upon a time, they could joke about the wear and tear the way Dan Hampton, a hall of fame defensive end for the Bears, did when he heard that a teammate was being forced to retire because of a horrific spinal injury. “That’s how I want to go out,” Hampton told me. “With a real showstopper.”
Then the showstopper became the brain damage that was ignored all those times some wobbly behemoth was told to shake it off and get back out there and kick ass. It was the football way. You had to be tougher than the other guy. You had to want it more, “it” being the victory that the team could cash in on, maybe even point to as a reason for raising ticket prices, while the poor son of a bitch with the addled brain just hoped he could hang on for another year or two. You know, so he could set something aside for a retirement that would make it all worthwhile.
Funny how it so rarely works out that way for old pro footballers. They figured they might not be able to play tennis or even walk up the stairs when they were 50; they didn’t think their heads would be so screwed up they’d want to kill themselves. But that’s life and death in the National Concussion League, and I suppose I could have included a half-dozen stories on it. I would have been wrong if I had, though, just as I would have been wrong if I hadn’t included any. So I went with the one that spoke loudest to me, Paul Solotaroff’s searing look at Dave Duerson’s suicide. I remembered Duerson when he was fresh out of Notre Dame and making his presence known in the Bears’ secondary, but I didn’t realize he had been so successful in business. He was one of the smart ones, a mover and shaker who was proud of his brain even when it was damaged and driving him out of his mind. That’s why he didn’t blow his head off when he pulled the trigger. He shot himself in the heart instead, so his brain would be intact for doctors to examine. I doubt the NFL will ever salute him as a hero, but that’s what he is.
AB: What I noticed about this collection is that so many of the pieces reveal a nice pairing of subject and writer. We talked about the outsiders like Price, and to my mind one of the most true and beautiful stories in this collection comes from another outsider, Jeanne Marie Laskas on the Ben-Gals cheerleaders. It is written with such empathy and humor and understanding. Even though it’s tangentially about football, it is about football culture. How did you first come to read the story?
JS: I first heard about Jeanne Marie Laskas’ story from my old pal Bill Nack. It was the year he was guest editor of Best American Sports Writing, and he raved about it. No one I know has better taste or higher standards than Bill, so I tracked the piece down in GQ, read it, and immediately started adding my praise to his whenever I bumped into someone I thought might like it. Was it a slam dunk for my book? What do you think?
The thing about Jeanne Marie is that she isn’t a sportswriter or, from what I gather, even a sports fan. She’s a reformed advice columnist and practicing academic who has the gift of being able to tap into whatever world her freelance magazine assignments happen to take her to. She has written about coal miners and migrant workers and hit men, so the NFL wasn’t going to be a problem. She left the winners and losers, stats, and college draft to the true believers whose lives revolve around them, and then she focused on the league’s concussion-damaged warriors for a series of pieces for GQ. Just when it looked like she was going to deliver yet another withering dispatch, she changed pace and wrote about Cincinnati’s Ben-Gals in a way that humanized them, understood them, and actually respected them.
There isn’t a red-blooded male writer who could have come close to accomplishing what Jeanne Marie did. Allow me use myself as Exhibit A for the prosecution. When Debbie Does Dallas – a classic cheerleader move, I’m sure you’ll agree – opened in Chicago, I felt it was my duty to review it. It probably broke my colleague Roger Ebert’s heart to give up the assignment, but he recognized the connection between Debbie and the sports page and graciously stepped aside. I don’t recall how high I stacked the praise in my review, but it was enough to get DePaul University’s basketball team, famed famed for its appreciation of high-class cinema, out to see the movie en masse. The next time I stopped by DePaul, the kids delivered rave reviews and couldn’t thank me enough for broadening their cultural horizons.
The last thing the Ben-Gals needed was to have a dirty old man like me snooping around in their lives. What they needed—what they deserved—was Jeanne Marie serving as a big sister and a sympathetic ear as they unburdened themselves of problems far more serious that lost hair gel. The stories they told her will touch even the sleaziest horndog’s heart and leave you rooting for them to catch the breaks they need and bask in the glow of the spotlight that tells them they have found safe harbor. If there’s a piece in the book I love more than this one, I’ve yet to find it.
AB: These days sports writing is more about data and analysis than prose. Is there’s still good writing about football to be found?
JS: The key to great football writing—to great writing of any kind, really—is people. Say all you want about the Packer Sweep and the Bears’ 46 defense and whatever the Harbaugh brothers are up to, it still wouldn’t register with us if human beings weren’t bringing them to life. And these aren’t just any human beings, either. They’re at the peak of their physical powers but even the best of them had failings and frailties they have to get past. Some respond to a pat on the back, others to the lash. That’s where the drama that makes for great writing is found. There’s no drama in computer printouts unless your computer freezes or your printer craps out. The drama is out there on the field when an aging quarterback remembers his greatness long enough to drive his team 97 yards with a minute to go, or some rookie kamikaze on the kickoff team, s guy you’ve never heard of before, gets stretchered off to what may be a future as a paraplegic.
What makes the writer’s task more difficult than ever is that TV has seized on the human dimension, too. Its technical brilliance was never in question. All the cameras, all the angles—I don’t know why anyone wants to watch a game in person when they can see it so much better at home. Actually, I do. They go for the tailgating and the camaraderie, the cheerleaders and the chance to be on camera with their shirts off when the thermometer nosedives below freezing. Most of all, they go for the tribal passion that sent football rushing into America’s bloodstream in the first place.
When the sport’s popularity soared, TV coverage got smarter, and it keeps doing so, especially on cable, where the cameras take fans places they thought they’d never see. The leader in all this, of course, is NFL Films, which has always been so inventive and imaginative. In my case, I was hooked for life the first time I saw Gale Sayers’ velvet runs set to jazz. Nothing about this violent game has ever been more artistic, more perfect. Every time it crosses my mind, I think of Ed and Steve Sabol, the father-son team that created NFL Films and nurtured it to brilliance. Someone should put up statues of them even if they never took my suggestion to hire Tina Turner as their public voice when John Facenda died.
On top of TV’s brilliance, there are a shrinking number of outlets for writers who aspire to use football as a means of examining the human condition. The report I just read in the New York Times about the shadow of doom hanging over newspapers and magazines sent me into a tailspin. I’ve always assumed that the Internet would provide a safe harbor for writers—you know, places like Deadspin and Grantland and SB Nation—all of which champion narrative one way or another. But this thing about online analysis getting in the way of literacy baffles me. Analysis is easy. It’s knowing what you’re talking about that’s hard.
Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It wouldn’t be the first time. But I’m sure of this much: Writers will keep writing about football. They’re stubborn that way. It’s why they sit in lonely rooms or crowded coffee shops every day and hammer away at their computers, trying to capture in words what they’ve seen and whom they’ve talked to and what they’re feeling. They’re doing what the writers in the book I’ve put together did going back nearly a century. I like to think that a century from now, there will still be writers writing about whatever football has become and how it fits into the society that has emerged by then. Maybe someone will even stumble across a copy of this book of mine. I hope they think kindly of it, but if they give it the same short shrift I gave the old-timers, I’ll understand. What goes around comes around, right?
[Photo Credit: Bronko (Pro football Hall of Fame0; Cope (AP); Jim Brown (Inside Sports); Plimpton, Butkus (SI); Richard Price (Sara Krulwich/N.Y. Times); Wright Thompson (Neiman Storyboard); George Allen (SI); Dave Duerson (Jonathan Daniel/Getty); Jeanne Marie Laskas (via her website); NFL Films]
Feeling sad today for the Super Bowl. It’s the Broncos vs. the Seahawks. I see Seattle as the better team but I’m pulling for Peyton. I liked the Seahawks as a kid–Kenny Easley was one of my favorite players–so I’ll be happy if they win. But a second title for Peyton is want I’d most like to see.
I don’t have any bets on the game but if I did I’d go with the Seahawks.
Originally published as “Smith hates for it to end like this” in the Jan. 22, 1979, edition of the Miami News. Reprinted here with the author’s permission.
Darrell Smith sat there and listened quietly. What he heard hurt him, but he didn’t speak. He looked down at the floor. He fidgeted and fumbled with a small Instamatic camera he had brought to the game.
Six feet away, his dad, just out of the shower, stood nude.
And the sportswriters, dozens of them, swooped in immediately and stripped him even further.
“Why did you drop it?“
“Will this play stand out in your mind 10 years from now?”
“Is this the biggest disappointment of your career?“
“What’s going through your head?“
“Are you embarrassed?“
“Do you think you cost Dallas the game?“
“Tell us about it again, will you?“
“Will you watch the play on films?“
For 45 minutes, Jackie Smith, the veteran tight end of the Dallas Cowboys, stood in front of his Orange Bowl dressing room stall and took it. It hurt him. It hurt his 14-year-old son.
Pittsburgh had just beaten Dallas, 35-31, in Super Bowl XIII.
The biggest heartbreak of the game for Dallas had come with 2:30 left in the third quarter.
The Cowboys, trailing 21-14, had a third-down-and-three-yards-to-go situation on the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. Using a run offense (double tight ends), Dallas completely fooled Pittsburgh’s defense. Smith slipped into the end zone and stood there all alone as Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach floated a pass a bit low to him. It looked like a sure touchdown. But Smith slipped just as he was about to make the catch, and the ball bounced off his hip pad and fell harmlessly onto the painted grass of the end zone.
An incredulous gasp arose from the Dallas fans. Their Pittsburgh counterparts went berserk. And Jackie Smith sat there in the end zone, stunned.
The field goal unit came in and Smith walked off.
Super Bowl XIII was to be the ultimate reward for Smith.
A month shy of 39, he was the oldest man on the field yesterday. He had toiled so long and so well over the years for the St. Louis Cardinals that Cowboys owner Tex Schramm had guaranteed Smith was “surefire Hall of Fame” material.
No tight end in the history of pro football has caught more passes (483) or gained more yards on receptions (7,956) than Jackie Smith. But in his 15 seasons with the Cards, he never made it to the pinnacle of his profession.
So after last season, he retired. A Cardinal doctor had warned him that he would risk paralysis if he kept playing with the nagging neck injury he had had for two seasons. When the St. Louis pre-season camp opened this year, Smith wasn’t there. He was with his son in the mountains of New Mexico.
“My Boy Scout troop went on a 100-mile hike in the mountains and my dad went along,” Darrell said yesterday. “When he was playing with the Cards, he never got any time with us. While we were up there, I asked him if he wished he was back with the Cards and he said, ‘No,’ but I’m sure he missed it.
“But when we got back, he still took his physical. They said he flunked it.”
So Smith busied himself in civilian life. He sells real estate. He has a restaurant and bar in St. Louis called “Jackie’s Place.” And he planned to move his family into the country, where Darrell said they are going to raise horses on 20 acres.
Two clubs called Smith to see if he’d be interested in playing with them. He didn’t even return their calls. If he was going to come back to football this year, it was either going to be with the Cards or a club he felt was a sure contender.
“Then, one night, dad called me from the restaurant,” Darrell said. “He was excited. He said he had just gotten a call from coach Landry. I thought he was kidding. I laughed, but the next day he was on the plane to Dallas.”
The Cowboys needed a replacement for Jay Saldi, who had broken his arm. They felt Smith was the best of the crop of free agents available. After all, a year ago, Smith caught the touchdown pass that enabled the Cardinals to beat the Cowboys. Smith passed the physical and joined the club in early October before the first Washington game.
“I was worried when I first came to the Cowboys,” Smith said. “I didn’t know if I could get in shape. I didn’t know how I’d be accepted. I was thinking I might have overloaded myself.”
Smith caught no passes during the regular season, but he was often used when the Cowboys went to a two-tight-end formation. His blocking was still effective, so much so that after the Philadelphia game, he was presented the game ball. In the playoffs, he made three receptions including a touchdown catch in the Cowboys’ 27-20 victory over Atlanta.
After the Cowboys’ 28-0 NFC championship victory over Los Angeles, Smith said, “I looked around and I wasn’t with all those people, Irv Goode, Charley Johnson, Larry Wilson, I’d cranked up with all those years (in St. Louis). Those guys had worked just as hard as I had and they never had it happen. All those years, we’d come into camp saying this will be the year and all we got was frustrated. I had gotten so I almost hated this game (Super Bowl) because we worked so hard. Now it didn’t seem fair that I was the lucky one.”
The game was an hour past and still the sportswriters and sportscasters pushed in around Smith. They pushed past his son, bumping him, not knowing who he was.
Two writers would leave and four would fight to squeeze into the vacant spot. They stuck their notepads and microphones in Smith’s face. They stepped on his towel. They’d ask the same questions over and over.
One sportswriter, pushed from behind, began to slip. He tried to brace his fall with his hand. As he did, he brushed his felt tip pen across Smith’s back, leaving a black streak of ink on a shoulder blade.
And Jackie Smith stood and took it.
“I was wide open and I just missed,” he said. “It was a little behind me, but not enough that I should have missed the ball. Hell, the coverage had left. I tried to get down. I was trying to be overcautious. On a play like that, you want to get it in your hands and pull it close to your body. My left foot got stuck and my hip went out from under me.”
“Did you take your eye off?” a reporter asked.
“I don’t remember the ball the last few inches,” Smith said quietly. “I don’t remember. I promise you, I don’t remember. I just missed it.”
He sat down. He didn’t focus on his interrogators. The crow’s feet around his eyes made his face look tired. He pulled on his brown pants and his fancy tooled cowboy boots.
Across the dressing room, Staubach spoke of the same play.
“I saw him open and I took something off it. I didn’t want to drill it through his hands,” he said. “The ball was low. It could have been better. Chalk that one up to both of us.”
Before yesterday’s game, Smith was not quite sure whether he’d play again next season or not.
Last night, he had decided.
“I’ve decided that I don’t want to try it again,” he said. “I was looking to get away from it last year. It takes a while, but I thought I had done it and then everything got regenerated again. I hate for it to end like this. It’s part of what you do when you play the game. It’s from the intensity. You have a lot of good times and a lot of bad times. I hope it won’t haunt me, but it probably will.” His voice trailed off a bit. “I’ve still got what I’ve done, who I’ve met, but I hate going out like this. All these years, all the wait, and this is what they’ll remember.”
He was fully dressed now and had withstood the barrage.
“I’ve had about all I can take now,” he said quietly to a friend.
He picked up his belongings and excused himself from the new wave of reporters who were still probing away. He walked over to his son, tapped him on the head and said, “Let’s go.”
The two got to the locker room door, but before Smith got out, a sportscaster with a little tape recorder shoved a microphone up into his face and blurted, “I hate to bring this up, Jackie, you’ve probably answered it already, but why did you drop that pass?”
The end of the world as I know it. And I don’t feel fine. How could I? What if you had two overriding passions that eclipsed everything else in your life, including your family (as they’d surely attest), and each passion (or, to be frank, religion) represented the two totally opposite sides of your bipolar psyche, and somehow balanced it into sanity…and, surreally, they then decided to collaborate?
How could this be a good thing? Look at it this way: If your beloved old family physician let drop that he was dating Lady Gaga would it make you feel warm and fuzzy? So: When your favorite Pentagonian/George Patton-inspired sporting corporation, whose 32 franchises are largely symbolized by drunks who take off their shirts in blizzards and then beat people up in the parking lot because they’re wearing apostatic jerseys, enlists, in a marketing moment, your favorite anarchic jam and, which is largely symbolized by a few million stoners who believe in nothing except the axiom “Rules Are Irrelevant”…what else could this mean other than that the universe has collapsed into itself? That The End f Days was upon us?
The specifics: On New Year’s Eve morning, and the following afternoon, ESPN2 will air an NFL Films segment about how Seattle Seahawk fans have adopted a Phish song. Which said event tears a hole in the universe.
Background to this unholy miscegenation: In the Eighties, Phish’s insanely creative and eminently likeable guitarist Trey Anastasio, before formally forming the band, wrote a musical thesis as a senior at Goddard College — a legendarily leftie institution in rural Vermont — called “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday.” His work featured a song called Wilson, which has not only endured, for we Phishfanatics, but has taken a rightful place in the band’s pantheon of Pure Phish Songs.
(Full disclosure: A few years ago, when I had to drive to Buffalo to interview a quarterback on assignment — seven hours by way of the New York State Thruway — I structured the trip around the day when I knew that the Jam On channel on Sirius satellite radio would be playing the top 50 Phish songs, from 50 to one. I wanted to hear them all. In order. Wilson cracked the top 10. No, it’s not their best, by any means. It’s no Fluffhead, or Possum, or Chalk Dust Torture, I’ll grant you that. But it’s a pretty cool song.
Well, okay, it’s not a “song,” exactly. Lots of the time, Phish plays “songs” in the manner of a team which might play a game of “baseball,” only in their game, everyone stands wherever they want to after they take the field, facing in whatever direction they prefer, while making up their own rules as the game goes along. And then adopting new rules the next time they play a game.
So anyway. the “song” Wilson includes a refrain wherein, for the last two decades, every Phishfreak in whatever sold-out arena they’re playing sings, in a delightful call-and-response to the band’s cues: “WILLLL-sonnnnn”. If you listen to it, it goes from e-flat to C, I think.
Yes, that arena, from Delaware to Oregon and everywhere in between, will be sold out; the band grossed more than $18 million on this summer’s tour. The last four years’ total: $120 million in ticket sales).
So you can see where this is going, right? Last spring at a solo concert in Seattle, and later at another featuring the whole band at a venue in George, Wa. (Yep; that’s a Phish venue if there ever was one), Trey urged the crowd to start chanting “Wilson” at Seahawk games, in honor of Russell, this year’s quarterback flavor of the season — and, perhaps, for many a season to come.
The ritual caught fire, and now the sound of “WIL-son” can be heard waterfalling out of the stands at CenturyLink Field several times a game: when Wilson takes the huddle for the first time in the game, and again at the beginning of the third, and, throughout the game, interspersed with bits of the song on video board.
So who could blame NFL Films from filming a Phish concert, and filming the CenturyLink chant-ritual, and getting it aired on ESPN 2? Where’s the rub? Why am I Grinching this joyous collaboration?
No. 1: Every man has two sides: The roid-rage/road-rage madman who needs to see athletes try to kill each other legally every Sunday for six months a year, vicariously experiencing what it used to be like to get up in the morning and say to your buddies, “What do you say we attack that tribe over the hill and kill them all? I mean, after we eat raw antelope for breakfast”…
….and the gentle soul who wants to step back, cool out, find his Metroman side and try his damnedest to be a court jester in a land that takes itself way too seriously…and, not incidentally, do so in a place where he might be surrounded by, um, you know, stoned girls.
But nature never intended the two sides to meet. Hence the term “yin/yang” — or, in moderndayspeak, “bipolarism.” Once they overlap, they both lose their power to entrance.
But No. 2 is way more important. In “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,” Trey’s man Wilson is not a man to be admired. In fact, in Anastasio’s college script, the original Wilson is the arch-villain of all time: a greedy, powerlusting fascist who enslaves the peace-loving Communist lizards of a land called Gamehendge, changes the name of their land to Prussia, and steals the book of goodness given to them by their god Icculus. Wilson destroys their forest, builds a castle where he keeps the book, and executes a rebel by hanging. One of the lyrics from the song’s chorus? “Wilson, king of Prussia, I lay this hate on you.”
Basically, young Trey was writing about a monstrous entity spoiling everyone’s fun. But now, as ESPN and NFL Films will have it — with Trey’s worrisome consent — Wilson is an anthem celebrating a football player who, according to the Goodell/Boys Life Magazine metric for what a young man should be, scores off the charts: Russell Wilson is the great-great grandson of a slave, the grandson of a former university president, the son of a Dartmouth graduate, part Native-American, endorses Levis, Nike and Alaska Airlines — and posts bible verses daily on his Twitter account. (As I write, watching him slice and dice the Giants: “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit. Proverbs 15:13″) No argument there, Russ. Anyway, you’re just a pawn in this game.
Okay, yes, I have a soft spot for Wilson. But who, given my memories, wouldn’t? The first time I heard Wilson played live was at The Clifford Ball in 1996, Phish’s first multi-day festival, held at the decommissioned Plattsburgh (NY) Air Force Base. I was backstage, doing a story for a slick magazine about the band that had lured me in because they seemed to sell out Madison Square Garden every New Year’s Eve — without ever actually, like, advertising. People kept passing me joints. So Wilson sounded very good that day — as, did, well, everything they played. From AC/DC Bag to Reba to Weekapaug Groove. Even 2001.
Much later that night, lying in my tent, surrounded by 60,000 overly polite Phishkids (although the philosophy major from Oberlin vehemently and almost aggressively disagreed with my assertion that the pan-European Rationalists had it way over the stupid All-Anglo-Empiricists), I couldn’t get the refrain out of my head — until the next morning, when the young woman in the adjacent tent stepped outside into the morning sun wearing nothing but blue jeans, and smiled “Hi,” and went off toward the showers.
That day unfolded as the day before had, in Shangri-La fashion: plentiful hugs, plentiful nugs.
Behind the stage at a picnic table that afternoon, during an interview with the band, the drummer, John Fishman, who wears dresses on stage, told me that this was the only job he had never been fired from. His last job had been cutting out patterns for women’s bathing suits. Then Trey told me he’d briefly considered seeding the festival crowd with ladies of the night imported from New York, but had quickly discarded the idea. After they all left to go back to their trailers, I finished writing in my notebook, then noticed the large roach on the table, and considered leaving it be, in case one of them had left it by mistake. But I quickly discarded the idea.
But you just have to know that ESPN and NFL Films are patting each other on the backs after a few brews, despite their home library of “Eagles” CDs” “What is hip? We are!”
I don’t know if they’ll show the whole song in the TV show, with its true lyrics. I do know that I won’t be watching. Because if this is the beginning of a friendship, it won’t be beautiful to me.
I’d sure hate to have to turn to professional golf and the String Cheese Incident to find new religions. But I sure as hell won’t sit around watching my life’s passions go up in smoke.
Even with a Harvard-educated black man occupying the White House, the conception of black masculinity still revolves around the primal, not the intellectual. The first skill any African-American man learns in navigating the white world is how to make white people comfortable. He must be nonthreatening. Before he can profit from the snarl, he must first soften them with a smile. These tactics predate Matt Barnes’ tweeting of the N-word; they predate the NFL, Jay Z and the Civil War.
Yet no matter the tactic, no matter how powerful or savvy a black man might be, manipulation of his image remains a shadow currency. LeBron James was the first black male to gain the cover of Vogue, in 2008. His portrayal conjured images of King Kong — it was him roaring at the camera with a white woman, Gisele Bundchen, in his arms.
These old constructions, very much alive, were returned to light by Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. Here was a case in which a white man used racial slurs to a Stanford-educated teammate who comes from a two-parent, Harvard-educated home. And more than anything else, the root issue was the eternal difficulty this country has in allowing black men to live in full dimension. Martin didn’t look the part. He didn’t conform to the accepted code of black masculinity, exposing the fault line that has always run underneath the American soil, transformative president or not.
On the Dolphins, Martin wasn’t seen as a real man. Uncomfortable with the strip clubs, he wasn’t trusted as one of the boys. And because he represented the images of scholarship and manners, of dignity and higher education — reputable qualities generally associated with white mainstream America — he was inauthentic in the eyes of black players, but no more authentic in the eyes of whites. His teammates preyed on Martin’s economic class and demeanor, viewing each as weakness, his education as a mimicry of whiteness. (It’s telling that John Elway and Andrew Luck, also Stanford grads, have never been accused of being soft.)
AB: Not counting the book you wrote with Jerry Weintraub and the children’s book, this is your eighth book. Let’s start with your family memoir, Sweet and Low. Was that the book you always wanted to write?
RC: It’s hard to say exactly because usually when I’m doing a book I feel like that’s the book I always wanted to write and I genuinely feel that way, it’s not just something I’m saying. I think maybe you have to get yourself into that state of mind to do it. Sweet and Low was kind of the thing that I look back at and I say, “I can’t believe I did that, that was an insane thing to do.”
AB: You mean just to be so candid about your family history?
RC: Yeah and about my uncle. I could have got sued in a million ways, horrible things could’ve happened. It was just crazy.
AB: But you were driven a little bit by your mom being screwed out of her inheritance.
RC: Definitely, but it’s like when you get older and you have kids, you just play a little more safe, I think. Sweet and Low really worked well. Everything went really well with it and I’m really glad I did it, but if it went wrong, it could have gone really wrong. You always take that risk with a book, but usually you’re talking like it could go artistically wrong, you could not sell any copies, but it’s not like you could like never talk to your parents again kind of wrong.
AB: Right, or have these horrible lawsuits from family.
RC: Or worse, completely wrecking your family relationships. The most important relationships.
AB: Did you show your parents portions of the book before you finished it?
AB: Really? So you really were taking a risk.
RC: I couldn’t show it to them, especially my father, who would’ve attempted to re-write i. It’s like his story too. I knew I had to finish it and not only finish it, kind of get it almost perfect into my mind at that time and be so it was like unassailable in my mind. I felt really strongly about it.
AB: That’s one thing I always get from reading it. You have a very strong and sure voice narration. Sometimes that can even be when you’re being funny, you’re confident. There’s an authorial confidence that I always get reading your stuff. Did that grow after you did Sweet and Low?
RC: I think the big breakthrough book for me was The Record Men, the book right before Sweet and Low. Something in my head changed, I realized something.
AB: I haven’t read all of your books, but in those two, everything just seems so sound. The tone is really fluid throughout.
RC: Something just happened.
AB: Is writing hard for you?
RC: Of course, it’s impossible for me. Hardest fucking thing in the world.
AB: Good. I know that that’s the case for pretty much every writer that I’ve ever admired. Yet there are some writers that you read and love so much that it is easy to buy into the fantasy that they just wake up and do it with ease. That’s sort of the effect that your books have, there’s an ease to the way that everything flows.
RC: I don’t think it’s true for anybody. It feels that way maybe when you’re writing it, but then you go back and read it again and realize it’s a piece of shit basically. I start with what I call the vomit draft. You sort of put every single thing into it the first time, but I never believe when I’m writing that I’m writing a finished book.
AB: Well one thing that you say in this book which I thought was great–you said that as you’ve gotten older you’ve said that one thing you’ve really come to believe is true is that, I don’t remember exactly how you phrased it, but something like hard work and determination is a talent.
RC: And it’s connected to my own thing because sometimes those qualities of persistence and trying again and again, they’re dismissed because they’re not genius. Then there’s this idea that there’s genius and then there’s the other stuff, but the other stuff – it’s just that the hard work is it’s own kind of genius. That was my point about Walter Payton. You write a book like this and you think about yourself and the people you know in the best possible way. When I came out of a college, I was suddenly in an environment where everybody went to a much, much better school.
AB: When you were aware of wanting to become a writer did you say, “Yeah I want to write books one day?” Was that your ambition?
RC: When I was a little kid, my dad wrote a book, sold a lot of copies. Not really a writer, but he wrote a really big deal book. It was exciting, I was around for it and we’ve always, in my family, held books in the highest esteem. We had a library in our house that you could actually add to that library something with your name on it that you wrote was the greatest kind of achievement. It was just held as the greatest achievement to actually write a book so I had in my head that it was almost impossible to do. My father was in his way, for a guy that had to work all the time, he really liked good writers and he really liked good writing. I always had this idea of really excellent writing and wanting to do that. What happened was I came out of college and I got a job at the New Yorker and I always said I wanted to be a fiction writer. ThenI realized that the stuff I liked at the New Yorker, not just when I was there, but the old stuff, was non-fiction. The stuff I didn’t like about fiction – the whole idea about plot I found maddening and boring.
AB: You were a pop culture junkie as a kid. You’re a huge music fan, you’re into movies, so were you naturally drawn to non fiction just as a way of acquiring information about things?
RC: I really was a big fiction reader but I think what happened was, in high school and in college, and I don’t know if it’s different if you go to a different kind of college, but I would take English classes and you’d read great writers and you’d take history classes and you’d read bad books. I never read the great non-fiction books. So there was this idea that real writing was fiction and the history was writing like the history teachers.
AB: Did you read Pauline Kael and movie criticism or Hunter Thompson or Rolling Stone and Creem or any of that kind of stuff?
RC: I definitely read Rolling Stone and I read Hunter Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke and I didn’t really get into Pauline Kael until I go out of college which is too bad because I love Pauline Kael so much.
AB: I sent her a post card once when I was in high school actually and she wrote back to me.
RC: I knew her when I was a kid briefly because I was a messenger at the New Yorker and she was still there. She was like the kind of person that if you’re a messenger, she still treated you like you actually might be a person.
AB: Oh nice. Well so Monsters. The Bears. How did this book come up? Was this something you wanted to do for a while?
AB: So how did this book come up? Was this something you wanted to do for a while?
RC: The really good stories to me are like Sweet and Low. They’re so close to you and important to you. You don’t even recognize them as stories, you don’t even think about it. It doesn’t occur to you and that’s how this was to me because this team was completely essential growing up. You completely thought about this team all day for many years and these guys.
AB: Is this just the ’85 Bears or is this the ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86 Bears that culminate with ’85?
RC: Absolutely, I would say probably like really ’79 to ’89 or maybe even ’79 to ’90 or ’91. I was supposed to write a story for Harper’s about my father, but I just couldn’t do it. I was talking to an editor there and she said, “Okay well what else do you want to write about, why don’t you write about sports?” Because I’ve written a bunch of sports stories for them, as you know, because you’ve excerpted that one thing and I said, “I don’t know.” And she said, “Do you want to write about the Knicks?” I said, “Why the fuck do I want to write about the Knicks? I hate the Knicks.” And she goes, “Well I like the Knicks,” so I said, “Then you write about the Knicks.” She said, “Do you have any sports team that you really love?” I said, “The ’85 bears.” I thought maybe I’d write about the ’85 Bears. One of the problems you run into with sports stories is the guys aren’t that interesting when you talk to them. I’ve written a lot of stories about guys playing now. I decided the first person I’d talk to would be Doug Plank. You’d think he’d be this because he was such a ferocious player and kind of a borderline player, and I called him up and it was like, it was the greatest interview I’d ever done. He had been so thoughtful about his career, what it meant, that time in his life, the game, what the game meant, what it means to succeed, what it means to fail, what it’s like to have to leave the game and your friends continue on without you, what’s it like to barely not win the Super Bowl because he retired too early. All these things about fame and what’s the Gay Talese book–Fame and Obscurity? All the big things not just about football, but about like being a human being and being alive and getting old.
AB: And how reflective the guy is. He talks about–who is the guy, you end that one chapter with him talking about a guy who tore his cartilage?
RC: He never told me the player’s name. He’s obviously protecting the guy and he’s talking about hitting a guy low.
AB: Yeah and he just says that you live with these things for a long time and you kind of–it’s real powerful stuff there.
RC: I thought so and his whole thing about Roger Goodell coming up to him and saying, “You’re a great player.” It’s sort of like that’s what everybody wants–to just really be great at one thing, I think.
AB: What’s interesting to me about that quote is the idea than an authority figure’s compliment would validate him so much, there’s still that adolescent need in Plank.
RC: It’s interesting too because Goodell didn’t play.
AB: That took me back actually because of all the things he said, and this guy’s pretty deep, yet he still craves that Dad kind of approval.
RC: But there’s another way to look at it too. That’s definitely true, but there’s also the idea of how you’re remembered. It’s like what Ditka said. I mean, I read it, I still sort of break up and cry over Ditka’s eulogy of Payton about how he played. It’s like how did they play, that’s just like life. How did you play the game? Did you play hard? Did you play clean? Did you obey the rules of the game you were playing? And all these things and there’s that too in Plank, I mean yeah it’s Goodell so that’s totally true what you’re saying, but it’s also here’s somebody remembering so many years later, you were a great player. It’s so long ago and he wasn’t on the ’85 Bears.
AB: And talk about fame and obscurity—say for instance they didn’t win in ’85 then really who would have remembered him? What I remember most about the Bears that year was that they were like the bad guys in The Road Warrior. They were just terrorists. They’d knock guys out, they didn’t just beat guys, it was ridiculous and they reveled in it too, that was the thing.
RC: Absolutely man. I tried to put that in the book because I was a Joe Ferguson fan for whatever reason because I used to love to watch him run all around. Remember how great he was? I remember him on the Bills. He was also the subject of the greatest, funniest referee’s call ever. Remember that? The guy giving him the business. That was Ferguson, “giving him the business.” Which shows people like to pound on Ferguson for some reason, he’s always getting “giving him the business.” It’s one of those guys who you associate him with one team. Always with the Bills. When Wilber Marshall just laid him out and it was the most vicious hit that I’ve ever seen and they say that the game has gotten so much quicker and so much more violent, I don’t believe it when I see that hit. That’s as violent as any hit you’ll ever see ever. You look at even the size of a guy like Ditka. Ditka could still be a great tight end now, he’s the same size as those guys. When he was playing, if you look at how big he was, now they work out more, but they were big fucking guys. Just to see him like–to watch him kill Joe Ferguson I just suddenly got, “Oh, this is what it must be like for every other team in the league.” To understand the greater context of it, the Cowboys have been beating the shit out of the Bears my entire life. Every now and then we’d get a Cowboy player and he wouldn’t be good anymore. Like Golden Richards came to the Bears, I was like “Oh we got one of these guys!”
AB: Well it’s like you said, it’s like who cares what happened with the rest of the season, win this game. At the time of that game, it’s like a poor man’s version of when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in ’04.
RC: It’s how I used to feel when I was a kid, I was a big Michigan fan and watched Michigan play Ohio State. It didn’t really matter what happened in the Rose Bowl, the main thing was that Michigan beat Ohio State. Woody Hays went psychotic, punched out a cameraman.
AB: I remember the Monday night game vividly. What I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t just Marino, it was Shula and it was maybe the fact that the Bears were a little cocky and that that loss proved to actually be a really good thing for them.
RC: Yeah like if the Patriots maybe a couple years ago had not had a perfect record. Maybe it would have been good for them. Sometimes you go in kind of arrogant and it’s like the Bears were rigid. They were rigid because Buddy Ryan had this idea, which was right that year, but look at what happened to him later. He was a rigid guy. He would draw up his plan and he wasn’t a pragmatic person, he was an ideologue. Rex is a little bit like that. Ditka, that’s why they were really complimentary, Ditka is the ultimate pragmatist, he doesn’t give a shit, if he goes to a team that has a great running back, he’ll run the ball every play. If he goes to a team that’s got a great receiver, he’ll throw, whatever he can do to win, he’ll do it. The 46, Shula figured out how to beat the 46 for one half, that’s all he had to do because the Bears didn’t score a lot of points and McMahon was hurt and the Bears had this idea that Marino was immobile and he just couldn’t move and they designed roll-outs and they suddenly had Wilber Marshall having to cover Nat Moore down the field and he just couldn’t do it and Marino was one of the best quarterbacks ever and that was it. If Buddy Ryan had switch to the nickel, which he finally did in the second half, they could’ve probably stopped him because not only did he have 46, but they also had great players, four hall of famers, three on defense I guess. Some of those guys could have been like Wilber Marshall.
AB: Well it’s like the Big Red Machine. It’s like the guys who aren’t in the Hall of Fame are still pretty fucking awesome.
RC: Right and they’re not in the hall of fame and they’re the reason why the other guys are in the hall of fame.
AB: They can’t put the whole damn squad in the hall of fame.
RC: Exactly so you have McMichael who is borderline and even a guy like Fencik who I guess is nowhere close, but if you look at the amount of interceptions he had and the amount of tackles he had.
AB: Now Fencik sounds like a great interview too.
RC: Well Fencik is a really smart, kind of regular kind of guy. Plank would always joke and Fencik would say the same thing and say, “Hey it’s Gary Plank.” They played side by side for a whole bunch of years. They were kind of like mirror images of each other. They’re both these like little, not very fast, hard-hitting white guys who would run around and completely crush people. I was watching a game the other night and they were trying to use the safety like that. It just wasn’t good enough. They would pick him up and he would suddenly be trying to get by a guy who was 100 pounds heavier than him and they just didn’t and as a result there was somebody open down field. It was a disaster. But just to see when you’d see Fencik come creeping up just before the snap and suddenly he’s the extra guy coming through on the safety. In that game against the Rams, the first tackle is made by Fencik of Dickerson in the Rams backfield. That’s crazy.
AB: Absolutely. The only drag to me about the way that that season ended, well there’s two drags and you go into it in the book. I was pissed they didn’t give the ball to Walter Payton to score a touchdown, but I actually understood it a little bit more, reading your book that he was a perfect decoy.
RC: When you go back and watch the game–I didn’t really write about this too much because I didn’t want to and I basically agree with you, but he did get the ball a lot by the goal and he didn’t score. He didn’t have a good game. He just didn’t have a good game and if you look at it, I counted at one point, there were five or six times he was given the ball inside the three. You know what I mean? Even one time when he was throwing the ball and he like dropped it in the end zone. Basically he was pissed at himself I think because he knew he had a shitty game and one of the reasons he had a shitty game was because he was triple teamed every time he touched the ball.
AB: That’s the one thing they could do.
RC: Right, the one thing they said, “Okay, we’re going to stop Payton, we’re not going to let Payton beat us. We’re going to make McMahon beat us” or whatever.
AB: What’s interesting was the way that Payton handled it, which wasn’t graceful. Finally he won the Super Bowl and he was kind of pissed in the aftermath, but also that Ditka was so swept up in the moment that it didn’t even occur to him to let Payton score a touchdown.
RC: Here’s the thing for me. I was at the game and I was a kid, so I didn’t even notice any of that. It’s amazing when you’re at the game–I mean, I noticed that Payton didn’t score, I noticed that bothered me, but I didn’t notice that Payton wasn’t handling it well because I couldn’t see his face. I realized it later and then I read the Jeff Pearlman book a couple years ago and he really went into it, but the thing is when I interviewed McMahon, McMahon who remembered every single tiny detail, McMahon like Ditka said, “I didn’t even realize until after the game. I didn’t even get it.” He was so focused on winning the Super Bowl and he said that the play that he scored that his first touch down was designed for Payton. He looked up and Payton was completely covered and there was a big hole so he just ran into the end zone and that’s the football play.
AB: Absolutely. The other part that I remember about that season being disappointed with was that the Dolphins didn’t make it to the Super Bowl.
RC: I didn’t really write about that in the book because it was a shame. The Dolphins were probably going to lose, but you had a sense that–
AB: Right. Well the Dolphins, I just remember when they lost in the playoffs it was like: the season’s over. They were the best chance to put up a fight against the Bears. That would have been a sort of worthy -
RC: Not only that. As a Bears fan, there was a blemish on the season and there is a blemish and the blemish could have been removed. That’s why it was a bummer. The Bears had a chance–that would have been the perfect Hollywood ending, if the Bears beat the Dolphins. Even looking back on it though, it was so thrilling and it was so fitting that they completely trounced New England, if it had been a close game against the Dolphins. I was listening to The FAN in New York around Super Bowl time and they were just talking about the greatest Super Bowl teams and they didn’t even bring up the Bears. How could that be? Then realized, oh, because all the teams they’re talking about are teams that won in great games, that’s why they remember them. The Catch, the Ice Bowl, the Steelers and Cowboys going back and forth, your team, your era, my era too, Bradshaw, Staubach, and all that great stuff and the Bears game was never close.
AB: If I had to name one of the best teams of all time, I would certainly think of the ’85 Bears. Their offense I think is kind of underrated, but forget their offense. Their defense was an offense.
RC: Absolutely, the defense scored more points than the offense. It was Mike Francesa, I think it was his show. It was just an oversight. I know if you were to talk to him because he was just naming–when you started listening to the teams he was naming, they were all teams involved in great games. He was remembering great games. I heard him recently, somebody was saying the Jets have a great defense right now. This was a couple days ago, somebody was saying that, and he was saying, “Oh, they’re not a great defense, a great defense is the ’85 Bears, a great defense is the ’77 Steelers.” He clearly, on his ranking, has the Bears at the top of all time best defenses, as they should be. I think they’re the best ever. I was thinking about the fact that–If it had been the Dolphins and the Bears in the Super Bowl, and not a team that seemed like they just got hot for a couple of games, under weird conditions and if they had an actual game, then it just would have been the perfect ending. It’s sort of like when you get something you wanted to happen very easily and at first you’re really happy that it wasn’t as much work and then later you’re like you wish it was a little more of a struggle. That’s a little bit what it was like.
AB: After they won it’s almost like, what now? Okay, you’ve climbed a mountain. Now what?
RC: Right. It’s really especially cute, I think and maybe I’m wrong. For Chicago, there had never been a winning team in Chicago my whole life. In my entire life.
AB: That’s another thing. This is all before Michael the Bulls run.
RC: You had to go back to ’63 Bears which was five years before I was born and at that point, football was much less of a big deal than it became. One team did win and the media tried to blow it up into a big deal, but nobody cared, and it was the Chicago Kings in the indoor soccer championship and they tried to make it a big deal and the press went to the airport and there was nobody waiting for the team. There was like one guy waiting for the players like, “Hey you’re the soccer guys man, you won something, congratulations, good job!” Iit always seems like it’s going to happen and it doesn’t. Just the year before that in ’84, the Cubs were 2-0 one game away from the World Series, they lost three games in a row. That was just crushing and the year before that, even though I wasn’t a White Sox fan, I sort of rooted for the Chicago teams, but I got kind of into it when the White Sox won their division by like 20 games. Then they maybe won one game against the Orioles.
AB: I got WGN so when I was in middle school I watched the Cubs all the time just because they were on after school so I was kind of familiar with those Cubs teams in a way that I wouldn’t have been with a lot of other teams.
RC: They’re real fun. There’s that Steve Goodman song, “The Cubs Fan’s Request.” First of all, Chicago has variations, just like every city of accents, so the one they do on Saturday Night Live, like the Super Fans, that’s a real accent, it’s like a South Side accent. Where I grew up is sort of like the North Shore and it’s like heading towards Wisconsin and then ultimately to Minnesota and it starts to be almost like a Minnesota accent, but it’s very particular to like a few towns and Steve Goodman has that accent, so it always makes me feel very warm to hear it. He’s talking about his funeral, what he wants for his funeral, it’s just really great. But he’s listing the things that he wants it to be, Wrigley Field, day, no lights, and he wants of all things, he wants Keith Moreland to drop a routine fly. He just dates it exactly. I think Keith Moreland has a son now and he plays baseball.
AB: So when you, you said that this started with something at Harper’s. Did it start as a magazine piece or did you think this could actually be a book?
RC: It started as me saying I was going to write a magazine piece about the ’85 Bears and then calling Doug Plank and then talking to him for three hours and Brian Baschnagel too, Baschnagel was another great guy. Then deciding, this a book, this is a book I’ve always wanted to write. Then I just talked to my editor and told him I want to write this book and he basically said go, do it.
AB: How long did it take you to do it?
RC: I have to think about exactly when I started. I probably spent about six months or a little more just going around and tracking down and interviewing players and hanging out with Brian McCaskey who is one of Halas’s grandsons. Then I probably spent like another year or whatever writing it, or something like that. Then it’s actually been published, from when I turned it in to when I published it, it was a really short period of time. I just turned it in in the spring, I never had that experience. That’s became if we didn’t make this spring, I would’ve had to wait until next football season which I really didn’t want to do. Plus it’s not really, but things happen, things become dated really, really quickly.
RC: The weird thing about McMahon is he’s alright. When you talk and when you hang out with him.
AB: I was a little surprised actually because having read that piece, I was expecting it to be worse. I didn’t know what your approach was going to be, but you ended up handling that subject dead on. That was like the subject you couldn’t avoid, right?
RC: As a fan, you can’t avoid it either, the more stuff you read about it. You think about it, you have kids, you think about it, but when you go deal with McMahon, you’re dealing with McMahon and how he is and he seemed like he always seemed. He remembers everything, that’s a short term memory thing, the fact is every now and then I get in touch with him and he always e-mails me right back and seems to know who I am.
AB: The other interesting thing about McMahon is that he plays the part of such a hick but actually did well with his money.
RC: He did a really smart thing, which is, all these guys were getting sports agents and he met Steve Zucker who just lived where I grew up basically and he said, well you represent me, he’s not an agent, he’s a really smart guy. The guy said I’m not an agent. He ended up being an agent because he did so well from McMahon and he ended up representing a bunch of Bears, but he said I’m not an agent and he said I don’t care it’s just that you’re smart and you know the people in Chicago. He said okay because he thought his kids would think it was really cool that he represented Jim McMahon. Steve Zucker was such a smart guy and McMahon told him what he wanted, which was when he stopped playing, he didn’t want to have to work ever again. He invested his money, took care of his money, told him what to do in such a way that–it wasn’t just that McMahon was pulling an investor, but he found a guy he could trust and trusted him. That’s like the same kind of thing we’re talking about, about like hard work. Don’t discount how rare that is. That he knew not to go with the biggest deal, biggest name agent. That didn’t mean shit to him. He just wanted somebody who was local in Chicago and somebody who was smart and seemed to have his shit together.
AB: How did you decide how to weave in the memoir stuff with the interviewing of the players and then include a general history of the Bears?
RC: I think that the structure, I hate to give it away because hopefully people can’t even see it, but underneath it all, all the structure is super, super simple, which is what I always like to have, a really simple structure. The structure is just–it’s almost like the history of the Bears from the time they were started until they won the ’85 Super Bowl. That’s really the underlying structure of the book. Then it’s really in thirds. The first third of it is the history of the Bears, then the history of the league because the history of the Bears and the history of the league are intertwined. So it’s the history of the Bears and it’s also a biography of Halas because it’s all intertwined. That’s the first third. Then the second third is the ’85 season and the last third is what happened after.
AB: How did you have to condense the team’s rich history to fit this story?
RC: That’s like the vomit draft . I don’t know how many words the book is. I knew at one point, it’s probably about 85,000 words or something and the first draft was probably 200,000 words. I completely freak out, lose my mind, think it’s a piece of you know – go through everything and then you keep cutting and cutting and the first cutting is easy because it’s obvious, but then it gets harder and harder so like I said, I had this whole chunk on Red Grange. It was just–Red Grange’s story was so much like Sid Luckman’s story I thought you only get one of those and Sid Luckman was more interesting because he was so important to the history of the way the modern offense evolved and Grange wasn’t. Also, Luckman was still around in ’85, he was still there and those guys knew him and he taught Ditka how to catch. He’s completely intertwined. He’s still in a conversation in a way that Grange is almost like Babe Ruth. He’s so distant from such a different era. Then you look at it and I wrote the Butkus and I wrote the Sayers and you sort of say, this book isn’t the whole encyclopedic history like you said, but at the same point it is a history of the Bears and can you really have a history of the Bears without Butkus and Sayers. I kind of thought–I always need a title, I always want a title to be Monsters–and you sort of thought as long as they’re one of the monsters, they belong in the book. That was true Sayers and that was true Butkus, they both belonged in the book. Also, they were the guys, the Bears from before I was born until they started getting good in the early ’80′s went through this long fallow period, that was my entire childhood and the last two great Bears, who never won because they played in that period were Butkus and Sayers. I’m just justifying this in my head but it all fits within and I wanted it to be–the memoir stuff was sort of like it just fits where it fits, the beginning scene with the Super Bowl and the end story, that’s like a bookend, it’s outside the structure, but it’s like a bookend and it’s a really funny way. It’s what really happened, but I thought it was a really funny story about getting on that crazy plane.
AB: I loved that. It begins the story in such such high spirits. That’s the thing for me that ends up being interesting about the story. I learned about a city that I don’t know a lot about. Great story when, after a loss, the cop yells at you guys and he says, “Pick your fucking head up, it’s another fucking day.” That was like okay that’s the city’s ethos or whatever it is.
RC: Absolutely and also, I didn’t want it to be like, it’s not like even though I love these books, it’s not like David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 or whatever–
AB: Well you wanted it to be–In your previous books, your sense of human, you definitely descend from Buddy Hackett’s blue shows. I always get the sense that you like some good vulgarity in your humor.
RC: Yeah I know and I constantly–you should see how many, those are the letters I get from people I sent the book to, “You probably want to take this out.”
AB: I’m glad you didn’t because that’s the fun part.
RC: I know, it’s just getting back to what it really is and what really makes it great, which isn’t–that’s how I felt about it–which isn’t just the statistics and the numbers and the fantasy football and all that shit and all the graphics, it’s a guy running for his life. It’s such a crazy game. This guy trying to through the ball 30 yards down the field as five guys are coming to kill him. What it takes to stand up in the middle of that and know you’re going to get completely flattened and still do it.
AB: The Bears are a great team because again, there was something so primal and awful and they were almost like a comic book. But there are two cases in your book, Tony Easton and Ferguson. … These are guys that you want to talk to who had particularly embarrassing incidents with the Bears. The Ferguson hit and Easton’s poor performance in the Super Bowl. You even mention Joe Morris too, who got the mystery migraine in the playoff game, but you couldn’t find these fucking guys and I wonder, do you think that there is something about football defeat that’s worse than being a goat in a different sport? Bill Buckner comes to mind.
RC: It’s public humiliation for anybody and if you’ve ever had it at all, it’s an awful thing. You never ever get over it. It’s like getting burned. For these guys who are masters, I mean, every one of them is an unbelievable athlete, the greatest athlete at every level just about. That’s what is interesting about Plank and Fencik, they were not. They were never. Like Tom Brady, they just were not and then they kept getting better but most of these guys like Buckner, he was an incredible player from the moment he came into the league and to sort of have this act of being–and he’s a graceful guy and to be in public in the biggest moment in his life and it’s a clumsy thing. I don’t think it’s just football, I think it’s everything and I think sports is just a magnet. That’s why good sports completely resonate because it should be what you live in a confined area in a really heightened way. You do mention Saul Bellow—I’m a big Saul Bellow fan. He had a line about explaining his books and he said it’s just heightened autobiography. It’s kind of like sports are when they’re working. There was a great hockey player even before my time, but legendary guy, Eric Nesterenko.
He was in the movie Young Blood, he actually teaches Rob Lowe how to fight in that movie and when I was at the New Yorker, somebody there, Adam Gopnik, he’s from Canada, he gave me this story which I’ve never heard of, called “The Drubbing of Nesterenko” and it was about how at the end of his career, Nesterenko got in a fight with, now I’m spacing out on his name, but sort of the enforcer of the Canadiens who later became a coach for the Devils. Nesterenko got the shit beat out of him and it was on national hockey net in Canada and Nesterenko was like 42. The guy he was fighting was like 24. The story is all about–the writer’s a big Blackhawks fan and the guy who beats Nesterenko up is on the Canadiens and it’s like he feels as if his own father is beating him up and he has this realization about his dad and his feelings about his dad and his life gets better at this point because he realizes and all this stuff. A friend and I went skiing in Vail in 1993 and we’d heard that Eric Nesterenko was a ski instructor in Vail and we hired him for a lesson and we spent the whole day skiing with him, talking to him about the NHL. We invited him out to dinner and we went out to dinner with him and at the end of dinner, we’d all been drinking a little bit, I asked him if he’d ever heard of the story called “The Drubbing of Nesterenko” and he lwent fucking berzerk. He’s like, “I fucking heard of it, some fucking candy-ass writer, some fucking asshole, I get my ass beat up, I get humiliated on TV, my kids watch that, my family watches that, and this guy has an epiphany about how he doesn’t like his dad? Fuck him.”
AB: You can’t undo that. What happened to him was a big deal for him, but you take that and you put Tony Easton in the Super Bowl–
RC: And for Nesterenko even though it was a nationally televised game, it wasn’t the biggest game in the world.
AB: You’re not surprised that a guy like Easton would just say, screw it?
RC: Right, I don’t want to talk about it again, you know? Same with Ferguson and I tried to phrase it as somewhat probably dishonestly, which is I want to talk about your entire career and then maybe we could talk about the ’85 Bears. And by the way, I really was a Joe Ferguson fan, so I probably would want to talk about him in Buffalo and if he had talked to me, maybe that would have been part of the book, more about Ferguson. He at first, he called back and he said he would talk to me and then he just blew me off, then I told Fencik about it and he said, “He’s never talking to ya.”
AB: Well Fencik and Plank are great because they are like anchors for the book.
RC: I felt like especially Plank because Fencik—I went and I interviewed and I talked to him and stuff, but Plank I spent a lot of time with. He’s the first guy I talked to and he’s the guy I still talk to. I really felt like he became the moral voice of the book because he’s the underachiever who becomes the most ferocious Bear who creates this spirit of the defense who makes the team what it is. He wears the number, he gives it a name, he doesn’t get to the big game himself, but he doesn’t hold any–there’s no pity.
AB: That’s genuine, that’s not like an act, right?
RC: No, that’s completely genuine, that’s who he is, he’s like one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met. He’s like truly a great guy, just like you’d want him to be. In an early version of the book, I drew the diagrams of the single wing, the T formations, sort of the kind of alignment the Bears had when I was a kid, and a spread, and then most importantly the 46 for the book. I’m like, shit, man, I’m a fan, I’ve read everything, I’ve really thought a lot about it, but I’m not a football coach and this is the kind of thing I could’ve had these things wrong. I’m just going to get a lot of grief over it even if it’s a tiny bit wrong and I can have all these people check it, but who can I have check it. I’m like, fuck I’ll have Plank check it. What better source to check that shit than Plank, who is not only a great player, but who is a coach? And was a coach on the Jets and all this stuff. I sent it to him and he was really, really great and then he actually drew the 46 for me and that’s what’s in the book. Plank’s rendering of the 46 and a long description which I ran, I don’t know if it’s in what you saw, but the caption is Plank’s description of the 46. It’s just so great that I have that, it’s almost like a historical document.
AB: Were there any of Bears that were either difficult to deal with?
RC: Well a bunch of guys just didn’t want to talk to me, they don’t give a shit, they don’t want to talk about it anymore. One of the guys who was sort of difficult although he was okay, was McMichael who I talked to on the phone, but he wouldn’t sit down for an interview because he was so pissed off about the Jeff Pearlman book. He’s like, “Look all we have is our reputations basically and that’s it because we don’t play football anymore and we know and I don’t trust you fucking guys anymore.” They were like really hurt so everybody I talked to was sort of–and I’m like, “Hey man, I’m a Bears fan.” I was there in ’85.
AB: And that didn’t matter?
RC: It mattered to some of them. I’ll tell you what, what’s cool about the Bears is that they are a bunch of guys from Chicago and they completely get who I am. So like Kurt Becker who was McMahon’s roommate and the right tackle I think, right guard, he’s from the West Side of Chicago, he’s knows who I am, he knows where I’m from. He knows I’m a Bears fan. Same with Fencik, who grew up in Barrington.
AB: You pull off kind of a neat trick in that it’s not a puff piece because you have to be, there’s unsavory things about some of the guys, Ditka, Buddy Ryan, whatever. I always though that Buddy Ryan what an asshole without knowing anything about him, but the way you describe him is kind of sympathetic but not soft.
RC: He is what he is, which he’s a product of an older America that really doesn’t exist much anymore.
AB: When you talk about he would check out guys to see who was wasting water when they were shaving, that tells me what kind of guy this guy is, or calling Singletary names.
RC: “Fat Jap.”
AB: “Fat Jap,” right. So just that.
RC: And by the way Singletary is not in any part Japanese, which I sort of assumed he was because I think he’s part Cherokee, I think that’s what it is.
AB: Was he interesting at all?
RC: I didn’t talk to Singletary, here’s the other problem. A bunch of the guys are coaches, like full-time head coaches, so you could get to them in a press conference about you know, so that’s in a testament to the team, so Singletary was because he was coaching San Francisco, then in Minnesota, and Ron Rivera is head coach, and Jeff Fisher is a head coach, and Leslie Frazier is a head coach, and then those other guys I spoke to, like Dent I spoke to and Otis Wilson was really great actually. He was a great one.
AB: He was from Brooklyn right?
RC: Brownsville. He’s one of my favorite players. Very charismatic guy when he was a player. Some guys are just great talkers, even a guy like Jim Morrissey, who is really from Michigan, but half of his grandparents lived basically where I lived, where I grew up, and he used to spend every summer where I grew up so he kind of was a Chicago guy really in a lot of ways. It’s just like a guy working for some brokerage firm making trades on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange now and he played like 11 years in the NFL as a linebacker, as a starting linebacker, which is a big deal. He was just a rookie on that team and he was just one of those guys who was really observant, watching everything, and could explain it really well. So you had the guys who were the great players, but they might not be a good interview. Like Dent who was a hall of fame player, but he’s not going to remember exactly–you know what I mean? Whereas Otis Wilson did, and Otis Wilson has a big complaint against Ditka, he was kind of angry. Morrissey did, and Brian Baschnagel, who was really one of the great players on the team when they were bad and was still with them in ’86, and he was just really interested in what was going on.
AB: And Ditka was pretty good with you too, wasn’t he?
RC: Yeah Ditka’s great. I mean, Ditka’s Ditka though. He’s like, “Why do you want to talk about ’85, why not about ’63? We had a pretty good team in ’63, why doesn’t anybody want to talk about the ’63 team?” Just stuff like that.
AB: I won’t keep you too much longer Rich, but there are two other things I wanted to touch on. Was Kahn’s The Boys of Summer a template?
RC: Yeah, Boys of Summer. As far as football books, and I’m not a completist, you know what I mean? I thought Paper Lion was a great book and one of the things that’s great about it is that Plimpton was a really excellent writer. He got this firsthand experience of catching a punt kicked by an NFL punter, and especially before ESPN and Hard Knocks and all that stuff, he went inside a place no one could go. I think it’s a great book and I think, though it’s a novel, North Dallas Forty, I think is a really great book, funny book. As far as football goes, I think the Michael Lewis book is really good about describing the offensive line.
AB: The one football book that I really was moved by was by John Ed Bradley who played at LSU and then was a writer for the Washington Post and then for Esquire and GQ for a bunch of years and SI, but he dropped out and became a novelist. It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium is a memoir about John Ed growing up in Louisiana, his daddy was a high school football coach, and playing at LSU. He could have played in the NFL, but decided he wanted to be a writer. The book is about how for 20 some odd years, he couldn’t go back to LSU. He couldn’t talk to the people he played with because it was such a good time, it was such an elevated time, that he would never be able to get there again and it’s really a melancholy book, but I thought of that, his whole book is summed up into one sentence by Plank where he says, “If you’re lucky enough to experience something that intense when you’re young, you pay for it with the rest of your life.” That’s John Ed’s book. That’s fascinating to me that for some guys they can’t–and Plank seems to have gone on with his life and he was able to see that and sort of articulate that was really powerful.
RC: Well that’s why he was so great as a resource because he was both. He wasn’t a guy on the sideline, a guy on the periphery, he wasn’t a mediocre player, he was a great player, he really was. He was a heartbeat of the defense before he got hurt and he thought a lot about it. It’s just his description to me of when he got cut or basically got cut because he’s never going to be the same and he’s leaving the locker room and he sees Jeff Fisher and he tells Jeff Fisher and the whole look on Jeff Fisher face just changes like alright.
AB: You’re a civilian now.
RC: Yeah we’re not teammates and it’s over and how that registers is so sad for Plank, he just registers it.
AB: There’s a lot of sadness in sort of the idea, it’s not depressing really–
RC: It’s melancholy man, it’s melancholy.
AB: It really is, it’s sort of life moves on and you did this 25 years ago and sometimes even the idea of–I could almost imagine myself being a player and being like–
RC: Well, that’s the thing, like the shit about Walter Payton and what a hard time he had retiring, like it’s a surprise, how could you not? You put any human being in that situation where you give him that much adulation and control your life to that extent and it just ends and the fact that so many of these guys do so well is amazing. It just shows how strong they are. The fact that Doug Plank then while the Bears are in the Super Bowl, he’s running a Burger King, and he’s not screaming his head off. You know what I mean? And everyone’s talking about the 46 defense on TV and they don’t know it’s Doug Plank is in the Burger King.
AB: Well that’s one thing I think you do successfully in your book, I didn’t know what to expect. You touch on the big Vikings game in the ’85 season, the Cowboy game, you talk about games, but it’s like “and then in week two”–
RC: That’s what I’m saying, if people are expecting that, they’re going to be disappointed.
AB: To me that’s what’s so horrible even about baseball writing. “And then he hit the 2-2 pitch and laced it for a double,” even the language is horrible. How do you write interesting and lively prose about stuff that has been so clichéd over time?
RC: It’s really been a challenge and that’s what I mean when I say that there’s been books–every book I’ve read about a football season, they’re all like that. It’s like a blow–by-blow-by-blow of something that happened long ago that only means something and is only interesting if you’re a complete fanatic or it resonates in some bigger cultural way. That’s why Boys of Summer still resonates to people. Even if they haven’t read it, they know about it. Have you read it?
AB: I have, but to me it’s–I have mixed feelings about it but I’m still taken by Kahn’s ambition to write a great book. It’s melodramatic in parts but still powerful.
RC: That’s what’s good about it, like for me. It’s an imperfect book with a lot of flaws. You know what it’s like, when you read certain magazine writing and it’s so slick, you’re like I could never write that, but then you read something like Ian Frazier, who’s like a–I love him, you could tell a person made it, it’s like made by hand.
AB: What’s amazing reading it now is that Kahn had access to his subject that doesn’t exist anymore. The relationships that he had with these guys and the fact that he’s writing about the ’50s just as the whole ’50s craze, the whole Brooklyn thing was starting and it’s the last major thing ever written about Jackie Robinson before he dies. It set a standard that kind of book.
RC: You can’t sell what he’s selling anymore because for all the reasons you say, no one has that kind of access and what’s more, cameras are everywhere so people have seen, and also the fact that the guy made no money and you didn’t know what happened to them after they retired, they vanished. A guy working in the World Trade Center and putting in the elevators. The reason why–I agree with everything you’re saying, that’s why it was helpful for me because first of all it was totally imperfect and all kind of fucked up, yet so great. So you could sort of see how he put it together so obviously. Underneath it’s an incredibly simple structure, when you’re reading it you kind of forget that. For him, you’re always aware. It’s divided into thirds, it’s the history of the Dodgers up until when he was kid then it’s his own memoir, then it’s his season, culminating in his season with the team, which is not the season they want. So his season with the team, where the manager was Charlie Dressen, who was the first quarterback of the Bears technically. Then the ’55 season, like you expected, and then the last third—it’s not even integrated, it’s like separate chapters, separate essays about where are they now, about whatever it is, five or six guys culminating with Robinson, and that’s it, and it’s so simple, and it completely works. So that’s why it was–it’s not that it was the great be all and end all; it’s that he did something really really interesting, really really great and it’s very simple to see–to me–the structure of it is very plain. It’s like seeing a building and being able to see how it was put together. If you look at the sports books that had bigger culture resonance, Friday Night Lights does too. I thought that was actually a great book, there’s another book that’s sort of like not perfect, but it’s like Dreiser or something; it’s like the whole magnitude of it and the ambition is really interesting.
AB: So lastly, you write about the mixed emotions about the violence in the game. You love big hits but you love Dave Duerson more. Do you find that you don’t like football as much as you used to? You have three kids right?
RC: Yeah, but you know what though, I go back and forth about it because as a product as watching it, it’s just about as good as it’s even been, I believe. Part of me thinks there’s too much scoring because it becomes inflationary. I love hockey because there’s so much tension, who’s going to score? That’s kind of–some of these games seem like the Nerf football games you play as a kid and you say okay whoever scores next wins, but you don’t keep fucking score, everybody scores every time, so whoever is able to stop the team once is going to win. It seems like, as a Bears fan, you love defense and the defense had been so disadvantaged by the rules, partly to protect these guys and partly because people love to see goals, I mean people love to see points. When you see a guy, I remember when I was a kid, that Darryl Stingley had happened and it just really freaked me out, scared the shit out of me and then he came back and he was a paraplegic, it was just so awful. It is, it’s a tough thing.
AB: Now, when you did this book, you’re describing these guys walking around. You always talk about Plank’s titanium shoulders.
RC: The idea that Jim McMahon can’t play catch with me because he can’t fucking throw his keys—he’s all fucked up. So they made these decisions themselves. They had a choice and they made these decisions. A lot of them even knew because it wasn’t like if you were a player on the Bears and you were a rookie in ’85, all you had to do was look at Ditka, he was a fucking mess. He was a very physical player. He played for a very long time. But the fact is when you’re 22, you can’t make a decision like that. That’s why you need other people to protect you than yourself because you’ll do stupid shit, you’ll drink and drive, you’ll take drugs. You’ll do everything you’ll pay for later because you’re an idiot, you’re a kid. You’re just thinking about the next 10 minutes and you’re not thinking that other things–you haven’t lived long enough to realize that other thing is going to come around before you know it and you’re gonna have, you know. It’s just like what’s going to look good in the next. If you watched how a guy like McMahon played, he played like a guy who believed that it didn’t matter what happened in three years.. He’d dive head first. He would do it all the time and he loved it and he obviously was a guy who loved getting hit. There’s guys like that. We all grew up with them. He’s like sort of–
AB: He’s like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. He’s nuts.
RC: Yeah and that’s his whole thing and and especially now, it’s the coach’s job and the owner’s job and the GM’s. They have to protect that guy from himself. You’re using that quality he has to make your team great and to make this game exciting, but you also at the same time have a kind of responsibility to protect them from his own stupidity, that he can’t see what’s coming but you know because you’re 20 years older than him. Ditka would say, “Well I couldn’t change him—it would have ruined him.” That’s probably true to some degree. Now though it’s like watching a game, it’s like willing suspension of disbelief and you don’t think about it because you get into it, but when a guy gets really–when you see a bad hit, the kind you used to see 10 times in an ’85 Bears game you sort of have this moment of, what the fuck am I doing here. That’s what the league has to protect itself from because that’s what’s going to hurt the league.
Or: “How Hollywood Ruined Our Best Football Novel”
By John Schulian
Long before he established himself as the Ring Lardner of the Pepsi generation, Dan Jenkins wrote about sports for the blighted Fort Worth Press. He had to rise at 4 every morning to put out the paper’s first edition, and the indignity of that, he claims with typical reckless abandon, made his hair hurt.
Twenty years later, Jenkins has yet to describe the pain of seeing what Hollywood did to Semi-Tough, his best-selling bellylaugh about professional football. He tried to say something not long ago in Sports Illustrated, the magazine where his typing skills came to light, but the most emotion he could muster was mild bemusement. The possibility exits, however, that he didn’t do any better because he was in shock.
You will know the feeling if you read the book and see the movie, which will descend on Chicago this Christmas season like a curse from King Herod. Billy Clyde Puckett, the halfback hero of Semi-Tough, would probably want to know where Herod played his college ball, but there are more important questions to be asked about the cinematic mutation Michael Ritchie, a certified hot-shot director, has given us. The biggest one is: Why did he bother saying he was making a movie of Jenkins’ novel?
Just about the only thing left from it are the title, the diary Billy Clyde is keeping during Super Bowl week, and the fact that he is forever being interrupted by his podnuh, Marvin (Shake) Tiller, the mystic wide receiver, and their mutual playmate, Barbara Jane Bookman. Out of a book that ran better than 200 pages in hardback, that is not what anybody in his right mind would call a whole lot.
Ritchie’s explanation is that he was intrigued by the conclusion of the book, which found Shake doing a fly pattern all the way to India, where he could commune with his guru and ride elephants. Because of that, Ritchie would up putting Burt (Billy Clyde) Reynolds and Kris (Shake) Kristofferson in a movie about the consciousness movement. If you aren’t familiar with the consciousness movement, the premise on which it is built is that nobody’s hemorrhoids are more important than yours.
Such thinking is very big in California, which leads the universe in sun-baked brains. Everywhere else, people who become that bewitched, bothered and bewildered are called “tutti-fruttis.” Indeed, that is how Ritchie depicts them despite his West Coast ties. The irreverence is not unusual, for he has thrown darts at politics in The Candidate, at beauty contests in Smile, and at Little League baseball in The Bad News Bears. But he is so obsessed with puncturing the inherent silliness of the me-firsters that he has forgotten that Semi-Tough is supposed to be about the NFL’s inherent silliness.
In the process, some of Jenkins’ finest ideas ended up on the floor of Ritchie’s birdcage. There is no mention of how Pete Rozelle used the commissionership as a springboard to the U.S. Senate. T.J. Lambert, the flatulent defensive end, is never shown making a sandwich of six Dallas policemen. “The Giants and the Cowboys got together and kept our arrest quiet,” said Billy Clyde, who watched the proceedings in amazement. “We got to play in the game. I think the Giants had to give up a high draft choice to the Cowboys when it was over.”
Nor did Ritchie try to stage the outlandish halftime show Jenkins imagined, the one in which “several hundred trained birds—painted red, white and blue—would fly over the coliseum in formation of an American flag” while Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck sang “God Bless America.”
Even when the director relied on the author, he managed to foul things up. One wonderful scene has the drunken Lambert dangling a 20th Century fox over a terrace railing by the heels because she looked askance at his idea of how well they should get to know each other. In the book, Barbara Jane Bookman talks Lambert out of mayhem; she can’t do the same in the movie because it would rob Shake Tiller of a chance to display his new-found calm. Apparently Ritchie isn’t so iconoclastic that he would try to level the consciousness movement and machismo with the same swing.
If Jenkins should take offense to anything, however, it is what Ritchie did to his rating system for feminine pulchritude. Originally, the system went from 10—which was, you should pardon the expression, “a Healing Scab”—to 1, and of course there never was a 1. For the pure Hollywood hell of it, Ritchie completely reversed the ratings. If he had left them the way they were, Jill Clayburgh, who plays Barbara Jane, would have been a lot closer to the truth when she insists, “I’m a 10.”
She is, however, just one of Ritchie’s casting mistakes. Kristofferson wanders through his role as Shake in such a daze that he must have been handed a fistful of Valium instead of the usual NFL Sunday afternoon supply of greenies. As Barbara Jane’s father, a pinko-hating oil baron, Robert Preston appears to be a Communist plot himself. Only Reynolds, as Billy Clyde, is palatable, if you don’t mind watching him portray Burt Reynolds. And just in case you don’t, remember that he had a stand-in for most of his rib-cracking football scenes. No premiums are paid for acting with pain.
As it turns out, the audience does all the suffering, which is no small achievement for a movie that Ritchie calls “a racy comedy.” His choice of words may be the funniest thing about Semi-Tough. When it was a book, it was enjoyably bawdy, almost “Tom Jones with a Jockstrap.” Ritchie’s adaptation, however, is merely smarmy, filled with the kind of double entendres that aren’t even good enough for TV.
Naturally, that won’t stop TV from buying this worthless hunk of celluloid. If you are smart, you will wait until then instead of wasting your money on it in a theater. When it comes to passing judgement on Semi-Tough, you see, there is no semi about it. It is totally terrible.
John Schulian is a former syndicated sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His work has appeared in GQ, Sports Illustrated, Inside Sports, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He also wrote for the TV shows Miami Vice, L.A. Law, and co-created Xena: Princess Warrior. He is the author of Twilight of the Long-ball GodsandSometimes They Even Shook Your Hand, and co-editor of At The Fights.
Not that Mark Sanchez dancing with Alana (a former “bottle service girl” at the San Diego club Voyeur) and Janna (a “socialite,”) wasn’t the best sports-video clip of a really slow day last week, although I was disappointed at the glaring absence of Katie, Jessika, Jenna, Nikki, Emi, Danielle, Krista, Gina, Ashley and the rest of the Jets Flight Crew 2013 swimsuit wall calendar gang. What brought me down was the flashback.
Last time I spoke to EK was when we were passing each other in the hallway at school in June 2008. She was a ninth-grader. I was her brother’s English teacher. She said, “Hi, Mr. Richmond,” and I said, “Hi.” That was the usual exchange between us. Nice kid. Good student. A few days later, she graduated from our private middle school and went on to high school, and I resigned after deciding that my day gig should no longer involve having to call out ninth-grade girls for violating the dress code by wearing Uggs in my classroom.
The next time I saw the girl was on the web in February of 2011. This was a few days after her cell-phone photographs of Mark Sanchez’ bedroom had hit the web after Deadspin broke the tale. I recognized the girl immediately, despite the noticeable increase in layers in makeup, because she didn’t look much older than she had three years earlier in ninth grade. At least to me, she didn’t. Apparently, though, glimpsed through the giddily romantic New Year’s Eve atmospherics of Lavo (“an Ultralounge!” raved New York), she was only seventeen.
At that point, according to the girl’s account, Sanchez was gentlemanly enough to respond that he couldn’t see her until she was 18. Mark clearly had the schoolgirl’s best interests at heart — at least, until she corrected him: in New York, she told him, to be seventeen years of age was to be (Yes! The initial ruling at the table is overturned!) of legal age. This news apparently cleared the way for the girl’s subsequent photographs of Sanchez’ bedroom in his place on a Jersey golf course.
The last time I saw a picture of the girl was in a paparazzi-tabloid shot taken in her Connecticut hometown a week after it all broke, wherein, caught outdoors in her village, in a parka, her expression vibed panic, on the verge of teenaged tears. This was the ninth-grader I used to see at the salad bar.
That summer, six months after his quarterback’s alleged tryst, alleged New York Jet coach Rex Ryan, alleged star of one of the great foot-fetish role-playing videos of all time (wherein he allegedly plays the cop drawn to the woman’s bare feet sticking out a car door; his alleged wife allegedly plays the woman), named Mark Sanchez his captain.
Talk of Sanchez’ schoolgirl dalliance quickly and mysteriously muted, and then mutated: In a GQ profile that allegedly appeared in September of 2011, allegedly eight months after the alleged liaison, the alleged affair is referred to thusly in a brief aside near the end of the piece: “A 17-year-old high-school student…told a gossipy sports site…they went on a date.” Indeed they allegedly did; the writer of the story identified an object in Sanchez’ bedroom that the girl had photographed with her phone.
(In a highlight in the annals of profile hilarity, the piece led with an anecdote in which then-linebacker Bart Scott chides Vladimir Ducasse about leaving a party the night before, despite their being so many “hos” at poolside. Ducasse complains that they were too old. Scott asks Sanchez, “Were those ho’s too old?”
(“Define old,” says Mark.)
As a lover of freakazoid behavior in the National Football Lockstep, a league sport that thinks it’s a branch of the Pentagon, I’m all for aberrance, as long as it stops short of a 24-year-old quarterback texting a high-school girl at 2 a.m. asking if she wants to go out that night, and she has to answer from her bedroom in her parents’ suburban Connecticut home, “I have school tomorrow,” and his head coach names him captain. Doesn’t a captain of a football team have to exhibit something approximating leadership qualities?
If teaching larval teenaged girls for three years taught me anything about larval teenaged girls, it’s that lots of them like to dress up and make-up to look more mature than they are, but have less idea of what they actually look like to older men as goldfish who want to look good to other goldfish in the tank in the dentist’s office know what they look like to people awaiting root canals.
I have no doubt that the girl wanted to look alluring at the ultralounge. I also have no doubt that to any rational adult in that club that night, which Mark Sanchez allegedly was, she looked exactly like what she was: someone beneath accepted legal age.
In 2011, the Jets went 8-8. They were 8-5 before losing their last three by a combined scored of 93-50. Mark completed 56 percent of his passes and threw only 18 interceptions.
In March of 2012, the Jets extended Mark’s contract, which guaranteed him $20 million. “It gives the team,” Mark said, “just a reminder that I’m the leader of this team.”
By that fall, Mark had put aside such childish things as the teenager I’d known. By the start of training camp, he was going out with Eva Longoria, the thespian known for, among other things, playing a detective in the wildly underrated Senorita Justice. Eva was 12 ½ years his senior. She’d already had an ugly breakup with Tony Parker. I figured her worldliness and experience would help the Jets’ leader grow up.
But one month into the season, she broke up with him. According to TMZ, in a break-up message, she called him “moody” and “inconsistent.” She did not elaborate on the latter adjective. She did say, “We’ll always have the season opener in Buffalo.” He’d completed 19 of 27, with three TD passes, in a rout, before the Jets lost ten of their next 15 games and finished 6-10. The team, perhaps sensing by now that Jesus was weeping, hired Tim Tebow.
Today, of course, the most viral video of Mark Sanchez remains the game last year when, scrambling, he runs into the butt of one of his lineman, and fumbles. But I am reassured that he is finally dancing on videos with age-appropriate women.
And since he might still possess football talent, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt: that when he escapes the skeeviness of his current employee (see Favre, masseuses hired as rewards for good games; Ryan Footwear) and gets the start in whatever city the Jaguars are in two years from now, he might win more games than he loses. Being an NFL quarterback is a whole lot more difficult than being a bottle girl.
So how to compute Sanchez’ true Skeeve Quotient? Maybe, emotionally and developmentally, Sanchez is a 17-year-old himself. As Los Angeles’ (“City of Illusion”) former star Trojan, maybe no one ever asked him to grow up. If he’s psychologically stunted, then in his own head he did no wrong, right? When Sanchez allegedly called the girl I knew on an alleged Sunday night after allegedly losing to the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the playoffs, and she allegedly declined to meet him that night, wouldn’t that like, so indicate the melding of two teen minds? The girl saying, “I can’t! I didn’t do any homework all weekend!”
And the guy saying, “So what? Come on! I’m rich!”
Completely understandable adolescent behavior.
But for the sake of any other former ninth-graders I might know who might cross his ultrapath in the future, I would ask Mark to heed the wisdom Joe Namath offered him in the GQ piece. When the writer asks if Joe has any dating advice for his successor in the Lavo limelight, Joe answers: “To really do his homework.”
You should’ve seen my father’s arms. He didn’t lift weights or do push-ups or exercise them in any way, and yet they were packed tight with muscle. When I was a boy and he lifted his high-ball in the evening for a sip, a round knot the size of a softball came up under the skin and slowly flattened out when he lowered the glass back down. I loved his arms so much that I memorized every vein, sinew, and golden hair. I knew the wrinkles of his elbows.
In the summer, when he worked for the city’s recreation department, supervising the baseball program at the park, Daddy liked to come home for lunch and a nap. He had lemonade and a BLT, then he had me lie close to him on the sofa, and he draped an arm around me. “One … two … three … ” he’d count in a whisper, and then he was out, sleeping that easily.
I lay there wondering if I’d ever have arms like his. I needed both hands to travel the distance around his wrist, the tips of my thumbs and fingers barely touching. I felt the hardness of his forearm. I saw how his wedding band fit him like a strand of barbed wire on a tree whose bark had grown around it. He smelled of the grass and the sun, of green and gold days that started early and ended late.
“Were you a good player?” I asked him once as he was coming awake.
“Was I what?”
“A good player.”
“You want to know if I was a good player?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“I don’t know. Did they run your name in the paper a lot?”
He looked at me in a way that let me know he wanted my attention. “None of it matters, John Ed. Was I a good teammate? Did I do my best and give everything I had to help the team? These are the questions you need to be asking.”
I wondered how to answer them, these questions he found of such importance. Many years would have to pass before I was old enough to join a team. He pulled me close again, as if he’d just remembered something. “John Ed?”
“Always be humble.”
The rest of the year he worked as a civics teacher and coach at the high school in town. The town was Opelousas, on the road between Alexandria and Lafayette, and it was just small enough, at about twenty thousand, to be excluded from Louisiana state maps when TV weathermen gave their forecasts in the evening. In the morning, my father left home wearing coach’s slacks with sharp creases and a polo shirt with a Tiger emblem and the words OHS FOOTBALL printed in Halloween orange on the left breast, the lettering melted from too much time in the dryer. A whistle hung from a nylon cord around his neck. It was still hanging there when he returned at night and sat down to a cold supper—the same meal Mama had served her children hours earlier. “You don’t want me to warm it for you, Johnny?”
“No, baby. That’s okay.”
Sometimes in the afternoon, Mama drove me out to the school. She parked under the oak tree by the gymnasium, pointed to where she wanted me to go, and I walked out past a gate in a hurricane fence to the field where my father and the other coaches were holding practice. Four years old, I wore the same crew cut that my father wore. I stumbled through tall grass and out past the red clay track that encircled the field. At home, my father didn’t raise his voice, but here he seemed to shout with every breath. A team manager took me by the hand and led me to a long pine bench on the sideline. I sat among metal coolers, spare shoulder pads and toolboxes crammed with first aid supplies. I waited until the last drill had ended and the players came one after another to the coolers for water the same temperature as the day, drunk in single gulps from paper cups shaped like cones. The players took turns giving the top of my head a mussing. “You gonna play football when you grow up?”
“I don’t know.”
“You gonna be a coach like your daddy?”
“I want to.”
Already I was certain that no one mattered more than a coach. I would trade any day to come for a chance to be that boy again, understanding for the first time who his father was. Give me August and two-a-days and a group of teenagers who are now old men, their uniforms stained green from the grass and black with Louisiana loam. Give me my father’s voice as he shouts to them, pushing them harder than they believe they can go, willing them to be better. Give me my father when practice is over and he walks to where I’m sitting and reaches his arms out to hold me.
We turned the corner and drove down a residential street. Housewives in spandex shorts were jogging on the sidewalk. Simpson glanced at them and said, “I loved the way Nicole looked. If I saw her on that sidewalk right now, I’d pull over and hit on her. If she had a different head.”
Simpson is used to playing the character he created over the years—the genial O.J. we saw in the broadcasting booth, in TV commercials, and in films—and he seemed ill equipped to play a man tormented by tragedy. His features rearranged themselves constantly. His brow furrowed with worry; his eyebrows rose in disbelief; his eyelashes fluttered, suggesting humility; his eyes grew wide with sincerity. All of this was punctuated by an incongruous, almost girlish giggle.
It was Simpson’s will, as much as his talent, that enabled him to become not only a great football player but also one of America’s most beloved black athletes. (“When I was a kid growing up in San Francisco, Willie Mays was the single biggest influence on my life,” Simpson told me. “I saw how he made white people happy. I wanted to be like Willie Mays.”) Over the course of his life, Simpson had gotten virtually everything he has wanted—fame, wealth, adulation, Nicole Brown, and, eventually, acquittal. It was widely reported that Nicole told friends that if her husband ever killed her he’d probably “O.J. his way out of it.” Today, at fifty-three, almost six years after his acquittal, Simpson seems to be free of doubt, shame, or guilt. He refers to the murders of his wife and Ron Goldman, and his subsequent trials for those murders, as “my ordeal.” Now he wants vindication. Only that can erase the stigma that has transformed him from an American hero into a pariah, living out his days in a pathetic mimicry of his former life. And he appears to believe that he will get it, as he got everything—by sheer will—and with it a return to fame and wealth and adulation.