"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Football

The Outcast

From the vaults, here’s Pat Jordan’s 2001 New Yorker profile of O.J. Simpson:

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.


Game Day

Championship Game Day in the NFL.

And that’s word to Bronco Nagurski.

Dig in.

Here Comes the Pain


Over at Esquire, check out Tom Junod on the NFL’s theater of pain.

Ghost in the Machine

On Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o, Patrick Hruby says: Print the Legend.

Say Again?

Found at Kottke…funny.

Behind the Scenes

Over at SB Nation’s Longform page, check out this good read on Fox’s NFL broadcast by Zac Crain.

The Tide is High

The Tide vs. The Irish.

Oh, and locally, the Knicks host the Celtics.

[Picture by Tom Grill]

The Banter Gold Standard: Bear Bryant’s Miracles

In this piece, published by Playboy in 1979, the author of such street-sharp novels as The Wanderers, Blood Brothers, and Clockers detours from the city to the unfamiliar terrain of Alabama where he is to meet with a Southern deity named Paul “Bear” Bryant. The imposing stature of one of college football’s most fabled coaches has Price contemplating a haircut and a quick perusal of the scriptures before his scheduled audience with the man in the houndstooth hat.

“Bear Bryant’s Miracles”

By Richard Price


Because l grew up in a multiethnic environment in New York City, the South has always conjured up some bad news reactions on word-association tests for me: Klan, lynch, redneck, moonshine, trap towns and death . . . lots of death.

As the years have passed, I’ve started hearing some flip sides. There’s the “New South,” with Atlanta as cosmopolitan as New York. I’ve heard that, despite the headline horrors, Southerners get along socially better than Northerners. And that foreign blacks prefer the upfrontness of the South to the hypocritical liberal bullshit of the North.

But despite all my revisionist thoughts, the only good images that have held up in my head are Southern novelists and the University of Alabama football team. The novelists because they are good or great and the Crimson Tide because, like Notre Dame, they are the New York Yankees of college football. I don’t give a rat’s ass about football, college or otherwise, and I’m not crazy about regimentation or bullet-head activities. But I do admire winners.

And as ignorant as I am of the “real” South and football in general, even I know that the man behind the winning tradition at Alabama is a magnetic, scary John Wayne type named Paul “Bear” Bryant. I would see him every few years on a televised bowl game, standing on the side lines, craggy-faced, in that houndstooth hat. I figured he was some kind of coaching genius. I also got the notion that he was somebody I very glad not to have as a teacher in any course I was flunking.

On the plane headed for Birmingham, I am armed with two documents: Bear, coach Bryant’s autobiography; and the 1978 Alabama Football Crimson Tide Press Guide. Bear doesn’t do much for me—it’s little too cagily humble. The Press Guide, on the other hand, has me freaking out six ways to Sunday. These guys are monsters. Even the handsome fraternity types have that combat-veteran look about them.

The other things that are dizzying in the press book are the win-loss stats. They’re almost pornographic. Since Bryant went to Alabama in 1958, the Tide’s record has been 193–38–8. In the past eight years, try 85–11—that’s almost 11 wins per season. They were in 20 bowl games in a row, won all but one Southeastern Conference title since 1971 (’76 went to Georgia), won five national championships since 1961 and have a home record of 60–1, with 45 straight victories.

Bryant is the winningest active coach, with 284 victories in 34 years at four schools, and is third in total wins only to Amos Alonzo Stagg and Pop Warner as far as the history of the game goes.

At the Birmingham airport, I start wondering why the hell I am keying in so much on the hairdos I see all around me. The Dolly Parton pompadours, the rock-a-billy duck asses, the military knuckleheads. Then I look in a mirror. With the possible exception of a photo of Duane Allman, I have the longest hair of anybody I’ve seen all day. I start getting visions of rusty scissors in a sheriff’s office. Ah, that’s all Hollywood horseshit, I tell myself. But I do go into a men’s room and remove earring.

Bryant Hall is where all the players have to live for the four or five years they’re at Alabama. It was among the first sports dorms in the country and it received a lot of flak for special treatment, pampering athletic elitism. Since then, sports dorms have popped up all over, but the controversy still goes on.

In any event, as I go there for lunch with Kirk McNair, Alabama’s sports information director, I expect to see something between a palace and a beachfront condominium. What I see is more like a cross between a dorm and a housing project. The place looks like shit. Off the lobby is a TV room and the dining room. Players walk by. Some are mammoth, with roast beef shoulders and ham hock thighs, and they shuffle sway-backed into the dining room; others aren’t much bigger than I am. Alabama opts for quickness over bulk; consequently, it’s not that big a team.

I eat with McNair and a Birmingham sportswriter, plus a short, heavy Italian guy who runs a restaurant in town, is a freak for the team and supplies everybody with food. He just likes to hang around with the boys.

From where we sit, I can see the guys taking the empty trays to the disposal area. They all seem to shuffle, drag their feet like they’re saving it up for practice—or else they have that sprightly pigeon-toed jock walk, as if they’re about to sprint across a room keeping a soccer ball afloat with their toes and knees.

I don’t hear anybody mention Bear Bryant. In fact, he doesn’t have that much personal contact with his players. He’s got a huge staff of coaching assistants who get down in the dirt with them.

But he’s there. He’s in that room. He is the team and everybody knows it.

A football is laid out with a white pen by the tray disposal area, and the players sign the ball after they get rid of their trays. Some kid is going to get the best birthday present in the entire state. Or maybe it’s for his old man.

Later that afternoon, I’m taken to the grass practice field. The sports offices are in the coliseum and there’s a long underground walkway that connects with the closed-to-the-public Astroturf practice field. The first thing I notice as I come up to ground level, slightly drunk on the waft of freshly cut grass, is a tower. A huge 50-foot-high observation post.

And up there is my first shot of Bear, slouched against the railing, wearing a beat-up varsity jacket, a baseball cap, a megaphone hanging from one wrist. He doesn’t move, just leans back like he’s lost in thought. Below him, there are maybe 100 guys running plays, mashing into one another in the dirt, attacking dummies. A massive division of labor of violence, speed and strength. Assistant coaches are all over, screaming, barking, shoving, soothing (though not too much), encouraging. A sound track of grunts, growls, roars and commands floats in the spring air. And above it all, Bear doesn’t move, he doesn’t even seem to be interested. It’s as though he’s a stranded lifeguard, six months off season, wondering how the hell he got up there and how the hell he’s gonna get down.

The most terrifying workout I see that day is called the gauntlet drill. You take three linemen, line them up one behind the other about ten feet apart. Then a relatively small running back is placed five feet in front of the first lineman, and at the sound of a whistle, he tries to get past the first lineman. If he does, the lineman gets the shit chewed out of him by the defensive coach. If he doesn’t, the running back gets dumped on his ass by an enormous amount of meat and gear. Either way, he has to set to, go around the second lineman, then the third. Somehow, with that coach bawling and shoving the lineman who fucked up, I feel more anxiety for the lineman than I do for the halfback.

On the Astroturf field, there are two practice scrimmages referees. I sit on the sideline bench with a number of pro scouts, a few privileged civilians and a bunch of shaggy-haired 12-year-olds who walk up and down the side line imitating that pigeon-toed jock walk, chewing gum and trying to look like future prospects. Like me, every few minutes they sneak a glance at the tower to check out the big man.

The players are wearing jerseys of one of five colors. Red jersey—first-string offense. White—first-string defense. Blue—second-string defense. Green-second-string offense. And gold. Gold signifies “Don’t tackle this man,” which means the guy is either a quarterback (quarterbacks never get tackled in practice) or nursing an injury.

I look up at the tower. Bear is gone.

The bench we’re sitting on divides the pits and the Astroturf from a long, flat grassy field with just a few goal posts at one distant end. Bear makes it down to earth and, head still down, slowly ambles over to the grassy field. Some of the 12-year-olds notice and nudge one another. He’s walking away. Going home. Hands in pockets. The bench divides the two shows: the number one college team working out to the west and the coach slowly walking alone to the east.

I turn my back on the players and watch Bear walk. He gets out about 50 yards toward the walkway back to the coliseum when a player on crutches, hobbling toward the Astroturf, meets him at midfield. They stop, exchange a few words (the crutches do not fall away as I would prefer) and the wounded player swings along toward the crowd.

Bear stands there, staring at his shoes, scratching his nose. Then, without looking up, he puts a whistle in his mouth, shoots a couple of weak toots I think only I can hear, and suddenly the earth is shaking and I’m caught in a buffalo stampede. Every player has immediately dropped everything and is tearing ass over to Bear.

They say no one ever walks for a second from the beginning end the of an Alabama practice. Within 20 seconds of his whistle, Bear is surrounded in a square by four perfect lines. Blue jersey, south; white, north; red, east; green, west. Bear squints into the distance. A player leaps forward out of the tense and taut blue south—they’re all in a slight crouch, eyes on the blue leader, who jerks his hands toward his helmet and, in a twinkling, they follow suit; he jerks his hands down to his flexed thighs, halfway up to his chest, a half jerk up, down, a feint, finger tips to the helmet. The entire blue squad is frozen except for its arms. Back and knees bent, eyes and neck straight ahead, they play flawless follow-the-leader for 15 seconds, then stand up straight, arching their backs, and clap and cheer for themselves.

As soon as they applaud, the leader of the green west leaps out and leads his squad through a perfect 15-second drill. The green applaud themselves. Bear stands alone in the center of all this, a deity, a religious rock being rapidly salaamed by an army of jocks. The green cheer is immediately followed by the white north, then applause, then red east. Fifteen flawless seconds each of heart stopping precision—Bear Bryant the centerpiece, looking nowhere, everywhere, watching or lost in thought.

Then every one of them is running back to where he came from. Back to the dirt, the Astroturf, the tackling sled. Back over my head and shoulders. And once again, Bear is alone on the field, hands in pockets just like 120 seconds before. He has not said a thing, seemingly never looked at anyone. Behind me, the practices are in full swing. I watch coach Bryant amble over to his tower and slowly ascend the 50 feet to his platform, resume his slouch against the railing and check out whatever those flinty eyes deem in need of checking out. Holy shit and kiss my ass. That was known as a quickness drill.

In terms of glory, there are no individual stars at Alabama. It really is a team. It has had plenty of All-Americans, plenty of pro stars such as Lee Roy Jordan, Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, but by and large, you don’t hear that much about individuals besides the coach.

How does he do it? The team is composed predominantly of home boys, who must have grown up worshiping Bear Bryant. I think of those 12-year-olds cock-walking the sidelines, one-eying the tower. Every year, the coach gets a batch of players who have been spoon-fed Bear stories and glories all their lives. So for an adolescent athlete from Birmingham, Florence, Demopolis, Bessemer to hear “Bear wants you”—it would turn him into a raving kamikaze, or at least a stout and loyal fellow. I don’t think Bear has to try very hard anymore to get players with the right “attitude.”

My first interview the following morning is with Steadman Shealy. We meet under the chandelier in the football dorm. Shealy isn’t much bigger than I am, but he’s a lot blonder and tanner. He also has a firmer handshake, better manners and a neater appearance. Shealy’s the first string quarterback.

We go up to his room and I get my first gander at the living arrangements. The dorm rooms are tiny, with two beds, cinder block walls and the usual campus bookstore assortment of banal posters. Shealy, at least, is average-human-being-sized. I try to imagine two nose guards sharing a room this narrow.

Shealy sits on his bed, confident, serene, courteous, helpful and cheerful. And he’s not putting me on. I ask him why he chose to go to Alabama, assuming he could have played anywhere in the South. I expect him to rave about Bear, but instead he says, “I really thought this was where God wanted me to come.”

I sit up a little straighter. At first I don’t know if he’s talking about the Lord or Bear, but then he says the second reason was the opportunity to play for coach Bryant—that Alabama has “something extra” in its winning tradition. And then he says something I will hear in the next several interviews: “And I want to be a winner.”

On the cover of Bear is the quote “I ain’t nothing but a winner.”

Shealy talks of Bear’s father image, of how the coach applies football to life (another thing I’ll hear again), of what it takes to win. All hokey stuff in the abstract—but not to Shealy or the others. The guys talk about these bland notions as though they were tenets of radical politics.

Shealy’s religiosity, as exotic to me as Bora-Bora, seems a natural extension of the team spirit. He is a Christian soldier, a leader and a follower. Not many of the guys say they’re religious, but—at least in interviews—there are no wise guys, no cynics. Frankly, all this clear-eyed devotion makes me extremely uncomfortable, but maybe that’s my problem.

And where does Shealy see himself five years from now? “Coaching or Christian ministry…it all depends on what doors God opens up. ” None of what he says about the coach, about winning and life is all that insightful, but his eyes and chin tell the story. He has no room in his face for sarcasm, despair or doubt. He loves the coach, he loves the team, he loves Christ: a clean-cut, all-American, God, Bear and ‘Bama man if ever there were one.

Attitude. I know Bryant doesn’t tolerate any guff from anybody. He suspended two of his most famous players, Namath and Stabler, for infractions. No matter who you are, if you don’t toe the line, the man will personally clean out your locker for you. Bear says in his book that works best with the kid who doesn’t know he’s not terribly talented but plays his heart out. He’s more attuned to that kind of athlete than to the hot-dog natural. Sort of like making the New York Yankees out of a bunch of Rocky types. The great American combo: underdog, superstar.

My next interview is with Don Jacobs, the second or possibly third string quarterback. He picked Alabama because, growing up in north Alabama, that’s all you hear: “Alabama this, Alabama that.” He says in the southern part of the state, boys are partial to Auburn, but Alabama is the “number-one university in your mind.”

“The first time I talked with coach Bryant,” says Jacobs, “I was scared to death. I was afraid to say anything at all. But he was real nice. He talked about Pat Trammel [a star on the 1961 championship team], ’cause Trammel was from Scottsboro, my hometown. Said he hoped I was good as Trammel.”

Bear, I’m thinking, is a frightening man, but from what I gather of the impressions and memories of players, he’s not a screamer, puncher, growler. He’s a man of few words, not even one for pep talks. Jacobs has never seen him get really angry, never lose his cool, never jump on anybody’s case.

I ask Jacobs how I should conduct myself when I meet Bear. “Be real courteous,” he says. “Say ‘Yes, sir, no, sir.’ Just be yourself.”

“Should I get a haircut?”

“I dunno. I wouldn’t go in there like that. When you go see him, you always shave, look real nice, don’t wear sloppy clothes. Lots of players tell you there’s a lot of things you don’t do when you see coach Bryant. It’s been passed down through history. You always take your hat off in the house, stuff like that.”

Awe and respect. Dedication and honor. And, oh, yes, talent.

In the early afternoon, I see a few players hanging out with some girls in front of Bryant Hall. A big dude comes walking in with his dad, mom, sis and his pretty gal. The father looks like a big baggy version of his son. Maybe the present son will come to this dorm 20 years later with his son. Football is a family sport. Everybody is proud of everybody. Bryant pushes that a lot in his talks to his players.

This is from a midweek, midseason talk to his 1964 national champs:

After the game, there are three types of people. One comes in and he ain’t played worth killing, and he’s lost. And he gets dressed and out of there as quick as he can. He meets his girl and his momma, and they ain’t too damn glad to see him. And he goes off somewhere and says how “the coach shoulda done this or that,” and “the coach don’t like me,” and “I didn’t play enough.” And everybody just nods.

And the second type will sit there awhile, thinking what he could have done to make his team a winner. And he’ll shed some tears. He’ll finally get dressed, but he doesn’t want to see anybody. His momma’s out there. She puts on a big act and tells him what a great game he played, and he tells her if he had done this or that, he’d be a winner, and that he will be a winner next week.

And then there’s the third guy. The winner. He’ll be in there hugging everybody in the dressing room. It’ll take him an hour to dress. And when he goes out, it’s a little something extra in it when his daddy squeezes his hand. His momma hugs and kisses him, and that little old ugly girl snuggles up, proud to be next to him. And he knows they’re proud. And why.

That afternoon, I have an interview with one of the black players, a nose guard named Byron Braggs. I have seen only a small photo of him in the press book and know that on the first day of practice his freshman year, he almost died of heatstroke but came back to be a top lineman.

I’m checking out my biceps in the empty lounge of Bryant Hall when I look up and jump 90 feet—there’s Braggs, 6’6″, 260 pounds, wearing a Cat-tractor hat. We go up to his room, which consists of a large roommate, a TV, a stereo and a full-size refrigerator. They must sleep standing up.

Braggs is a little different from the others I’ve talked with—a little less awestruck, more blasé. He came to Alabama because his “folks picked it for me. It’s near home.”

What does he think about Bryant? “A lot of guys are scared of him,” says Braggs. “They’re in awe of his presence. But I just look at him like anybody else. I’m just happy he can remember my name. He mixes up a lot of names and faces, but two minutes later, he’ll remember and apologize.”

Ten years ago, Alabama was segregated. When I ask Braggs if prejudice lingers, he just shrugs. “It doesn’t bother me,” he says. “There were times when things looked shaky, but there are no major problems.”

And is state-wide football fever a white fever, or does it affect black Alabamans, too? “Up until about eight to ten years ago,” says Braggs, “It was mainly white. I didn’t even know about Alabama. I would watch Notre Dame, USC with O. J. Simpson. I didn’t really notice Alabama until they beat USC out there. That was the first time I knew they had a team. And since they had black players, a lot more people became fans of the team. My folks and others follow the team now. In my home town, people have become real fans.”

How about those things Bryant teaches—about character and football and life? “It’s life and death out there on the field sometimes. It all ties in. Some coaches like Bryant, John McKay, Ara Parseghian tend to have a definite pull on which way you’re looking after you graduate. They’re sort of like the last shaping process that someone is going to do you. From then on, you do it from within.”

Bragg’s advice on how to relate to the coach? “Talk to him straight. Don’t beat around the bush. He’s not impressed with slickness or guys trying to fool him.”

Taking a breather between interviews, I walk around campus a bit, grooving on the coeds in their summer dresses, the chirping of the birds, the flora of the South. Old brick and columns. There’s not one physically ugly person on the campus.

Back on campus that afternoon, I interview defensive end Gary DeNiro. The reason I pick him is that he’s from Youngstown, Ohio, which is definitely Ohio State turf.

He went to Alabama, he says, because he “didn’t like Woody Hayes’s coaching that much” and was “always an Alabama fan.

“‘I like that the coach plays a lot of guys who are small [DeNiro is sex feet, 210 pounds]. Up North, they play bigger people. Coach Bryant plays the people who want to play.”

“How about your Ohio State buddies? What was the reaction when they found out you were going to play for Alabama?”

‘”They thought I made a big mistake. That I’d come down here and they’d still be fighting the Civil War. They were wrong.”

DeNiro’s first impression of Bryant?

“‘He’s a legend. Like meeting someone you always wanted to meet. Once Alabama wanted me, I didn’t have no trouble makin’ up my mind. I remember one time I was loafin’ when I was red-shirted, which is a hard time, ’cause you practice like everyone else, but come Friday night, when the team goes, you stay home. Anyway, I was ‘puttin’ in a day,’ as coach calls it, and he caught me and yelled, ‘DeNiro, who you think you’re tryin’ to fool?’ And from then on, l never loafed. There’s really no place for it on the field.”

“How about contact with the coach?”

“Maybe two or three times a year. He says his door is always open, but I’ll go in just maybe to say goodbye before I go home or something—nothing more. He has coaching meetings every day. He tells the coaches what he thinks, then we’ll have meetings with the coaches in the afternoon and they’ll tell us what we’re doing wrong. And then about three, four times a week, we’ll have a meeting with coach Bryant. We’ll all go in as a group. He’ll tell us what he sees overall. I imagine he gets more contact with the upperclassmen, because they’re the leaders and they’ll get it across to the team.”

“Where do you see yourself five years from now?”

“Hopefully, with a lot of money. Maybe pro ball if I’m not too small—coach Bryant proved the little man can work out. Or maybe I’ll coach. Coach Bryant is the legend of all coaches. If he is behind you, no telling how many doors can open for you.”

No telling is right. There’s a club based in Birmingham consisting of all Bear Bryant alumni now in the business world. They meet with graduating senior team members and help them find both summer and career jobs. Many kids want, if not to play pro, which most of them do want, to take a crack at coaching. There’s also a big business school down there and a strong education program. But whatever they do choose, if they stay in Alabama, playing for Bear and then going into anything in athletics or business is like graduating summa cum laude. Even outside Alabama, the alumni network is nationwide. I hear that one of the biggest diamond dealers in New York’s 47th Street district is an Alabama grad.

These interviews are frustratingly inconclusive. All this nonsense concerning life, character, winners’ attitudes—of course it’s going to come across bland and boringly obvious on a tape recorder. But it’s really a combat camaraderie, a brotherhood of suffering and surviving, a growing together in a violent, competitive world. And being rewarded by being called best. Call it character, call it chicken soup, but it’s really love. Love of the boss man. Love of one another and love of victory. All this hoopla about football applied to life comes down to this: I was the best in the world once. I know what that tastes like. I want more. Roll, Tide!

In areas of rural poverty, football is the American passion play, the emotional outlet for all the rage, boredom and bad breaks—just as basketball is in urban areas.

In The Last Picture Show, an entire Texas town lived for high school football; and that’s a common phenomenon. In our dissociated culture—despite whatever grace, glory and beauty they evoke in the best teams and players—contact sports serve two functions: They allay boredom, divert people from thinking about the dreariness of their lives; and they help people channel their rage.

You can go to a revival in Selma on Friday or you can scream your lungs out in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. The bottom line at both is transference of a lot of anger into a socially acceptable outlet.

Like in football, there’s a lot of beatific beauty in Gospel, but it’s a bit beside the point. As coach Karl Marx once said, football is the opiate of the people. And not just here: There are soccer riots in the Third World stadiums. Christs for a day bloodying themselves in Latin-American pageants. Millions marching to Mecca. A lady in Selma once told me, “People leave Bryant stadium like they’re in a religious trance.”

It’s my day to interview Bear, and, to be honest, I’m scared. I consider giving myself a haircut with nail clippers. My heart is calling Kong to the gates.

McNair takes me up to the offices on the top floor of the coliseum, where I sit in the spacious waiting room. The walls are covered with floor-to-ceiling black-and-white blowups of every major bowl stadium—Rose, Orange, Sugar, Bluebonnet, Gator, Tangerine, you name it.

Everybody walking around is named Coach. It’s like sitting in a room with all the tall, stately, aging cowboys of Hollywood. A room full of Gary Cooper-Ben Johnson look-alikes, all nodding to one another. “Mornin’, coach.” “Hey, coach.” “Nice day, coach.” If I were to scream out “Coach!” there would be a ten-way collision. And everybody looks like Bear Bryant.

Several times I see someone walk in and hear someone say, “Hey, coach,” and I jump up, drop my tape recorder and extend my hand. After the fifth false alarm, I ignore the next look-alike. Too bad. That one is the mold.

I walk into his office, a large wood-paneled room with a color TV, a massive cluttered desk and a view of the practice field. Coach Bryant is cordial—patient but distant. He has been interviewed perhaps six times a week since coming to Alabama.

He looks all of his 66 years—his face is like an aerial shot of a drought area. His eyes are glittering hard. His hands are huge and gnarled. He needs a haircut himself.

As I fumble around with the tape recorder, explaining that I’m not a sportswriter, he opens a pack of unfiltered Chesterfields. He’s dressed like a retired millionaire entertainer—casual natty. A pale blue sweater, checked blue slacks and spiffy black loafers. When he laughs, all the creases in his face head toward his temples and he lets out a deep, gravelly “Heh-heh.” When he’s annoyed, his eyebrows meet over his nose and I feel like jogging back to New York. His movements seem slow; he seems almost phlegmatically preoccupied.

All in all, I like the guy, though I couldn’t see being in a sensory awareness class together.

The interview is a bit of a bust. I’m glad I have the tape recorder because I can’t understand a damn thing he says. He sort of mutters from his diaphragm in his artesian-well-deep Arkansas drawl and it’s like listening to a language you studied for only a year in high school.

Bear sits sideways in his chair, legs crossed, elbow on the backrest, absently rubbing his forehead and smoking those Chesterfields. I sit a few feet away in a pulled-up chair, a spiral notebook in my lap open to my questions. I tentatively slide my tape recorder toward him from the corner of his desk.

“Coach, you’re pretty much an American hero these days. I was wondering who your heroes are.” (Please don’t kill me.)

He pouts, shrugs. “Well, my heroes are John Wayne, Bob Hope, General Patton . . . J. Edgar Hoover, although he ain’t too popular, I guess….” He mentions various sports stars through the ages—from Babe Ruth to contemporary players—then he nods toward the tape recorder and says, “I suppose you’d like me to say Einstein.”

“Nah, nah, nah. Einstein, no . . . no, not at all.”

“Of course, with my heroes, as I get older, they get older.”

“Yeah, ha, ha.”

I ask a few boring questions about defining character, defining motivation, defining a winning attitude, none of which he can define but all of which he can sure talk about.

“I cain’t define character,” he says, “but it’s important, especially to those who don’t have that much natural ability—on the football field or elsewhere.”

Next comes my New York hotsy-totsy question.

“In Bear, I read about how you motivate players, psych them up. I also read that you understand people better than any other coach. Comprehension like that seems to be one of the attributes of a good psychiatrist. What do you feel about the field of psychiatry?”

He gives a chuckle. “Well, I don’t know nothing about psychiatrists. I prob’ly need one, but I don’t know the secret of motivatin’ people—an’ if I did, I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

Then he goes on about motivation. At one point, he says, “I remember one time. . . .” And about five minutes later, he says, “That was the damnedest . . . heh-heh,” in that noble garble of his.

Then his face darkens and he says, “I guess that ain’t funny to you.”

I almost shit. A joke! He told me a joke! Laugh, you asshole! Fake it!

I haven’t heard a word he’s said. I give a sick grin, say, “Naw, that’s funny, that’s funny!” and give my own “Heh-heh.” My armpits feel flooded.

For a while, I go sociological and nonsports, thinking maybe I can get him to admire my sensitive and probing mind—or at least throw him some questions that are a little more interesting than the traditional Southern sports groupie journalist fare.

“Are your players . . . uh . . . afraid of you?” (‘Cause I’m about to do a swan dive out this window, coach.)

He sits up a little.

“Afraid of me? Shit, heh-heh. I’m the best friend they got. Some haven’t been around here much. They might be a little reluctant. I dunno. But if somebody’s doin’ poorly, I’ll come after him. But I dunno what they’d be afraid of me about.”

One period in college history that has always fascinated me is the late Sixties—mainly because it was a transcendent radical bubble between the Fifties and the Seventies, but also because that’s when I was an undergraduate. I wonder what it was like to be a football player then, when regimentation was so reactionary—when long hair and a taste for dope were de rigueur. I know that Bryant’s worst years since coming to Alabama were 1969 and 1970. Is there any connection?

“I did a real poor job of recruiting and coaching,” he says. “Every youngster in America was goin’ through a rebellious period. Nobody wanted anybody to tell ‘im anything. I remember a boy sittin’ right there an’ tellin’ me, ‘I just wanna be like any other student.’ Well, shit. He can’t be like any other student. The players have to take pride in the fact that football means that much to ’em. That’s where the sacrificin’ comes in. That they are willin’ to do without doin’ some things. Without having some things other students have, to be playin’ football, to win a championship.”

“What was the campus attitude toward football at that time?”

“I really don’t know that much about what goes on over there [nodding toward the window]. I always tell ’em they’re the best in the world, at pep rallies and all. Whether they said anything about me I don’t know. I was just doin’ a lousy job then.”

“As an Alabaman, how do you feel about the image that your state has in the national eye, which is mainly a negative or fearful one?”

He doesn’t like that question. His eyebrows start knitting a sweater.

“I dunno if that’s true or not. I traveled all over the country. A large percentage of Alabamans consider the Yankees their baseball team, or the Red Sox. The only difference I see is that it ain’t as crowded down here, people aren’t in such a hurry. I’m afraid of New York City. It ain’t just what I heard, it’s what I seen. I dunno if we got as many thieves, crooks and murderers down here percentagewise, but, hell, it’s so many of them in New York. I don’t care to leave the hotel—alone or money in my pocket.”

“How about the football-dorm system? Is it still under fire for separatism?”

“Naw. About ten years ago, we were the first school to build one. They called it Alabama Hilton, Bryant Hilton. But everyone’s built one since then.”

“Is there any criticism because the players are segregated from the rest of the campus?”

“Well, a lot of coaches don’t do that, but I was brought up on it and we’re gonna do it. If anyone rules against it, we won’t, but I know that’s one of the ways that help us win. You live under the same roof together, fightin’ for the same thing. If you don’t see one another but occasionally, you have other interests, you don’t know what’s goin’ on. And I can see ’em over there, too. I like to see ’em. If one of them lives in an apartment and’s sick for a week, his mother’s not even there. I want ’em where I can find ’em, look at ’em.”

That’s it. Bear doesn’t move, just gazes out the window. I don’t move. I feel stuck. I don’t know how to say goodbye. I ask about Astroturf. About the coming A Day game. Bear says that he’d rather not even have it, but the alumni have things planned around it.

Outside the office, he signs my copy of Bear. I say “Howdy-do” and split.

Later in the week, I get a note from Bear via McNair that he wants to add Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus to his list of heroes—all American fat cats who made it through personal enterprise and charisma.

McNair says he’s never heard Bear mention Patton before and makes the analogy that in World War Two, to die for Patton was an honor and that the coach is the only other person he knows of whom people feel that way about.

Days later, I’m still smarting about that missed joke. I feel I’d understand something then about why this man is successful. There is something about him—about me in that moment when I blew being an appreciative audience—that goes past embarrassment. I feel like I let him down. I feel like I could have pleased him by laughing, made him like me for a moment, could have broken through the interviewer-interviewee roles for a few seconds in a way that would have made me feel like a million bucks because it would have given him pleasure. There is something in Bear’s subdued dignity, his cordial distance that got to me. He is a man of character. I could see myself having done Mexican tailspins during that interview to get his admiration or just his acknowledgment. And this was just a magazine assignment. If I were one of his five-year players, I could see myself doing 90 mph through a goal post to get a pat on the back. And, frankly, I can’t define motivation, either, but whatever it is that he lays on his boys, I got a tiny ray of it myself. The man could literally crush you by letting you know you were a disappointment to him. Shit, maybe I’ve just seen too many John Wayne movies.

I did go down to McNair’s office, though, with the queasy feeling that I’ve blown it. Not the interview so much, but I’m left with the feeling that if Bryant had to go over Pork Chop Hill, I wouldn’t be his first choice in the assault squadron.

“I didn’t understand a damn thing he said!” I half complain to McNair.

“Listen to this!” I play back Bear’s joke-anecdote for him and two other guys in the office. Instead of commiserating, they are all on the floor, howling with laughter.

“I never heard that one before!” says a trainer, wiping tears from his eyes.

“That’s the funniest thing I ever heard!” says McNair.

“Yeah, well, I think you guys are a little funny, too,” I mutter.

McNair translates the joke for me. Bear was recalling an old Kentucky-Tennessee game, a real “bloodletter.” During the half, a guy named Doc Rhodes (I can’t figure out what his relation to the team was) went into the Kentucky locker room and delivered “the damnedest talk I evah heard.” He had one big old boy just slobbering at the bit. The only problem was that big old boy wasn’t playing.

In the last quarter of the game, Tennessee was down on the Kentucky 15 and the coach finally sent the big old boy in. He ran halfway onto the field; then he went running back to the sidelines and “Coach, can Doc Rhodes talk at me again?”

I guess you had to be there.

Bear Bryant’s Miracles” by Richard Price.
Copyright (c) 1979.
Reprinted by permission of Playboy Magazine.

[Drawing of Richard Price by France Belleville-Van Stone]

Stand and Deliver

Tonight on the NBC sports network gives a documentary on the great Earl Campbell.

The Banter Gold Standard: L.T. and the Home Team

John Ed Bradley played football at LSU and was a rising star at the Washington Post in the 1980’s before he left the newspaper business left to write novels. He’s written some fine ones too, including Tupelo Nights, Smoke, Restoration and My Juliet. He also wrote It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, a wonderful memoir about playing ball at LSU.  In the meantime, he’s been a first-rate magazine writer, notably for Esquire and Sports Illustrated.

Here’s one of his best Esquire stories, first published in December 1985, and reprinted here with the author’s permission.


“L.T. and the Home Team”

By John Ed Bradley

Out one night last summer in Williamsburg, Virginia—a night that started warm and breezy but quickly turned as hot and rank as old meat—D’Fellas quit talking about local trim for a minute and somebody started on God. Eric Stone, gazing cow-eyed at a sky only half as big as his dreams started on God but soon let Pritchett figure it out. Pritchett was smart and he thought he could figure everything out. Even that outsize belly of his—brought on, everybody said, by the wife’s collard greens and smothered pork chops and whatever fruit pie happened to be in the cupboard—Pritchett liked to figure the extra girth was really only a stretch of “clogged tool,” and he told D’Fellas so. He patted his big gut and hiked up his britches and let his chin multiply into a fleshy mosaic.

“Preacher man,” Lawrence.Taylor had told Dylan Pritchett earlier in the day, “you’re fatter’n Fat Albert…. How much is it you been weighin’ these days?”

And Pritchett had said, “I’m tellin’ you it ain’t fat. It’s an extension of something else. Backed way up my belly…. I’m a gigolo, man.”

Now, at about 1:00 in the morning or a little after, Taylor was working a shaggy pinch of long-cut between cheek and gum, looking off in the direction of town. He started, “You’re just bogartin’ again, Pritchett, Preacher Pritchett runnin’ his head”—and saw it coming, growing way off in the distance, moving at a ridiculously happy clip. There was a single white eye in the head of the machine, a light more yellow, really, than white. Arid the sound was of wild unrest, of steel on steel, dark and real and terrible.

Cosmo, who sometimes went by the name of Glenn Carter, pulled his hand off his crotch, where he’d been working an itch, and pointed for everyone to see. He said, “A coal train, boys. Look at that damn thing.”

And someone else, probably L.T., who had returned home to see D’Fellas and spend one last night on the town before his fifth season with the New York Giants took him away for at least six months, said, “It’s magic, I’m telling you, fellas. It’s like every old thing that ever used to be.”

Besides the single white beacon from the engine, there was another wash of lights, this from D’Fellas’ party van parked in the middle of the dead-end road, and you saw how Taylor stood in it. Farm-boys big at six feet three and 250 pounds, the best player in football wore tight gray gym shorts that made his butt look like two great humps of meat grafted onto legs that can cover forty yards in 4.5 seconds. He wore a white straw hat with an olive-colored linen band, the brim tipped down low over the eyes, and his shirt was cut loose around the belly, giving him room to breathe.

“This is nice,” Taylor suddenly felt inclined to say. “I mean, this is really nice. All it was ever supposed to be.”

Then, with his eyes on nothing at all, down on the pea gravel at his feet: “So many things, mostly the good ones, D’Fellas were part of. It never goes away, either. That feeling, l mean, of being together again. You see that train, and you see all of us, standing here again. l’in telling you, it never goes away.”

L.T.—THERE HE WAS, SAME OLD BOY, running with the same old boys he had run with since second grade—had come home again. hardly seemed to matter that he’d moved way the hell up north and made something of himself, earning in the neighborhood of $1 million a year. He might take home about $85,000 a game, as one of his defensive mates once figured out on a pocket calculator, but after watching him break through a double-team block and dump a quarterback in a great, whining heap, or intercept a pass and take it down the pasture for a touchdown, it was never hard to understand why even his enemies said he was worth every damn penny.

During Taylor’s NFL career more than a couple of coaches have wondered aloud how someone playing on the buck-ass end of the defensive line can so dominate a game. As an outside linebacker, Taylor has been known to chase down running backs, fleeing in the opposite direction, like some hard dog after his own tail. He has put the fear of permanent disfigurement in all offensive people who look too good and smell too sweet, winking at them as he often does from across the line of scrimmage, seconds before the snap of the ball. They have called his game make-do and creative, mainly because he behaves as he pleases out there, sometimes forsaking the coach’s music he picked up in camp for the primal song that makes him go. Coming from the “weak” or “blind” side of the line, he often emerges on quarterbacks preparing to pass like some awful wave of terror. He seems to focus on a point two feet behind his target, blow right through what meat, bone, and heart stand in the way, and come out screaming on the other side.

“We don’t know the difference in L.T.,” Pritchett once professed. “We see a good tackle and it’s a good tackle. But whether he plays well or not, we’re there. We’re still his brothers, man. We’re blood, you know.”

Taylor, D’Fellas back home always said, never forgot where he came from, even though he kept a fancy place in a subdivision in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, a big two-story brick house with a lawn that was more garden than yard, and a gold Mercedes-Benz parked out front. He kept the house, his wife, Linda, said, but you could never keep him in it, not even during the off-season, when he liked to shoot hoops in the sun and play a little golf and take an occasional trip south to Williamsburg, in the southeastern heel of the state, to visit the boys.

There were only six of them in the whole world—D’Fellas—and each founding member owned a plaque proving it. Only three, Cosmo, Pritchett, and Stoney, still lived in the town where they grew up. The one Taylor seemed to miss and admire most, John (J.D.) Morning, managed a seafood place in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Eric (Doc) Pruden earned his living making Busch beer in Virginia Beach.

Earlier, driving around with no place in particular to go, somebody had said it felt as if every clock and calendar in the Virginia countryside had been turned over on its face, as if time no longer mattered. Having drunk more than a few bottle of beer at the Green Leafe Café near the campus of William and Mary, even L.T. owned up to finding himself overcome by a flood of lost time. So they had taken a craze of narrow back roads to a place on the edge of town, where a bridge made of creosoted railroad ties had once crossed a great divide and where a freight train still passed every few hours, whining like a pack of rabid wolf-hounds hot for the kill.

The old Mooretown Bridge, directly above, had barely been wide enough for two small cars to pass. D’Fellas had called it the Motown Bridge, because they had come time and again to lean against its rickety railings and sing the blues and talk about God. And about women and football Friday nights at Cooley Stadium and about what it meant to be young and alive and in no great hurry to grow up.

Now, on a rag-ass Sunday night that lent more moon than stars, Taylor stood behind the hurricane fence and heavy iron rail sealing off the short stretch of blacktop that had once led to the treacherous expanse of warped and buckling boards, and remembered the night the bridge burned. Stoney, who works at:the firehouse, had driven out with the water trucks and seen it engulfed in flames. Little orange chips of wood and ash had climbed in the night air, and no one but D’Fellas figured it was a bad thing. Too many people had died on the bridge or thereabouts. And Taylor, who rarely looked back on his days with D’Fellas except to laugh, saw this: the time an old drunk had tried to walk across the bridge with his eyes closed, nursing a bottle of cough syrup. The man had said he was Jesus Christ come down to save tile world. Then, not five minutes after announcing that he could walk on water, the man had lost his footing and fallen. He had fallen all the way down to the tracks and lain there in a silent, unmoving heap.

Taylor told the boys, “Crazy nigger thought he could walk on water. He couldn’t even walk straight.”

And who, L.T. said he wondered, could figure how many people had died trying·to negotiate the curve leading up to the bridge? Seemed like every Friday and Saturday night somebody missed the turn and drove clear into the void. L.T. once joked and said the Motown Bridge killed more poor colored folks than the Klan ever did. But there was good about it, too.

There was this to look back on: that one impossibly cold night when he and D’Fellas stood in the middle of the expanse, huddled against the snow that fell in hard, white sheets. The headlight of a train had appeared up ahead, moving in the direction of the pottery factory. As it drew near, you could see the dark chunks of coal in the open-top cars. dusted over with snow. There was a fabulous blue winter light that seemed to come from no particular source. Years later Stoney would pick a little fleck of something off the tip of his tongue and ask if anything on this earth had ever looked as pretty.

That night, the cold had made their lips feel useless and rubbery; their lungs burned, but they had sung their songs anyway, until about 6:00 in the morning. Taylor provided bass, deep as grubworms in a canna bed, and Stoney was static. He sounded like nails on a chalkboard, and everyone looked for Doc and J. D. to make pretty as choirboys at Sunday service. Sometimes Cosmo got so high, the boys said, he could do it better than a castrated man, but you tried not to hear Pritchett, who this night was moaning like a sick calf on the way to the sale barn. One blow, a pretty one that applied, went:

Gawnna leave all the crowds
Climb to the clouds
Anna look at life the way we use’a doo

Now Taylor wanted to know, “Who was it that pissed on the train as it went by that time it snowed so damn much?” But you could barely make out his voice over the thunder of the train down below.

“This is some serious memories,” Pritchett said. “Some serious memories. I used to ride my bike all around here. I remember how the bridge smelled. It ain’t the same. I’m used to feeling it under me.”

“Was it you that pissed?” Taylor asked no one in particular.

And Stoney started, “You can’t reach out and touch it anymore. There was only four or five feet between the bottom of the bridge and the top of the train cars. You could remember the feeling in your feet—that feeling that what you stood on wouldn’t be there very long and when it went, it would take you with it. And you went to bed at night feeling that feeling, wondering at it like some kind of mystery.”

Then Cosmo, half shouting atTaylor, let on, “I remember how you’d climb down to the tracks and say you were going to stop the train. We believed you could stop it, L.T. ‘That train ain’t nothin’,’ you’d say. And it would get pretty close before you jumped off the tracks. Then we’d all take turns, climbing down the rocks and standing on the tracks. ‘That train ain’t nothin’,’ you’d say. And Pritchett went, ‘Go on and stop it then, Cosmo.’ And I told him, ‘Who do you think I am? I ain’t no L.T.'”

“It might have been me that pissed,” Stoney said finally. “Hey, Taylor. I think it was me that pissed.”

Then Pritchett figured, “It wasn’t only you, man. It was all of us. It was Taylor, too. Shit, it was all D’Fellas. We did everything together.”

D’FELLAS ALWAYS caught L.T.’s games on television when the Giants went national, and the made it up north to New Jersey and the Meadowlands three or four times a year to watch their old friend perform in person, before great crowds that sometimes chanted, “Elllteee! Ellltee! Eltee!” when number 56 came up with a big hit. He always put D’Fellas up at home, in his house, and on Saturday nights before the games, when he had to turn in early, he gave Linda some money and the car keys and insisted she drive the gang to New York, where there were things to do.

The boys flew out to Hawaii for the 1985 Pro Bowl, and L.T., who had been a unanimous all-NFL selection since the Giants chose him first in the 1981 draft, put them up in individual hotel suites with king-size beds, living rooms, and private liquor cabinets. He took care of their expenses and introduced them to strangers on the beach as teammates. Even Stoney, who was built like a tired old catcher’s mitt, signed a round or two of autographs.

D’Fellas were proud of L.T.’s success and read countless reports saying he had emerged as the most dominant player in professional football, if not the very best, but they preferred to remember him as the wild-eyed boy who worked at the Dairy Queen in the summer when he was seventeen, eating all those free sundaes and Dilly Bars and going home to Iris, his beautiful, picture-book mama, and asking what’s for supper. He was just that way when he was growing up: eat anything. As a high school junior he stood only five feet ten and weighed 180 pounds. But coming into his senior year, he grew more than five inches in three months and grew mean in a way that would make him rich and famous and, arguably, the finest linebacker ever to play in the National Football League.

D’Fellas preferred to remember him the night they were going down Richmond Road in Pritchett’s car, Pritchett driving the limit if not a hair more. It was broad daylight when the good preacher man—who really wasn’t a preacher at all, but a supervisor of the black-history program at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation—ran head on into a pair of German shepherds copulating in the middle of the road. Both dogs, worked up, as they were, in primal heat, died on the spot. But what you remembered was Pritchett driving off as if nothing happened and thinking that Taylor, if provoked, could hit you just as hard. He’d take your damned head off, everybody said. He’d take your damned head off and spit in your neck. Then, if further provoked, he’d crawl down what was left of your throat and do a little tap dance on your tonsils.

While at the University of North Carolina, one of only two schools to recruit him out of high school, Taylor spent more than a few nights terrorizing frat boys. He liked to go downtown, into Chapel Hill, and pick fights with people who didn’t look right. He took to chewing tobacco and spitting a lot. He cut classes and hid out in the student union, shooting pool until he ran out of quarters or out of luck, whichever, came first. He once said, “I’m the kind of person who refuses to allow any damn good thing in life to pass me by.”

But during his junior year in college something changed him. The boys said it all started when he met Linda. She was so beautiful, you imagined her picture on some neon board above the city, wearing silk, wearing velvet, and holding a silver goblet to her lips. Looking the way she did, you imagined her drinking a mint julep and saying something like, “Goes down good,” to a world gone bad.

She asked Taylor, “Why do you keep pushing people around?” Then she called him a monster and a bully.

It was not hard to figure why the young man, then only twenty, became love-sick so bad. More than one night, he had sat alone in his dormitory room, waiting for the telephone to ring; the girl on the other end to speak his name. Hi there, baby. Something had changed him, all right. Something had tamed him too. L.T. discovered that the best way to earn someone’s respect was out on the pasture, on the football field, where playing the hoodlum had its rewards. His coaches, aware of his enormous potential as.an outside linebacker, decided to turn him loose. They let him rely on instinct more than any hardline technique that might have come up during a head session, and their thinking paid off.

His junior year, Taylor made eighty solo tackles and caused seven fumbles. The next year, 1980, he made fifty-five solo hits and accounted for sixteen quarterback sacks on his way to winning honors as the outstanding player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He made all-American, easy, and was the second player chosen in the draft, after Heisman Trophy-winner George Rogers of the University of South Carolina.

As a rookie in the NFL, Taylor was so impressive people started comparing him to the finest defensive players in the history of the game, linebackers such as Dick Butkus, Sam Huff, and Ray Nitschke. His contribution on the field was so significant, he helped lead the Giants to the play-offs, their first such trip in almost twenty years. Back home in Williamsburg, D’Fellas had no trouble taking L.T.’s good story in stride. They knew Taylor was bad, but it had always been good to be bad when they were coming up. They liked to remember what L.T. did that day to poor old Nathan Merritt, who might have become one of D’Fellas had he not died in a car crash out on Longhill Road, on the way to school.

It was just something that happened at Lafayette High School one morning, back when D’Fellas indulged in a lawless game of rough-and-tumble called Chester. The way it worked, you walked around campus with your chest exposed, and one of the boys, by right of charter membership in D’Fellas, could lay a hard right hand into your open titty. Whenever the aggressor landed a big hit, he was supposed to say, “Chester’s back in town,” and clear out as quickly as possible, before his victim was able to regain his senses and take retaliatory measures. One day poor old Nathan Merritt opened up on Eric Stone, then only a freshman, and hit him way below the breastbone, nearly knocking him unconscious. L.T., who saw the cheap lick and came running, pinned old Nathan Merritt to a run of lockers and tried to press him through the slats in the louvered door. There was a storm of fussing in the hall, and L.T. started shouting, “Who the hell you think you are, shithead, hittin’ my friend so goddamned hard?”

Taylor was just that way: good to the people he loved and hard on those he didn’t. The kind of love that made him and the boys different, it was fierce and final. They had a time saying it, but D’Fellas were family in a way that ran deeper than any old blood, in a way that would last the sum of six separate lifetimes, and not a day longer. It was forever, but only for now. They often said their children would carry on the line and form their own little clique, the second generation of D’Fellas, but they said this with little conviction. Their children, growing up in different parts of the country, would probably never know how it feL.T. to be shoulder-to-shoulder in somebody’s living room on Saturday night, playing a hand of spades by lamplight and sharing the same tall quart of Miller beer. D’Fellas had created a separate kinship, a new order, and it was a whole lot more than just six good men running the streets together.

“I know a few things,” Taylor often told the boys, “but D’Fellas’ honor is the greatest thing I know.”

Theirs was a democracy, and there were rules. Once, at about 3:00 in the morning, D’Fellas went to the drive-in window at an all-night burger place and ordered twelve dollars’ worth of food. All Taylor wanted was fries, a Coke, and a plain burger, with nothing on it. D’Fellas in the van heard him tell the girl who was working the register that he would not tolerate a burger with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, or mustard and she assured him that she would handle it, there was no reason to worry. L.T. paid for everything, then told Eric Stone, who was driving, to head out for the bridge, he wanted to flush out the silt in his pipes and sing some Motown.

They were less than a mile down the road when Taylor discovered lettuce, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard on his burger. He said, “Turn the hell around. i want my food right.” But Stoney said, “I ain’t turning around, home. You should have looked your thing over at the place.”

Taylor felt wounded, then angry. He had told the girl exactly what he wanted and she had said not to worry, she would take care of it for him. She had looked him in the eyes and told him that everything would be okay. Didn’t she know who he was? Shouldn’t she know? He was Lawrence Taylor—L.T., goddammit, the best player in football.

“I can’t eat this shit,” he said. Then he screamed out the window, “and i won’t eat this shit.”

“That’s too bad, home,” Stoney said, digging into a bag of fries.

“If I can’t eat,” Taylor said, “nobody eats,” and took all the food, stuffed it back into the paper sack, and threw it out the window, into the wide, empty street. Some of D’Fellas turned around and watched their supper disappear to the back window. The soft-drink cups rolled down into the gutter, but the burgers looked as if they’ve been blasted by a cherry bomb. Only Eric Stone had managed to save a cup of Coke, and he was sucking it down with a straw. Taylor said, “Excuse me, home,” grabbed the drink from his friend’s hand, and threw it out into the night.

“If I don’t drink,” he said, “not a damn one of us drinks.”

BEFORE L.T. was born, his old man, Clarence Taylor Sr., Worked as a janitor at the college in town. After that played out, he got on as a trucker in the Newport News shipyards, about 40 minutes away, and was on the road each morning by 5:30, glancing back at the place and the people he loved in his rearview mirror. Some days he didn’t return home until after the late-night news, when his three sons had already gone to bed and his wife had cleared the kitchen. Clarence and Iris Taylor had had married in their teens—”too darn young,” he said—and the boys had come one right after the other, quickly filling up their little frame house set off Highway 60. They lived in just another one of those places you see out in the country, with a big, beat-to-hell sign standing on the front edge of the property celebrating the grand opening of some new chicken shack in town, and with moonvine choking every last inch of earth not already occupied by a chinaball tree.

“In those days, you never caught us talking about money,” Mr. Taylor like to say. “Mainly because there was never any money to talk about.”

L.T., muleheaded as he was, always said there had to be a better way. One morning, watching his old man drive off in the half-light of another cheap dawn, he promised his mother he’d be a millionaire before he turned twenty-one and vaguely smiled when she said, “Go on, boy.” To make money, he bought cinnamon toothpicks and packs of Juicy Fruit at Happy Stout’s grocery, then turned around and sold his goods to schoolmates for a big profit.

His father said, “If you want to see the boy do something, tell him he can’t do it.”

When it finally happened, when he made his first million, he was 22. “So what?” He told the folks at home. “I said 21. My timing was a little off. ”

Two years ago Taylor signed a six-year contract with the Giants worth $6.5 million, but only after becoming embroiled in a nasty dispute with club management. Taylor was the most visible and outstanding player on the team, but he was sick of losing; he wanted more money or he wanted out. In 1982 and 1983, his second and third years in the league, the Giants went 4–5 and 3–12–1. Taylor grew sullen and, at times, obstinate. He refused to talk to reporters. Before practice, he spent hours at his locker, mumbling things like, “Get me out of here,” and hiding his face under a cowboy hat. Tired of carrying the load for a team that couldn’t wait, he committed himself to play for the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Donald Trump, the generals owner, offered to pay him $3.2 million over four years, starting in 1988, when his option year with the Giants expired. Trump also threw in a $1 million loan, interest free. But when the Giants came back with an even better offer, Taylor asked to be released from his contract with the Generals. After two weeks of negotiations, Trump gave in and Taylor agreed to return the loan, with a $10,000 interest charge tacked on. The settlement also call for Taylor to pay back $750,000 over the next five years.

“The money,” Taylor said, “I need lots of money. But I’ve also got lots of people hitting me up for it, people I hardly know, some I haven’t seen in years. D’Fellas, they know they can get any damed thing they want from me, and yet they never ask. When I want to give, I’ve almost got to force it on them. You say, ‘Here, home, take this crap. Take it, I said. Take it. Take it because I love you and because if you don’t take it, I’ll break your damn face.'”

L.T. bought his parents house not long after signing with the Giants in 1981. He took great pleasure in knowing it was the biggest house on the street, with a two-car garage, fenced-in piece of backyard for the dogs, “Florida room,” so named by his father, who dressed it up with rose-colored shag carpet and rose-colored blinds and rose-colored bottles of liquor set on glass shelves. You could bet your life savings nobody else in Williamsburg, Virginia, owned the room like it. On top of that, there were plenty of extra bedrooms upstairs for L.T.’s wife and two little babies, and the grass stayed green even in winter, which really tickled Mr. Taylor, who enjoyed pushing a mower.

When L.T. came home last summer, he spent only an hour or so with the new house before borrowing his father’s party van and rounding up D’Fellas. There was so much to come back to, and the last thing he wanted to make sure and see before calling it a night was the crib off Highway 60, the old place. It amounted to only three acres set hard by the road, but a real estate man in town had thrown a money figure at his folks, hoping they’d bite and turn it over for development as a housing subdivision. L.T. asked his parents to hang on to the property; he figured $20,000 or $25,000 would be enough to fix it up. And money, hell, he had plenty of that.

There was a greasy, iron dark about that night when the boys finally rode down the driveway to the old house, running clean over a little chicken tree just setting roots, and around potholes full of mud that looked white against their headlights. Taylor rounded the corner of the house and parked in front of two old heaps, a light blue Maverick with a Mr. Peabody air-freshener hanging from the rearview and a two-tone pickup with four flat tires. D’Fellas, in a hurry to turn the woods into their private latrine, wrestled getting out of the van, and Taylor let the lights wash over the whole back lot, which was overgrown with knapweed and baby sycamores.

“Some serious memories,” Dylan Pritchett said, pulling on the fleshy folds under his chin. “This is some serious damn memories.”

Taylor pushed the brim of his straw hat out of his eyes and ran his hands over the roof of the old Maverick, tearing at the rot of a million leaves. Both headlamps on the car appeared to have been shot out by a pellet gun, and the hood latch was stuck. “If this bitch could talk,” L.T. said, pointing at the car, “we’d all be in trouble.”

Stoney said, “What was the dogs name? You had a dog.”

“It was Kojak,” Cosmos said.

“He lived to be fifteen,” Taylor said. “When I bought Mama and Daddy the new house, he moved to the subdivision and thought he had a big dick. Old Kojak was all right.”

Stoney said, “I remember when those old boys from New Kent—they thought they could shoot hoops with D’Fellas—used to come out here and we’d kick ass all over the place. Everybody used to come. Like I said, we were bad.”

“See that big tree over there?” Taylor said, nodding his head at a brace of giant hardwoods. “I remember when it was little. That one there. Looked like a twig in the ground.”

“Kojak,”, Cosmo said, “he’d bark and never bite. The dog thought he was human. And shit, he was like everybody else. He thought he had what it takes to be one of D’Fellas.”

“I remember that tree and that tree and that tree,” L.T. said. “I even remember that one over there.”

“Goddamn, “Pritchett said. “This is some real shit. I mean, this brings it all back. Brings it all back home.”

“I remember all these trees,” Lawrence Taylor said. “I remember every last one of them.”

[Images Via: Garmonique; fuck yeah freight trainsBevin; Charlie Simokaitis; Sports Illustrated]

The Banter Gold Standard: North Hollywood Forty

Peter Gent was an accomplished college basketball player at Michigan State. Though he didn’t play football he was still drafted by the Dallas Cowboys where he played wide receiver and tight end for a handful of years in the mid-late ’60s. He was great friends with the quarterback, Don Meredith, became pals with writers like Gary Cartwright and Bud Shrake, and was the classic longhaired rebel to Dallas coach Tom Landry’s stern patriarch.

After he retired, Gent started writing and in 1973 published North Dallas Forty a novel based on his experiences with the Cowboys (and his relationship with Meredith). It was a sensation (for more on Gent’s career, do yourself a favor and pick up Steven L. Davis’s wonderful book, Texas Literary Outlaws).  Gent continued writing though he never had that kind of success again. However, he did write some terrific magazine articles. Who better to write about the Cowboys than Gent?

So it being Thanksgiving and all, please enjoy this story by Gent on Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson that appeared in the September 1980 issue of Esquire.

“North Hollywood Forty”

By Peter Gent

A FEW days after I got back from Dallas I was sitting at the Dinner Bell café on the square, drinking coffee with J.C. and Sonny, when J.C. the barber wanted to know: “What’s a paranoid?”

“Yeah,” said Sonny, the justice of the peace, “what’s this word paranoid mean? I hear the deputies always saying some guy is paranoid. What does that mean?”

They looked at me for an explanation.

“l’m paranoid,” I replied.

“They mentioned you first,” Sonny the JP said. “What’s it mean?”

“There are two definitions,” I said.

“Take your choice. One defines a paranoid as a chronic psychotic with delusions of persecution and/or grandeur. The paranoid defends his delusions with apparent logic, whatever apparent logic is.”

“What’s the second definition?” asked J.C., sipping his coffee out of the brown cups the café just got.

“That a paranoid is a man in possession of all the facts,” I said, watching Sonny shadowbox across the stone porch of the café. “William Burroughs said that. He was a junkie and writer with a rich Midwest daddy.”

There was a long pause. The only sound was the rustle of the hackberry leaves and the morning traffic through the square. It was a nice central Texas morning.

“You mean like Shaky?” Sonny said. “He was a junkie from Detroit. We caught him stealin’ and sent him back. Paid his way.”

I think the three of us agreed with William Burroughs, although nobody said one way or the other. The next day J.C. called me Paranoid Pete. I hope that name won’t stick.

There is a party going on now down at the low-water bridge, as there seems to be almost every night since summer arrived. It is midnight in central Texas.

I believe in an element of magic in sports. Even professional sports. I think Thomas Wayne “Hollywood” Henderson, the once and former Dallas Cowboy, was one of those magical players, like Cowboys Duane Thomas and Bob Hayes before him. I don’t think Tom Landry, who coached all three men and who fired Henderson last fall, believes in magic or miracles, though he professes belief in a God. Tom believes in statistics and numbers. What it says on paper. Actuarial. Tom cannot conceive of magic on the football field, and Hollywood thinks he is magic. You see the elemental problem, the basic conflict, shaping up here: the struggle between a magical black linebacker from east Austin and a white ex-World War II bomber pilot from the Rio Grande Valley over exactly who is who. And what is what.

The linebacker has magic on his side.

The Bomber Pilot has the Dallas Cowboys and the National Football League.

Any questions?

Any bets on a winner?

THE PROFESSIONAL athlete, like all show biz performers, often finds it necessary to violate one of the primary rules of survival in America: Stay low, move fast. The responsibilities of celebrity require the athlete to stick his nappy little head up once in a while and be a good boy for the crowd. Woe unto the nappy-headed fool who sticks his head up too high or too long—or not high enough for long enough—or to any height and for any length of time, if not with the correct attitude.

On the eighteenth of November, 1979, during the Dallas Cowboys’ loss to the Washington Redskins, Thomas Henderson waved a souvenir handkerchief that was being marketed by one of his teammates—the old attempt at planning for the tomorrow that never comes—into the lens of a live sideline camera. From my living room, the incident, as I recall, seemed no more extraordinary than the usual sideline antics that are hyped by the networks to give the viewer a feeling of being there. Wherever the hell there is.

Also, as I recall, there was sufficient time in the game for an inspired and magical team to rise from the ashes of certain loss, performing miraculously, never giving up until the final gun, and to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And now came Henderson, a linebacker and athlete of phenomenal confidence and matching ability, stepping in front of the camera to flash his friend’s handkerchief and signal that the Cowboys were still number one. There is room to interpret his gestures as inspirational. Maybe not.

The following week Hollywood was called into the offices of the Cowboys organization and told that he was being placed on waivers. In effect, fired. Tommy Landry said that Thomas Henderson was being waived as a result of his antics on the sidelines and added that Henderson’s personality was such that he would be unable to tolerate demotion to the bench—the only other possible punishment, as Landry saw it, for Hollywood’s behavior.

This action, according to the Standard Player Contract and the Collective Bargaining Agreement, as well as a recent arbitration decision (Mitch Hoopes v. Detroit Lions), was illegal in the eyes of the National Football League Players Association. The union felt that Henderson was being denied his rights. Landry was waiving him illegally.

But then Henderson did a very strange thing. At the age of twenty-six, he voluntarily retired, went home, and tore all the phones out of the walls and beat the jacks with a hammer.

Six phones, is what he told me.

Six hundred dollars to Ma Bell.

During the time Henderson’s phones were out, the Players Association was trying to reach him and explain his rights. Thomas doesn’t read the fine print, but Tommy and Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm and vice-president Gil Brandt do.

And they also know how to pull a guy like Hollywood around by his ego like a puppy dog on a leash.

Why not retire? Go out on top?

It was almost a month from the day he was fired before Henderson finally called the NFLPA to inquire about his rights. When lawyer Rick Schaeffer answered the phone, he heard: “This is Hollywood calling from Hollywood.”

Schaeffer knew this case would be trouble. It was. It still is.

Attorney Schaeffer explained to Hollywood that in the judgment of the Players Association, it was improper for the Cowboys to have fired him merely because Landry had objected to his attitude and decided he couldn’t be benched.

“The Standard Player Contract allows a player to be terminated if, in the opinion of the team, he is not competitive with the other players at his position,” Schaeffer says. “However, this was obviously not the case with Henderson. Landry’s feeling was that it would not be psychologically beneficial to Thomas to be sitting on the bench. This is similar to the case of Mitch Hoopes, who, after shanking a punt, was belittled in the press by his coach. The coach later cut him and stated that he was doing so because he had put so much pressure on Hoopes through public statements that Hoopes could no longer be competitive on the team.

“Because he was cut illegally, Hoopes was awarded the balance of the salary due him for the full term of his contract. We would have argued that the same award should be made in Thomas’s case.

“I offered Henderson any help whatsoever that the Players Association could give,” Schaeffer goes on. “And I told him that the first step would be to draft a telegram requesting reinstatement from the retired-player list, which we did immediately and dispatched to the commissioner the next day.”

Meanwhile, Henderson apparently changed his mind. After Schaeffer had begun the necessary procedures on his behalf, Hollywood told the NFLPA people that they, like everybody else, needed him worse than he needed them. That was the last Rick Schaeffer heard from him. The first, of course, being “This is Hollywood from Hollywood.”

Henderson’s behavior has been wonderful theater for those of us who take great joy in the public contradictions of sports as business-as-usual. A man like Henderson is a rare commodity. His actions have been outrageous and, at times, contradictory. But they have never been dull.

During his “retirement,” as Henderson tells it, he went to Landry on his knees and begged the coach to take him back. Hollywood said he’d clean cleats. Hollywood promised to mow the playing field lawn. Landry said no. Henderson then became publicly angry, and the theater continued. He is funny and clever—maybe even brilliant—with a well-developed killer instinct. But he began to demand rights he didn’t have, rights he gave up with retirement.

Now I see from an interview in Inside Sports that I Hollywood has stepped on his pecker again, calling various members of the Cowboys either bisexual, bald, or jealous assholes but conspicuously sparing those guys who said they wanted him back.

“Did you know that [owner] Clint Murchison took away [vice-president of personnel development] Gil Brandt’s wife, married her himself?” Hollywood asked in the interview. “There’s so much going on you wouldn’t believe it.”

I believe it, Hollywood. I believe it.

But, as the old country preacher told the man who came to the altar and confessed to coupling with goats, “Brother,” the preacher said, “I don’t believe I’d ‘a’ tol’ that.”

This could be the moment, as one Dallas fan put it, when Hollywood’s alligator mouth finally overloaded his hummingbird ass.

If it is end game for Thomas Henderson, it’s not because he lacked talent; he just didn’t have the innate sense to cover up the first time he started taking more punches than he was giving. The Bomber Pilot understands that.

My personal opinion, after a longtime acquaintance with athletes and coaches, and specifically with those of the Dallas Cowboys, is that what we saw on TV last November involving the Cowboys organization and Hollywood Henderson was a series of psychotic episodes. They all lost it there for a moment, right in front of everybody.

Psychotic episodes are daily occurrences in a business where the operative phrase is Stick your head in there.

I believe, due to certain of my own biases and a predilection for conspiracy theories, that Mr. Henderson was maneuvered into retirement, which deprived him of his salary and his right to sell his services elsewhere in the NFL. But why get rid of Henderson, a linebacker of exceptional talent? Henderson is quite possibly as good as he claims to be. Why all the fuss over this nappy-headed boy waving at the television camera, when football is, after all, show biz, based on illusion rather than reality?

I went to Dallas to ask around.

I WAS sitting at the window of a ninth-floor room in the Stoneleigh Hotel the week before Hollywood Henderson’s wedding, facing approximately north, reckoning by the Dallas Cowboys tower out on North Central Expressway. The clouds had closed back in after burning off for a while earlier in the day. A new storm was brewing; I could feel it in my joints.

I called Hollywood’s fiancee, Wyetta, who said he was sleeping. Hollywood had promised to talk to me at length but had yet to do so. Wyetta assured me that he’d return my call. No call came.

I spent several days waiting for Hollywood to regain consciousness.

I wanted to talk to him about his bizarre dismissal from professional football because it is the perfect story of what pro football is and where it is going in the 1980s.

The good. The bad. The ugly.

To perform well and earn fantastic sums of money and universal, eternal praise as a professional football player: that is the best. It’s rare, but that is it. The thrill of performing is usually as much as a player can hope for, and even that is wonderful. Athletes are performing artists, and most would do it for free; and that is good. But it also becomes the rub. The fine-print stuff. The Standard Player Contract. The Collective Bargaining Agreement. Owners. Ego. Bad. Ugly. Real.

Yes, pro football is a performing art, all right. And to perform in the National Football League, players need tremendous mental and physical talents. They also need tremendous egos in order to survive. An athlete’s ego is his sword and his shield, and each one uses these weapons differently. Some claim not to have them. Those are the guys not to show your back. No athlete survives without his ego, and it is in the organization’s interest to study each player to determine how best to use that ego—always for the club, sometimes against the player.

The Cowboys organization used to require all new players to take a battery of psychological tests. The test questions were not subtle. Among them you’d find things tike this:

What would you rather do?
A. Kill your mother
B. Jack off
C. Read a book
D. Eat live baby ducks

These tests gave management a personatity profile of each player, and the egos were there, diagramed and ready to manipulate. The organization then counseled each member of the team, interpreting his answers to the questions and telling him how certain psychological techniques would enhance his performance. (After I took my tests, I was never personally counseled, which was always a source of wonder and worry to me. I knew, however, that the correct answer to the question above was “D. Eat live baby ducks.”)

The teams were finally barred from requiring such tests, thanks to the NFLPA, but I don’t believe the psychological profiling of players has really stopped. It’s a basic method for better control of athletes. Coaches and captains from peewee leagues on up do it: psyching up their players and teammates, psyching out their opponents.

When the Cowboys organization decided that Thomas Wayne Henderson had become an opponent, they psyched him out. They hit him right in his monstrous ego and persuaded him to do something contrary to his own best interests.

They certainly pushed the right button: Henderson retired.

It cost him plenty.

A coach once told me that the difference between a coal miner and a football player is that a coal miner actually does productive work, whereas a football player’s job is to keep everybody sitting numbly in front of the TV on Sunday afternoons, tuned to the NFL. In return, the player gets to “feel,” to perform.

It’s the perfect trade-off. Lots of cash changes hands, but only about 20 percent gets to the players in the form of salaries. because deep down we all know they’d do it for free.

AT THE Stoneleigh Hotel the next morning, I ordered from room service and ate breakfast watching the Charlie Rose Show, Fort Worth’s answer to Donahue. Not much of an answer. The guests were local sportswriter Skip Bayless and Jack (They Call Me Assassin) Tatum. Tatum was promoting his book. He was well dressed and mannerly. The camera focused on his Super Bowl ring, and Bayless said. “That’s what everybody wants.”

Tatum, Bayless, and Rose lobbed a few beanbag questions back and forth. Tatum talked quite logically and calmly about the necessity of killing the receiver when he cuts across the middle. The vicious hit that left Darryl Stingley paralyzed and crippled for life was referred to as “an unfortunate incident.” Tatum meant to hurt Stingley; he just didn’t expect to break his neck. He was telling the truth, diluting the horror of what he was saying by discussing it intellectually.

At the end of the show, Tatum said. “You have to keep it all in perspective. After football, I plan a career in commercial real estate.”

Sounds like the old Assassin has it in perspective, all right.

At nine A.M. I called Thomas Wayne “Hollywood” Henderson. I let the phone ring a long time. There was no answer.

“IF I had a resource like Hollywood Henderson, it would be my responsibility to get the most I could out of it in terms of my business, not by insisting that he go to church with me every Sunday.”

I heard than at an elegant Highland Park party the Boomer held that night for an Australian publisher who was touring the United States and who had known the Boomer when he was a high jumper in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne.

I think the Boomer was a 7-foot jumper.

High jumping. Jesus, what an event.

Boomer punted for the Cowboys in the ’60s when I was with them. To me, his greatest moment came at Kezar Stadium after he had kicked a towering spiral. Boomer stood there alone, cranelike, near the end zone. on real grass, shading his eyes against the San Francisco sun, watching the ball soar higher and higher from the tremendous force of his long leg. Suddenly, the treacherous Kezar wind swirled and caught the ball—a treasonous perfidious wind blowing out of the Haight-Ashbury. The ball hung in the air, the force of this tall high-jumper’s leg contending with nature on the Left Coast. The stadium was strangely silent as fate decided. Then, sounding shocked, but with its usual very proper Australian accent, came Boomer’s voice.

“My Gawd “he said clearly “it’s coming back.”

Boomer quickly retreated because the ball always drew a crowd. Boomer avoided the rush.

Jesus, the Boomer could kick that ball. It was also at the Boomer’s party that the amusements editor of one of the Dallas papers asked me what Spanish title the movie North Dallas Forty had played under, saying that Cabaret had been shown in Mexico City as Adios Berlin.

Magic language, that Mexican Spanish.

Returning from the Boomer’s party early in the morning, I saw a headline on the front page of the Dallas Times Herald: LANDRY SEES FILM AS OBSCENE. There was a picture of the Bomber Pilot. The chilling headline froze me in my tracks.

“Coach Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys, summoned by state prosecutors, testified Thursday in the obscenity trial of a local adult bookstore proprietor,” the article began.

“Landry, who appeared as an expert witness on community standards, … had made an earlier trip to the courthouse … to view an untitled 12-minute ‘peep show’ that portrayed sexual intercourse and oral sex.

“Landry testified that he addresses 8,000 to 9,000 people each year … and said he nearly always spoke on the problem of obscenity and pornography.

“‘I speak on the philosophy of humanism which is creeping into our society… ,’ Landry explained.”

Landry is an expert on obscenity.

Community standards by the Bomber Pilot.

Creeping humanism? Nigger, please. Not that.

Tom Landry sees films as ….Tom Landry sees life as…Tom Landry interpets God as … Tom Landry sees Thomas Henderson as … No wonder Hollywood is asleep all the time.

Adios Berlin.

THE COWBOYS always want you to be what they want,” says Hollywood Henderson. “They were always after me to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes—not because I’d want to, but because it would be a good image. Hell, I’m too sincere in my faith to use religion like that. But these God-lovers on the Cowboys think nothing of it.”

In 1964, my first team meeting with the Cowboys was opened by Landry—I believe he held a Bible in his hand—talking about football and God. He had found a connection, and he recommended it to all of us. Landry’s connection escapes me now, but the picture of some gut hammer­ing the hell out of people was the jawbone of an ass always comes to mind. I don t think that was how Tommy connected it at all. He let slip that he was a Methodist.

On the blackboard every Sunday would be a list of cars and buses with times of departure for various churches in the southern California desert they called Thousand Oaks, which would eventually contain thousands of people but had at the time only a bowling alley and an all-aluminum Lutheran college where we trained. The country was so desolate it served as location for Gunsmoke.

That first Sunday, I checked the schedule and rode with Landry and his young son, Tommy Jr. That Sunday I became a full-blown Methodist.

I never went back, but in retrospect I think that by landing that first Sunday punch I gained me a little extra time in the NFL. It was worth it. One Sunday as a Methodist.

I should have gone twice. Apparently Hollywood Henderson didn’t go at all.

At that first team meeting, the Cowboys’ public relations man gave us the best advice of all, though I doubt that many players listened. A heavy man, he gripped the podium for balance and looked out at us with big sad eyes that were watery from emotion or drink or both. He was silent for a moment, gazing at the assembled group of anxious, oversize men in shorts and T-shirts. The very first words out of his mouth told me more about survival in the NFL than all the coaches and exercise programs and life philosophies and team doctors ever would.

“Boys,” he said, “this ain’t football, this is show business.”

The rest of his talk went on to explain each player’s role in the show, from attending photo sessions to granting interviews and presenting proper images.

The next speaker explained how our jocks should be rolled up inside our towels along with our socks. Then the trainers told us about medicine and pills, about which ones to take when, and why.

I never forgot the PR man’s words, and I always wondered what happened to him. The last I heard, he was sweeping out bars for drinks—but who knows? He probably hears the same about me.

“Boys, this ain’t football, this is show business.”

I never forgot those words, and you shouldn’t either. Don’t dismiss them with an oh yeah, sure, or use them without thinking. Realize what those words mean to you, the customer.

Are they really showing you the elephant, or are they just gonna tell you you saw it?

I WAS waiting on the ninth floor of the Stoneleigh for Dave Edwards. He was a Cowboys linebacker for many years, and the man Hollywood Henderson replaced. We were going to lunch at the Mecca Restaurant out on Harry Hines Boulevard.

The TV was on in my room when I called Henderson again. His fiancée told me he was still asleep.

Wake up, Hollywood.

Edwards arrived and paced the room. He has lots of energy, bottled up now without the release of football. We renewed our old friendship while the television provided background and a drain for Edwards’s brimming energy.

“You know,” he said, “we had to stay in this hotel after training camp in 1963. It was the only one in town that would take the black players.”

We left the Stoneleigh to eat lunch and then to see Edwards’s boys, Chris and Mike, play soccer.

“Why did Tom cut Hollywood?” I asked once we were in the car.

“Landry hates someone to go overboard and steal the limelight from the organization,” Dave said. He grinned at me. “I think they had a personality clash.” We both laughed at his understatement. “Show biz,” he went on. “That’s what they used to always tell us, wasn’t it? This is show biz.”

“Was Hollywood good?” I asked.

“You couldn’t control Thomas, but goddamn, he was good,” Edwards said. Dave Edwards played linebacker for the Cowboys for more than a decade, and he thinks Hollywood was good. He continued, “He’s a great linebacker and a great athlete. Linebacker’s a tough position to learn. All those keys and audibles. He picked it right up—fast. And he was funny.”

We were driving along in Edwards’s battered white Ford—the “war wagon”—on Harry Hines Boulevard, searching out the Mecca café.

“He was the first linebacker to return a kickoff ninety-seven yards. right? Goddamn, I say this sumbitch can get on with it. Goddamn. this boy is pretty good. Kinda fast,” Edwards said. laughing. “I chose to play this position because you could be slow and do it. Hollywood comes along. and time for me to get out.” He laughed again.

The construction along Harry Hines was frenetic, and Edwards scanned the neighborhood for the café.

“Thomas’s rookie year, he had a gold star put in one of his front teeth—always smiling, showing the star. Gene Stallings had just come in from A&M and walked into the linebacker meeting, dour and militaristic, and Hollywood was wearing sunglasses—you know the kind, dark at the top and clear at the bottom. Stallings says, ‘Thomas, the sun too bright in here for you?’ And Hollywood grins, showing that gold star on his front tooth, and says, ‘When you is cool, the sun is always shinin’.'”

We missed the Mecca on our first pass, and Edwards continued to talk. “That’s what I try to tell the people about, back then when things was real tough, when Landry didn’t put up with no shit. You remember when he cried in the locker room at halftime? Well, things have changed some. First Duane [Thomas] came along and kind of egoed out, or something like that. Duane didn’t have a hell of a lot of eloquence when he was speaking, and he got really paranoid. I tell you, that Duane was good, though, like Hollywood. He was a natural athlete. He hit the right groove at just the right time.”

Edwards suddenly stopped talking and looked blankly ahead, while inside he looked back:

It was 1974 and Dave Edwards had played pro football for a decade when he went to see his head coach because he was troubled and the coach was a Christian man who worried a lot about obscenity.

Edwards was afraid to tell the coach what was on his mind because of the deeply revealing nature of the story. Finally he said, “Coach, several nights ago I dreamed I killed you.” He had difficulty controlling the pitch of his voice. “I dreamed I pushed you off a cliff.”

Tom Landry looked shocked but had little concern, comment, or advice for Edwards. Later. Mike Ditka, one of the assistant coaches up from the player ranks, got drunk with Edwards. Landry had told Ditka about Edwards’s dream.

Landry’s advice was to forget about dreaming.

“Yeah, in the early years Landry didn’t put up with any shit,” Edwards began again. “You had to hit the floor running to just stay on the team.”

We had lunch at the Mecca: chicken-fried steak, homemade biscuits, three vegetables, and a big iced tea.

“One time l walked up to Hollywood and asked him how he was doing,” Edwards said, “and he spoke in a whiny little voice: ‘Oh, Dave, I ain’t doin’ too good. Look at these little arms, they’re so skinny and all, and I been sick.’ And then he lunges forward into my face and growls, ‘But I’m quick.’

“He was one funny guy, T.W.—l called him T.W. He made up all that Hollywood stuff himself. Knew exactly what he was doing. You would’ve loved Hollywood.”

“You know, I made a mistake back then when I was playing,” Edwards said as we crossed the hot parking lot to the war wagon. “I used to meditate on a tiger for fifteen minutes a day. You know, to get mean … and now … it’s like that tiger is loose inside my head. I can’t cage him up anymore.” His jaw was tight. He looked at me. He was searching my eyes.

Edwards and I passed the rest of the time until his boys’ soccer game at Bachman Lake “watching the animals,” as he called it. They roller-skate and barbecue around Bachman Lake, and generally get down. Dallas sure has changed. We reminisced about the old days when Landrv cried and constantly made errors that he would blame on athletes who had no recourse but to duck their heads and “react like football players.”

I don’t think Hollywood is gonna be ducking his head.

Duane Thomas didn’t.

IF CUTTING Hollywood was a psychotic episode on the part of the Dallas organization, the thing to marvel at is the technique by which the organization recovered enough to remember the fine print and to allow Hollywood to have his psychotic episode, which consisted of refusing waivers and retiring. When he let sixty days pass without challenging the Cowboys’ right to cut him, Henderson deprived himself of his grievance case under the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the Standard Player Contract.

The organization, having first cited Hollywood’s sideline antics as the reason for his dismissal, later mentioned that his play had not been up to standards. They replaced him with Mike Hegman, who was thereafter seen chasing ballcarriers into the end zone—ballcarriers Hollywood might have caught in the backfield. Yet announcers and sportscasters were soon talking about the poor quality of Henderson’s play prior to his retirement. Wasn’t it a shame?

This ain’t competition. man. man
This is war
And you can’t hit the comers no more
—”Can’t Hit the Comers”
by Bob Seger

It ain’t even war, it’s just show business. But show business is a kind of war. It is a struggle over who creates and defines the illusions, not who puts the ball in the end zone or the strike zone. You don’t have to hit the comers if you.are the one who defines the corners.

I see in the trades that Cowboys owner Clint Murchison and broadcasting magnate Gordon McClendon have purchased a subscription TV system. McCiendon made his reputation in radio by creating imaginary baseball games, complete with sound effects—crowd noise, crack of the bat—while an associate telephoned the progress of the real game to him. The power to define reality.

You beginning to get the picture yet?

The illusion?

Thomas Henderson was trouble, and besides, he just didn’t have it anymore.

Everybody agreed.

Everybody important.

After a while, even Hollywood will begin to wonder.

Duane Thomas did.

I FINALLY get Hollywood Henderson on the phone He sounds sleepy. We make plans to meet at Biff’s on Greenville Avenue. On the phone Hollywood seems to be bobbing and weaving. After the long string of unreturned calls and all the “sleep,” I wonder if he will show up.

Greenville Avenue was all pasture when I was with the Cowboys. Now it is single-swinger city, with discos and all the trimmings. I get this visceral feeling that Hollywood is going to put on a show for me instead of putting out any information. His expected trade didn’t go through during the recent NFL draft. He is beginning to feel the pressure of the fact that the NFL is the only game in town.

I’m interested in the legal aspects of the situation, what his case means to the players’ union, but I’m afraid Hollywood isn’t going to oblige me by acting like Joe Hill or John Herny. At Biff’s my fears arc confirmed. It is Hollywood’s hangout, where he does some of his show business. In addition, it is allegedly on the NFL blacklist.

I am already seated and drinking when Henderson arrives, dressed in tight bells and his jersey from the Pro Bowl. Dallas sports and society experts Joe Miller and Roy Yarrow are at the table; they offer to leave and give Hollywood and me some privacy. Hollywood says no and checks his watch—two bad signs. He wants an audience and isn’t staying long.

It is long enough.

I enjoy all I can stand.

Hollywood is funny and full of jive, dodging and angry; at the slightest push, he explodes into vicious, unthinking tirades. I can see the pressure is on him. Time is running out. “If Landry got down on his knees right here and begged me to play for the Cowboys, I wouldn’t. I’d kick his head in. And he’s a nice guy—I call him Tom. I’m gonna be on the cover of Inside Sports.” He brags of his interview with Inside Sports, glancing restlessly around the room.

“The Forty-Niners want me bad,” he says. “The contract I want is a million for five years.” He holds up five fingers. “They need me.”

I ask Hollywood if the NFLPA has been in contact, and he begins an obscene attack on the union for not helping him.

“Rick Schaeffer said they couldn’t reach you, Hollywood,” I say, “because your phone was out of order.”

I tell him that I’ve heard he ripped his phones out. Hollywood grins.

“Yeah, I tore six phones out of the walls, and then I went around and hammered the jacks flat. Then I threw the phones into the street. The phone company charged me six hundred dollars to put it all back.”

Ma Bell better not mess with Hollywood. She needs him.

“I guess that means you’re negotiating for yourself?” I ask Hollywood admits that he’s cutting his own deal with the 49ers, but when I press him for details, he seems evasive or just ignorant, never answering directly, speaking more for effect or rhythm than for any substance. He keeps talking about the million dollars for five years that he has demanded of San Francisco; but according to the Standard Players Contract, he can’t demand anything. The Cowboys still own him because he retired with three years remaining on his contract. The commissioner has yet to reinstate him in the league. When I point this out, Henderson sloughs it off with “They better not fuck with me or else I’II write a book that makes North Dallas Forty look like a fairy tale.”

He grins his monster grin. “Read what I told that guy from Inside Sports.” he says. ‘Til be on the cover.”

He stands and says he’s got to go to the bank. He has given me fifteen minutes.

I order another drink and watch Hollywood swagger out. He is a handsome physical specimen.

“He’s a good-lookin’ guy, okay,” a Braniff stewardess tells me. “But without football, he’s just another blue-gum from east Texas.”

My drink arrives. It’s sure gonna be tough to make Hollywood’s story into John Henry versus the Chesapeake & Ohio or Joe Hill versus the Southern Pacific.

The waitress says she was born the year I joined Dallas. We were 4-10 that year, and most people had never heard of the Cowboys. The Central Expressway access road ended in cotton fields, and the only blacks in this part of town were carrying tow sacks across the prairieland, not swaggering out of singles bars.

Hollywood Henderson didn’t make the cover of Inside Sports.

MORNING. The ninth floor of the Stoneleigh Hotel in the Oaklawn section of Dallas, my favorite part of town. The air is cool, and there is a haze. I’m sitting with my feet up on the open window sill, watching the jets cruise into Love Field and recalling the ’60s in Oaklawn, when Love Field was the only airport around and the jets would come in bone-rattling low, screaming over the housetops. When Braniff was threatening a strike, their pilots came in extra low and loud, and the dogs howled and ran around in circles.

It is Hollywood’s wedding day.

At 2001 Bryan Tower, high in the Dallas skyline, the wedding is beautiful and classy, the people are gentle. l am sitting with former Cowboys teammates Bob Hayes and Willie Townes and their wives. The groom is wearing white tie and tails, and the highlight of the ceremony comes when the black preacher holds his hand over Henderson’s head and cries, “Bless this marvelous man called Hollywood.”

At the reception I meet Hollywood’s college coach, Big Daddy Nivens from Langston University. Big Daddy says, “At college Thomas used to meet the other team’s bus and ride with them to the stadium, telling them how bad he was gonna whip ’em. He never caused any trouble.” Big Daddy says, “I knew be was gonna be okay his freshman year. I always give freshmen pants that’s too big for them. They usually tape them up. But not Thomas. He took his to a woman in town and had them tailored. I knew he was gonna be great.”

“Wasn’t that a class wedding?” Hollywood says to me later. “Tell them my groomsmen are worth two hundred million. You think I’ll end up like Duane Thomas or Bob Hayes?” He grins knowingly. I don’t know what that’s supposed to mean.

All the groomsmen are white except two.

“Who are these white guys?” I ask an old teammate.

“They didn’t get no two hundred million giving it away at a colored boy’s wedding, ” he replies. “All of them supposedly own places that the league put off limits.”

The party moves to south Dallas and the Plush Pup, a black disco on Grand Avenue a couple of blocks from the Cotton Bowl. At the disco, a friend of Hollywood’s tells me he advised him to keep a low profile, get married, and stay away from white women. Seems like good advice for any man.

Willie Townes and I talk about the old days with the Cowboys.

“I knew about the Cowboys from the day Tex Schramm asked me, ‘Willie, how you doing?’ And I said, ‘Tex, my aunt just died, and—’ Tex interrupted: ‘Good, good,’ he says.’And how’s the rest of the family?'” Willie shakes his head. “I figured the rest out from there.”

“Who is advising Hollywood?” I ask Willie. “‘Tell them my groomsmen are worth two hundred million!’ What sort of bullshit is that? He needs the union. All the players do. Does Hollywood understand that nobody else helps you when you begin to sink?”

“He’s scared, Peter, ” Willie says and then tells me how it was after he got cut. “Peter, people would come up to me on the street and say, ‘Hey, ain’t you Willie Townes, that fat guy—the guy on the fat man’s table?’ People really love sticking it to you when you’re back down on their level.” Willie drank another Lite beer. He works for a Miller beer distributor.

“I can’t get a straight answer out of Hollywood,” I complain to Willie. “He’s all bluff. Why?”

“Look, man,” Willie repeats, “he’s scared. Time is short. The questions are coming hard and fast. ‘What are you going to do, Hollywood? Who are you going to play with?’ He is scared, man.”

Who is advising Hollywood? Apparently no one. It hardly seems a fair match. But after all, Hollywood is magic.

“He says he’s asking the Forty-Niners for a million,” I say.

Willie just smiles. “Can’t hurt to ask.”

We watch the party as Hollywood moves about the Plush Pup in his elegant white tails. He seems confident. He looks beautiful. Everyone looks beautiful, but Hollywood is the definite center. Can he hold?

The wedding party moves from south to north Dallas, and Willie and his wife eventually drop me off at the Stoneleigh. Up in my room looking out the open window: the Oaklawn section is quiet now. A night bird sings. I think about Tom Landry setting the standards for this town. I love this town. I came of age in this town. I learned things here, met people from the Northeast and Midwest, people of all colors, all sizes and shapes. A lot of them were athletes, football players. They needed the union then, and they need the union now. It is show business, and they are laborers with public images, and each player is responsible for his own image. Henderson must become responsible for Hollywood—not for the Cowboys or the NFL, but for himself and other athletes like him, men struggling to keep fame from sucking them under. Hollywood and the NFLPA need each other, or soon Landry will be setting standards for the world.

We are just the survivors, Willie. Think about all those guys who sank without a trace.

“Don’t hurt me, now, Pete,” Henderson said when I left. Hollywood was dressed in white tails. We didn’t discuss the union.

It was his wedding day.

Class wedding.

Two hundred million worth of groomsmen.

A COUPLE days later I start calling the newly married Henderson, trying to get my promised interview. The phone is seldom answered, and then only after it has rung for a long time. His bride. Wyetta, always answers, and Thomas is always asleep. I leave my name and number in case he regains consciousness. Apparently he never does, for my calls are not returned.

My final morning in Dallas is sunny, cool, quiet. I realize that the haze is not going away. It is constant, as it is in Los Angeles. In the morning paper is a story about Hollywood’s replacement: “Mike Hegman, the Dallas Cowboys linebacker indicted on forgery charges in March and scheduled to go on trial last Monday, has had his trial date moved to Dec. 8—two weeks before the end of the National Football League regular season,” the article begins.

“There have been no special concessions made because he’s a Dallas Cowboy,” the DA on the case is quoted as saying.

“It was just a coincidence that (the new trial date) happened to go into the season,” Hegman’s attorney is reported to have said. “It’s just one of those things.”

It’s also a coincidence, no doubt, that on the West Coast recently, Cowboys defensive back Dennis Thurman convinced authorities that he was only joking when he passed a note to a bank teller saying that he was holding up the bank. “Sorry, y’all, just kidding.”

Yet Hollywood is out. Out cold, apparently.

l start packing. My laundry has not returned, but it is time to leave. I can feel it in my bones.

I try one more phone call to Hollywood. His new bride says he is still asleep.

I guess so.

l finish packing.

I don’t wait for my laundry.

Adios Berlin.

A FEW days after I returned to hill country—the day J.C. the barber and Sonny the JP wanted to know the definition of paranoid—an article appeared in one of the Austin papers: “Thomas ‘Hollywood’ Henderson, the former Dallas Cowboys linebacker whose sideline antics prompted his dismissal from the team, has been traded to the San Francisco 49ers for an undisclosed 1981 draft choice,” the paper reported.

“Cowboy spokesman Greg Aiello said the trade was unconditional, explaining that Dallas would get a draft choice even if San Francisco ‘cut Henderson tomorrow.'”

The operative phrase is undisclosed draft choice—that and unconditional. These are usually the kiss of death, but maybe not for Hollywood, who has his magic and is a great linebacker.

Still, an unconditional, undisclosed draft choice is something that exists only in the realm of the imagination. It is the classic corporate ploy. Now when Henderson wakes up he’ll have another corporation—the 49ers—between him and the Cowboys. If he were to file a grievance over his firing now, which corporation would he file it against? And how?

Run too slow, they fuck you; run too fast, they bite you on the ass.

Call your shot, Hollywood.

IN AUSTIN, my wife phoned with a message to return Hollywood Henderson’s emergency call. The new bride answered, as usual, after a long series of rings. Then Hollywood came on the line and sleepily warned me not to repeat certain things he’d said about teammates and people at the wedding. I guess he’d finally regained consciousness—but a little late, I’m afraid. I was tired of dealing with his ego, but I understood his problem and have been trying to explain it to you.

Now that I finally had Hollywood on the phone, I didn’t want to talk to him. “Look. Thomas, I stayed in Dallas for ten days trying to talk to you. I thought your case was a good one to show how a player’s rights are so easily violated. How his ego is used against him. How they make him look crazy. How badly the players need to support the NFLPA. Have you talked to the union lately? To Rick Schaeffer or Ed Garvey?” I knew he hadn’t. I knew what he was thinking: They need me worse than I need them.

“I’m interested in your legal case, Thomas. I’ve been through all the name-calling bullshit. They can say worse things about you than you can say about them, and they can do it longer. No matter what you call them, they can always call you ‘not good enough.’ You got a new contract with the Forty-Niners? The one-million-dollar one?”

“Yeah, there’s a contract.” His voice was sullen. He was evasive again. No mention of one million. “I negotiated it myself.”

Hollywood paused. “You better not fuck me up, Peter. Everything’s going good.”

“Yeah, sounds wonderful,” I said. “Listen, Thomas, we both got enough paranoia without this.” I hung up.

I don’t know if Thomas understands. I’m not certain I do, either. But then, that’s the idea, after all: Just keep sticking your head in there.

After I hung up, I thought of Willie Townes puffing his cigarettes and drinking his Lite beer and saying, “He’s scared, man. He’s scared.”

Me too, Willie. Me too.

All efforts have been made to reach the rights-holders for this story. If you are the rights holder and would like this story removed, please contact me.—Alex Belth

True School

Leigh Montville on the Hollywood life of Alex Karras.

[Photo Credit: N.Y. Daily News]

Enemy Mine

Over at SBN’s Longform, check out this fine piece story by William Browning:

Before the boy passed 10 his parents left the Mississippi Delta for the pine woods farther south, where his mother found a teaching job in the county. They were a young family, renting near the school, when his father left.

The boy felt lost in that new place. To better hide the hurt he whittled away his footprints through the years, turning his back on basketball, the drum line, a job bagging groceries and a place on the school honor roll. When he handed in his football jersey during his junior year there was nothing else to quit. He did it in spring, a few months after the ’96 season. A slow-footed receiver four notches down the depth chart, he thought he would not be missed. He was surprised when the coach sent a note to his English teacher asking to see him. Everyone called him, “Coach.” He was humorless and had a dry voice. He growled through one-sided conversations on the football field but off it he could be inarticulate.

The boy remembers walking the hallway toward his office, telling himself not to give in. He sat face-to-face with Coach, Bear Bryant’s picture hanging nearby on the office wall. Are you sure you want to spend your senior year in the bleachers? Coach said. Full of teenage arrogance, the boy said he wouldn’t be attending any games. He said he had watched from the sideline for two seasons and had his fill.

Coach, always slow to speak, leaned back in his chair and warned him. He warned him that not that season, but in a decade or so, he would come to regret his decision and that once made, it could not be undone.

The boy laughed. A grown man, said the boy, has no business thinking of games he did or did not play in high school. Coach said all right and the boy left. He never called him “Coach” again. Not because he walked away from football, but because that summer the coach married his mother.

And the boy hated him for that.

[Photo Credit: Colorado Springs Gazette ]

Reality Check


This is good.

Jock Archives: Dolla, Dolla Bill Y’all

From the Jock magazine archives here’s a good interview:

Odd Couple: Bill Bradley and Calvin HIll



Cash Rules Everything Around Me

Over at Grantland, Charlie Pierce lights into the NFL:

ere’s what I think should happen. At the end of this farcical exercise in corporate avarice, and whenever he has determined that his ego has been sufficiently fluffed and his power sufficiently recognized throughout the land, commissioner Roger Goodell should take his entire 2012 salary and split every dime of it up among the players in the National Football League, because they are the ones he’s putting at risk and they are the only ones keeping the NFL from descending into a form of opéra bouffe that would embarrass roller derby. Sunday night, the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens played a preposterously good football game, which the Ravens won, 31-30, on a walk-off field goal by rookie Justin Tucker, in a preposterous context that ended with New England coach Bill Belichick trying to grab the arm of an official as the ref ran off the field.

“I’m not going to comment on that,” Belichick said afterward. “You saw the game. What did we get, 30 penalties called in that game?”

Oh, yeah, the play that ended last night’s game was even worse.

Poetry in Motion

Sad news to report. Steve Sabol has died. He was 69. To me, NFL Films is the best thing that ever happened to pro football.

Here is a terrific piece on Sabol by Rich Cohen over at the Atlantic.

Sabol will be missed.

What’s the Rumpus?

Leave it to Dave Tompkins to give us something surprising…

…like this Grantland piece on Nat Moore, NFL wide receiver and Miami Bass pioneer:

Nat Moore would be best remembered for his heliocentricity rather than for receiving the NFL’s first Man of the Year Award for providing “outstanding service” to a North Miami community decimated by riots, racism, and a highway. Kids who wanted to torch the seat of justice could enroll in one of the Dolphin youth football programs — or they could just skate backward to “Ring My Bell” at one of Nat Moore’s teen clubs.

What the NFL failed to recognize were Moore’s outstanding contributions to the birth of Miami bass, a rap extremity that enhanced player quality of life: spandex, jock jams, the strip club, the Luke party, the maximization of trunk space.1 This was the first hip-hop genre that appeared to be solely dedicated to fusing a subwoofer waveform with the human rear end, as if trying to develop a new biotechnology called Bottom, making these exaggerations of low end indistinguishable from each other.

[Photo Credit: How to Wreck a Nice Beach; Lovely Derriere]


According to this report, Junior Seau is dead at 43. Police are investigating this case as an apparent suicide.

My God, this is sad.

[Photo Credit: Sasha Kurmaz]

Bronx Banter Interview: Mark Kram Jr.

Mark Kram Jr. is one of the finest practitioners we have of long form newspaper journalism, better known as the bonus or takeout piece. He has been with the Philly Daily News since 1987 and his work has appeared in The Best American Sports Writing six times (here’s a selection:  “The World is Her Cloister” 1994; “Joe’s Gift” 2002; “I Want to Kill Him” 2003; “A Lethal Catch” 2005).

Kram has a clean, almost invisible style that doesn’t call attention to itself. It is in the fine tradition of Gay Talese’s fly-on-the-wall approach. With Kram you don’t notice his technique because you are immersed in the story. Now 56, Kram has written his first book, “Like Any Normal Day.” It is published today.

Like Any Normal Day looks piercingly beyond the moment the when the lights dim and the crowds go home in any young athlete’s life,” writes Richard Ford.  “Kram’s acuity and sympathies stretch far beyond his sportswriter’s practiced gaze — indeed, all the way to the realm of literature. It is not a happy story he has to tell us. But it seems to me–perhaps for that very reason–it  is an essential and cautionary one.” 

I wrote a short piece on Kram in the Scorecard section of Sports Illustrated last week and was fortunate enough to chat with him recently about his book and his father, who himself was a celebrated magazine writer.


Bronx Banter: I’m a huge fan of “Forgive Some Sinner,” the uncompromising article you wrote about your father. It must not have been easy to write that story. How did it come about?

Mark Kram: Frank Deford planted the idea with me. He and Dad had been colleagues at Sports Illustrated during the 1960s and early 1970s but had drifted apart in the ensuing years, as friends occasionally do. They were both from Baltimore, yet not the same Baltimore. Frank grew up in an affluent area of the city, and Dad had come out of East Baltimore, a working class section. He had lettered in baseball, basketball and football in high school—in fact, he had played high school baseball against Al Kaline—but had been a poor student and had no interest in books until his pro baseball career in the Pirates organization came to an end.

Mark Kram, left, Tito Francona far right

I had known Frank as a boy and became reacquainted with him some 30 years later at a book event he had at The Free Library of Philadelphia in 2005, three years after Dad had died. We went out for a few drinks and I filled him in on the man he once knew. By the end of the evening, he said, “You know, you should write about him.” The thought had occurred to me, but I could not think of the circumstance that would arise where it would be possible. Were I to do it, it would have to have been for publication, and I could not think of any editor who would be remotely interested. Incredibly, Frank conspired with Rob Fleder, then a top editor at SI, to offer me an assignment.

BB: That had to come as a surprise, given how your father and SI parted ways in 1977.

MK: You can say that again. I showed my wife Anne the email Rob had sent me and her jaw dropped. SI had not even published an obit on him, and here they were asking for 6,000 words on him. I played along, but I was under no illusions that whatever I came up with would ever appear in their pages.

BB: Really?

MK: Yes. As stellar has his work had been, Dad had breached some very serious ethical standards – which I explore in some depth in “Forgive Some Sinner”–so he represented a complicated piece of SI history. It seemed unlikely to me that they would have any appetite to revisit it. And yet I was excited to have the assignment, if only because it gave me a license to pick up the phone, call people and ask questions.

BB: What happened when you submitted the story?

MK: SI paid for the piece in full and then sat on it. Rob had done a wonderful job helping me get it in shape—he is a splendid editor—but as I said, I doubted that it would ever get in. A year and half passed and Rob called. He said, “I have good news and bad news.” I said, “Give me the bad news.” As I expected, he said SI would not be running the piece. But the “good news” was that I could have the story back and sell it elsewhere, if I could find someone who would take it.

BB: At least they paid you for it and let you have it back.

MK: That was kind of them – and I appreciated it. So I shopped it around but no one wanted it. And then one day, a neighbor, Jason Wilson—who is the series editor of Best American Travel Writing—crossed into our yard and said he had just been appointed the editor of “The Smart Set,” an online cultural magazine he convinced Drexel University to underwrite. “Forgive Some Sinner” appeared as part of their launch and still gets visitors to it. So I would have to say it could not have worked out better.

BB: And there is a benefit to having it on-line because a simple Google search continues to lead readers to it.

MK: Absolutely. It’s been wonderful in that way.

BB: And it was included in The Best American Sports Writing that year. That had to be gratifying.

MK: It was. Given the circuitous journey the piece had before it found a home, it was more than that. I am deeply thankful to Glenn Stout, the series editor of the book, and Bill Nack, the guest editor who selected it. And I am thankful to Frank, Rob and Jason for teeing it up.

BB: I was drawn to the part of “Forgive Some Sinner” where your old man discouraged you from pursuing a career in writing. Can you shed some light on what his thinking was?

MK: Writing was an extraordinary struggle for him. I can still see him sitting at the typewriter, drenched with sweat and wreathed in smoke from the pipe that he always had going. Every word to him was a careful brush stroke. Frank captured it well in his new memoir, “Over Time”:

“To Mark, writing was a laboratory science more than a craft; he could not write the second word until the first word was perfect. He also believed that he was like a female holding a finite number of eggs—that he only had so many words within him.”

I could not have said it better. Frank and I part company on certain other observations he had, but I am a very fond of him and he is surely entitled to his opinion. But to answer your original question: I think Dad discouraged me from writing because it was such an ordeal for him. I remember he used to say, “I should have stayed in baseball and become a first base coach.” Maybe he would have been happier.

Father and Son at Graceland, 2002

BB: To what extent was writing that story a relief for you?

MK: More than you can know. For years I had looked upon with the eyes of a boy—and only those eyes. I loved him dearly, and was always trying to plead his case in one way or another, even when the evidence to the contrary had been inescapable. I idealized him. I remember I used to look at his work and wonder how he ever did it—and if I ever could even approach what he did in some small way. Writing “Forgive Some Sinner” demanded that I looked at him with another set of eyes—challenging, discerning and yet not judgmental. No one is spared suffering in life, but you can either be embittered by it or ennobled by it. Dad became embittered by it, I am sad to say, and yet that was not the sum of who he was. “Forgive Some Sinner” was a painful excavation, yet one that acquainted me with the gray areas that hold regency over us. I think in some sense “Forgive Some Sinner” primed the pump for “Like Any Normal Day.”

BB: That’s an excellent point particularly since this is your first book. Why this story and why now?

MK: For years, I had hoped to do a book. Certainly, it seemed to be a logical outgrowth of the narrative writing I had been doing so long for newspapers. But I did not want to do just any book. I had no interest in doing an as-told-to celebrity job. I wanted to slice off a piece of life and examine it. What I found in the Miley family was precisely what I had been searching for: Ordinary people steeped in extraordinary circumstances. But I did not choose this story as much as it chose me.

BB: Ordinary people…

MK: Yes. When I attended the University of Maryland, I had a conversation with the novelist James M. Cain at his house one evening. Remember, “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity?”

Cain was well into his 80s by then, but he told me a story that has stayed with me ever since. Carey Wilson, the producer, had once told him, “Jim, the reason I like your stories is that they are about real people. I know them.” Cain told me this story to illustrate his antipathy for Raymond Chandler, whose characters in the “The Big Sleep” included “a rich, old bald-headed guy who raises orchids and has two nymphomaniac daughters.” Cain said Wilson had told him, “Whoever heard of someone like that? You can take that son of a bitch and jump in the lake with him.” In any event, I knew Buddy Miley. We were we the same age. I had played ball with boys like him, star athletes who would only go so far before gravity pulled them to earth. I think I understood who he was.

BB: You played sports in high school, right?

MK: Some baseball and basketball. Good enough to be on the team, but more or less a bench player.

BB: How did Buddy’s story choose you?

MK: I suppose you could say Buddy whispered in my ear. He became a thread I tugged on while I worked on other stuff. I think with any creative project, you have to give yourself space to play with the loose threads you come across and see where they lead. Some of the threads you pull at snap off. Others just go on and on. Buddy became a thread that I could not let go of. Over the course of some years, I found that some intriguing themes emerged: What is our duty to one another? To what extent are we able to sacrifice of ourselves? I fooled with some of screenplay versions of the story, suffered through the usual annoyances that are attached to that, and then finally decided: This has to be a book. At that point the question became, can I sell it?

BB: Did you have a feel for how that would go?

MK: Practically speaking, it seemed to me to be a long shot that any publisher would be interested in Buddy, or his story. But I had what I think of as an epiphany. It dawned on me that the book was not about Buddy alone but the people he touched.

BB: Someone who is injured like that impacts everyone around him.

MK: Exactly. That one split second of horror that occurred one day on the football field in 1973 changed the destiny of an array of people beyond just Buddy. His parents, his siblings, especially Jimmy, his youngest brother. Friends. I even found his high school girlfriend in Alabama—Karen Kollmeyer (then Karen Shields)–whose life intersected with Buddy in an intriguing way up until the very day he died. It seemed to be the perfect book for me—not a sports book per se, or a Kevorkian book—but one that played out across a large canvas of human experience.

BB: You explain in the book that you first wrote a piece about Buddy after reading a letter his mother wrote in Sports Illustrated. What was it about her letter that drew your curiosity?

MK: I always have an eye out for pieces that play in the margins of sports. In this case, an editor at the Philadelphia Daily News passed it along to me. Since I had come to Philadelphia in 1987 from Detroit, I had no idea of who Buddy or the Mileys were. In her letter, Rosemarie said, in part:

“I am sure the majority of SI readers ‘love’ football. I ask them to spend one day with my son. They will see the terrible pain he endures. They will feel his frustrations at being totally dependant upon others.”

It went on. But the point is, I followed up on her invitation, even if it had been intended as a rhetorical one. I called her and asked if I could drop by and take her up on her invitation. Of course, I had no idea of where it would lead except for perhaps an interesting feature article.

BB: Did you stay in touch with Buddy after that first article was published?

MK: I spoke with Buddy just once after the piece appeared in the paper. Apparently, some of his old friends had read it and organized a benefit for him. Ostensibly, it was to raise funds so he could visit Buoniconti clinic in Miami in search of relief from the pain he was in on a daily basis. He did take that trip, but it was to no avail, though he did get an eyeful on a side trip to South Beach.

BB: Hey, that had to be a good feeling, that something you had written had led people to organize a fund-raiser?

MK: The hope I always have is to spark a connection. Occasionally, that has expressed itself in a level of generosity that I found inspiring. I remember I once did a story on Joe Delaney, a promising young Kansas City Chiefs running back who died trying to save some boys from drowning—a $1000.00 check showed up in the mail to forward along to his widow. In the case of Buddy, I think we see the bigheartedness of others throughout his life—and this book.

BB: He was not alone.

MK: Good people stepped forward from every walk of life to help him, from legends such as the former Colts running back Alan Ameche, his widow Yvonne, and obscure characters such as Dave Heilbrun, who volunteered his expertise to build an addition on the Miley home that allowed Buddy some space of his own. So I suppose I would say, what I have always hoped to do is move readers in a way that enables them to connect to a world outside themselves.

BB: I interrupted you there. So did you stay in touch with Buddy?

MK: We spoke just once again and he more or less faded from my radar until I received a phone call from the office one evening in March, 1997. Buddy had been found dead in a Michigan motel room. From what could be immediately ascertained, it looked like it had been a Kevorkian job. I contributed some reporting to the story that appeared the following day, but did not become more deeply involved in the story until a year later. I proposed a piece on the one-year anniversary of his death, if only because the initial reporting seemed to leave certain questions unanswered. I am also of the belief that in pursuing feature subjects—especially when there is a tragedy involved—it is usually a good idea to give people some space to grieve.

BB: That makes sense.

MK: When I revisited the Mileys in March 1998, everyone was there except for Jimmy. I was told it would just be too hard for him to be there. Although I suspected then that Jimmy had been the one who had taken Buddy to Michigan, I figured that I would be done with the Mileys when I finished that story. But I had grown fond of Rosemarie and gave her a call every now and then just to talk. Always, it seemed, we ended up laughing over one thing or another. Occasionally, I would bring up Jimmy, ask how he was and told her I would love to talk with him if he was ever up to it.

BB: And you later did a story on him as well, right?

MK: The piece I did on Jimmy appeared in the Daily News in June 2006. A year before, Rosemarie called me and told me Jimmy would like to talk with me. So I drove out to Warminster to see him, no strings attached, just a chat. If for whatever reason he did not want a story written, I promised him that that would be the end of it. We met at a diner and talked for four hours. I knew then that he had a compelling story to share, but I could also see that he was bound up in fear. He seemed to think if he went public, he would end up in jail as an accessory. Or, perhaps even worse, that he would be shunned in the community for participating in an act that the Catholic Church looked upon as a sin.

BB: He was tortured.

Jimmy Miley

MK: Yes. He was so overwhelmed by his fears that he called two weeks or so later and declined to proceed. Another year passed before he decided to move forward. Contrary to the apprehensions that had held him back, the community embraced him with compassion. I received dozens of letters from readers who opened up their hearts to him. To the extent that the book had a genesis, it could be found in those letters—this sense that what Jimmy experienced had universal overtones. In fact, I had an aunt who lived in a vegetative state for 10 years, so I had some fairly strong personal views regarding self-determination.

BB: Did you share any of the letters you received from that second article with Jimmy?

MK: I did. I dropped a pile of them off at his house one day. I think it was a revelation to him, that there were people who supported what he had done, even if they did not approve of Dr. Kevorkian or what he stood for. They understood that what he had done had been an act of compassion on behalf of his brother.

BB: When Jimmy got cold feet, how did you react to that?

MK: Disappointed, of course, yet not entirely surprised. As we spoke, I sensed that he was backing away. And yet he continued to talk, as if by doing so he was expelling a large burden he had been carrying around. Sometimes I have had story subjects who could not bring themselves to follow through. I understand it. This is deeply personal stuff, and it is not easy to expose your inner world to someone, particularly a stranger who proposes to share your story in a public forum. In this case, there was also an added obstacle that came into play. Nationally, the big story in the news in early 2005 was Terri Schiavo, the young woman who had been in a vegetative state and became the focus of a heated debate on euthanasia in America. I had a sense that that spooked Jimmy.

BB: Can you talk about the difficulties that you face as a writer when you get to know a subject and like them? And was there a difference between the connection you had with the family during the two articles you wrote and then the book?

MK: Initially, my relationship to the Mileys was cordial but not one that I had any sense would endure. They were lovely people, yet the necessities of turning around fresh ideas seemed to preclude any deeper connection. Once a story is published, there is always this sense of closure, that both the subject and I had attained what we had set out to accomplish and would part ways. A book is different matter altogether. To go to the depths one has to plumb in order to piece together a narrative non fiction of any length, it is essential to establish a level of abiding trust and transparency. What I found is that you have to give of yourself in order to have any expectation of any return. The Mileys were helpful in this regard. They assured me, “This is your book.” And I assured them that I would observe the same sensitivity in writing about them as I would my own family.

BB: In what way do you give of yourself? At one point in the book, you bring yourself in the picture by sharing some of your personal history. And you do share that you and Buddy were the same age. Is this what you are referring to?

MK: By “giving of yourself” to a subject, this quite simply means that you have to be something more than an interrogator. You have to connect with them at a human level and create an environment of safety. I remember when I interviewed Karen in Alabama, I asked her to look up “Forgive Some Sinner,” if only to give her a sense that I understood what was involved with letting go of old demons. I think by reading it she came away with a better sense of who I was and became more relaxed with me. As far as Buddy was concerned, I included some personal history only to underscore the passage of years. In the 23 ½ years Buddy had been paralyzed, longer by the way, than he had been ambulatory, time had not stopped for me as it had for him.

BB: Buddy fell in love with Karen while he was in the hospital. At what point in the process did you track her down?

Buddy Miley and Karen Sheilds on Graduation Day, 1974

MK: Karen emerged very early in my reporting. At some point while I was preparing the piece on Jimmy for the Daily News, he told me that women had always loved Buddy. Some had passed in and out of his life, but there was one in particular that Buddy had a special affection for. He told me she was living somewhere in the South, Florida or Alabama. He said he had her telephone number somewhere. Once the Daily News story appeared and I began to draft a book proposal, I asked Jimmy to give her a call. He did, and Karen and I later spoke on the phone. That was in 2006 or so. When I finally got a deal, I flew down to Alabama and spent a few days with her.

BB: That’s a huge get on your part.

MK: By the end of those interviews, it became clear to me that she would be an essential character to the book. I remember I told her, “I need you to help me tap into the heart of this story.” And so she did, beyond what I could have imagined.

BB: Was there anything new or surprising that you learned about the Mileys writing the book?

MK: Nothing “new” or “surprising,” but I did develop a deep appreciation for what lovely people they were. None of them shied away from any of the questions I had, although their memories in some cases had dimmed. I remember asking Rosemarie Miley if she would share with me the letters she exchanged with her husband Bert during World War II. I asked her a few times offhandedly, but she always said no, that they were private. It was not until my final interview with her that, out of nowhere, she asked me if I would like to see one of them. “Of course,” I told her. She excused herself from the table and came back with a hand-written love letter that Bert had sent her from the Pacific near the end of the war. Quietly, she read part of it aloud to me. It was as if I had come across a missing piece in an elaborate puzzle: beneath the stony exterior that Bert exuded beat the heart of a man with the same dreams his paralyzed son had had.

BB: The story is so sad in many ways and dramatic. How did treat that story without becoming melodramatic?

MK: From the beginning, I knew I had to find some way to lighten the emotional load. So humor had to be a critical element of the story. Jimmy provided more than enough in this area. As the youngest of the seven Miley children, he had been a fine athlete, perhaps better than Buddy, yet he had been immature and always falling over himself in one way or another. It was not until he tapped into his courage and helped Buddy that he ascended into manhood. Karen, as a character, also allowed me to step away into a love story, even if that love story would ultimately have tragic overtones.

BB: And it was an unusual, complicated love story, too.


MK: Karen weaves in and out of the book. They were supposed to go on their first date after the game in which Buddy was injured. Karen began visiting him in the hospital and they became close – indeed, they fell in love. In the book there is a wonderful picture of the two of them on the stage at graduation. In any event, Karen moved away at that point with her parents, but not before Buddy assured her that when he was able to walk again, he would find her and sweep her off her feet. It was pure fantasy – Buddy would never be able to walk again – yet Karen became a projection to Buddy of the normal life he longed for. As the years passed, Karen went on to have a life of her own, with a husband and children, yet a part of her remained connected to the boy whose heart had touched her so long ago. Buddy contacted her two years before his death with the help of a private investigator. During this period, the deep feeling between them reemerged, and continued until Buddy called her from Michigan to say goodbye.

BB: You had this story with you for a long period, yet had addressed it only in short form. What entered into your thinking as you expanded to 70,000 words instead of 5,000?

MK: Good jockeys have a clock in their head, which is to say they have a sense of pace that enables them to know precisely where they are at any given point in a race. I had that ability here. Originally, the contract called for 80,000 words. Before I signed it, I sat down with a legal pad and worked up a very loose outline, just to get a sense of how far this material could be spread out. What I came up with during that exercise was what appeared to be a 70,000-word book, so we had the contract amended. And the book I turned in came to 70,400 words. We ended up trimming perhaps 1000 words from that during the editing process.

BB: Damn, that’s nothing.

MK: With the help of my wife, Anne, who attended the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and has a sharp eye for errant prose, I did some rewriting on certain chapters as I went along. Some of our editorial sessions were tense.

BB: Oh, I can only imagine.

MK: But when I looked at what she suggested with a cooler head I was always deeply grateful, not just for her direction but the patience and love with which she offered it.

BB: Did you show your editor any early drafts?

MK: No, I just showed George Witte, the editor in chief at St. Martin’s Press, the completed manuscript when I was finished with it. I had a good sense of where I was going. And there is no point eliciting a partial score. George got back to me within a week with a lovely acceptance note. At that point, there were only some very minor revisions.

BB: That sounds so tidy. And you would have never been in this position had you not written about your father. “Forgive Some Sinner” really gave you a leg up on writing “Like Any Normal Day,” is that fair to say?

MK: In so far as the deep diving you have to do with certain subjects, I would say yes. I came away from “Forgive Some Sinner” with a better understanding not just of Dad and myself, but of life—even under ideal circumstances, it is a muddy affair. In a certain way, I cleared the land of the underbrush with that piece, which enabled me to enter the world of Buddy and Jimmy Miley in an unobstructed way. And I had discovered that “Forgive Some Sinner” helped me develop some previously unengaged creative skills, perhaps which in the final analysis can only come with experience. I remember whenever I had self-doubts as a boy, Dad used to remind me again and again: “The race is to the steady, not to the swift.” I can still hear him say that: Hang in there.

BB: I like how Scott Raab put it when he said, “Endurance is a talent.”

MK: Well said. Along with whatever talent you can scrape together, you have to have an iron ass. Buddy sure as hell had it. For 23 ½ years, he hung in here until he could not do it one more day. The pain that would shoot through him was so severe that it would leave him gritting his teeth. And yet I think he was ennobled by his suffering, not embittered by it. That’s a remarkable thing, really. Buddy had a big heart, and he shared it with whoever walked into his room and sat down with him. It was because of that heart that he stepped away from his struggle, if only to enable his mother Rosemarie a few years of peace in her advancing years. So he and Jimmy stole away to Michigan. Buddy was the personification of endurance, which is why I will always treasure the piece of memorabilia that Jimmy gave me that had belonged to his brother: a signed Cal Ripken jersey. Somehow that seemed so perfectly fitting.

You can order “Like Any Normal Day” here and here. And check out Kram’s website, here.

[Photos provided by Mark Kram Jr. Additional images via Elevated Encouragement. Author pictures taken by Mary Olivia Kram. ]

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver