Earlier this year Longform reprinted this 1982 Playboy Interview with our man George Carlin.
Playboy: From 1962 until about 1970, you were a straight comic with a constantly ascending career. You continued working the Playboy Clubs, became a successful opening act in Las Vegas, then broke into TV. By your early 30s, you found yourself becoming rich and famous as a mainstream performer. But, as they say, were you happy?
Carlin: I was happy about my success, but I was also frustrated, because I was sublimating the long-standing angers that I still hadn’t begun to deal with. I mean, the night clubs were full of businessmen, and I hated them madly. But I had to repress my hatred, and that took its toll. I had a number of angry confrontations, including one at a Las Vegas hotel and another at a Playboy Club, and found myself back at the coffeehouses, where I’d started. And the colleges. Before Vegas, I’d been a folk comic on Bleecker Street in New York and Wells Street in Chicago. So when I made my break in 1970, I said, “I gotta go back to those people. They’ll understand me. They’ll let me sing my song.” And those audiences did make me feel comfortable. I fed on them. I got out all the anger I’d repressed in my teens and 20s. Looking back on it, I suspect that whole period from 1970 to 1976—the albums, the college tours, the cocaine—was all just a way of completing my adolescence. When I was really an adolescent, I was engaged and in the Air Force and making adult decisions. I never really got to finish the angry, screaming, rebellious part of my youth. Then, when I was in my 30s, the country seemed to go through its own adolescence. Anger and rebellion and drug experimentation and outrageous music and clothing—all the typical manifestations of adolescent behavior were suddenly present in American society, and I just fell right into it. The country’s mood allowed me to finish that chapter of my own life.
From our man Pete, republished with her permission, this story originally appeared in Playboy back in 1988.
By Pete Dexter
Back in the early Sixties, when Floyd Patterson was still heavyweight champion of the world, an intelligent and high-spirited boxing writer named Jack McKinney was passing an afternoon in Darien, Connecticut, with Cus D’Amato, talking, among other things, about Patterson’s upcoming fight with Sonny Liston. D’Amato, of course, was Patterson’s manager. P
In its way, it was a melancholy conversation. The question was not if Liston would win but if Patterson—a limited fighter—would be maimed. D’Amato cared more for the fighter than the title.P
“Cus had vision,” McKinney said, “but he didn’t need it to see what was about to happen to Patterson.”P
And then, after they talked about Patterson and Liston, and the way things were and the way they ought to be, D’Amato leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling and began to talk about a different kind of fighter. P
He told McKinney that if he could find the right athlete—someone with intelligence, concentration, hand speed, coordination and courage, who had never boxed a minute—he could turn that athlete into a world champion.P
The guess is that my friend McKinney—who had once disappeared from his job at thePhiladelphia Daily News for most of a week, only to surface in Sandusky, Ohio, knocking out a professional middleweight fighter in a four-round preliminary—began to think this might be his own shot at the title. But no.P
“He wanted someone fresh, who hadn’t been around boxing,” McKinney said. “Usually, by the time you were good enough to be noticed by Cus, you had acquired habits that couldn’t be changed. Things had been set in motion.”P
D’Amato eventually got such an athlete into the ring, but nothing came of it. At least, not right away.P
Six or seven years after that conversation in Connecticut, a child was born in an unhealthy part of Brooklyn called Bedford-Stuyvesant to a woman named Lorna Tyson. He was the youngest of her three children and the most like her—timid, soft-spoken, shy. He played mostly with his sister. On the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, he was sometimes called “little fairy boy,” and no place outside his apartment was safe for him. When the boy was ten, his mother moved from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Brownsville, which is also in Brooklyn. The neighborhoods are different in that in Brownsville, the weak and the timid are not teased, they are eaten. The boy was beaten up again and again; his shoes were stolen; the little money he had belonged to whoever saw him first. P
He kept pigeons on the roof and called them his “babies.” I am thinking now of his square, dimpled hands stroking and feeding his babies; I am thinking of the revelation that must have come when he finally used them as weapons. The story, of course, has been told. Ten-year-old Michael Tyson, who would turn over his shoes or his coat or his money, drew the line at his pigeons. P
An older boy tried to take one of them away, and Michael began to swing. The revelation was not so much that he won the fight but how much he enjoyed it.P
“I was beating the shit out of this guy,” he said, “and I was so happy. To this day, it makes me happy. The fight itself, when all the talk is over and there is nothing left to say, nothing else to do but fight. That’s the best part, in the ring. The rest of it, being the champion, I don’t get so much pleasure from that as you might think.”P
So young Michael kicked the shit out of the kid who had tried to steal his pigeon; then he kicked the shit out of some of the kids who had stolen his clothes and money; and then he kicked the shit out of a bunch of people who just seemed to need the shit kicked out of them.P
Noticing this, members of the Brownsville community began to include him in their activities. “They held the guns,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1986.”I just put everything in a bag. I was 11.” P
The stealing bothered Michael’s mother, and it bothered the cashiers in the stores that were being held up, and eventually it bothered the police. And so, just when he’d finally adjusted to Brooklyn, Michael found himself moving to the Tyron School for Boys in Upstate New York, which is sort of a prep school for youngsters trying to get into Attica.P
And it was there, at the age of 13, that he met Bobby Stewart, who taught him the fundamentals of boxing. Five years before, Stewart had been the 178-pound national Golden Gloves champion, which is to say he could fight. Within a few months, however, Tyson was giving him all he could handle.P
Stewart took the boy to his friend Cus D’Amato, who watched him spar three rounds, talked with him a few minutes and saw the fighter he had been waiting for all his life.P
D’Amato had become reclusive in the last years, at least as distrustful of the Don Kings and Bob Arums as he had been of guys like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo back when they owned and operated the sport. He lived in a large farmhouse outside Catskill, New York, overlooking the Hudson River, and trained his fighters in the gym on the third floor of Citizens Hose Company, in town.P
He educated the boy in his house and in his gym; and if you were looking for the difference between Mike Tyson and the other fighters D’Amato had taught, it probably lay in the depth of Tyson’s understanding of the things D’Amato was teaching him.P
It is one thing to know what words mean and accept them, it is another thing to believe them. You may understand intellectually that courage is not a constant in anyone and that discipline is—or can be. Discipline will get you through the times when your courage fades. But for discipline to help when everything inside you is suddenly calling in sick, you have to believe it. It has to be true, or it’s useless. P
So what I mean by teaching is not that D’Amato put anything inside Tyson but that he showed him where it was and how to use it. At any rate, Tyson stayed with D’Amato in the house overlooking the Hudson until the old man died on November 4, 1985. He was 77 years old. Tyson was 19, a professional fighter for only eight months. His mother was dead. He had fought 13 times and knocked 13 people out. Nine in the first round.P
The funeral for Cus D’Amato was held at a Catholic church in Catskill, and among the pallbearers were two men who would guide Mike Tyson the rest of the way to the championship, Kevin Rooney and Jimmy Jacobs. Rooney had been one of D’Amato’s fighters, too—a tenacious welterweight who had fought successfully without exceptional tools—and would take over as Tyson’s trainer.P
Jacobs was one of Tyson’s co-managers and was as devoted to the old man in his way as the kid was. He is the owner—along with Tyson’s other manager, Bill Cayton—of the greatest collection of fight films in existence. The number is close to 26,000. He and D’Amato used to show up in Philadelphia from time to time and show them at benefits for retired fighters. He was also arguably the greatest handball player who ever lived, and perhaps because of his own success as an athlete, he could appreciate boxing and its players the way D’Amato appreciated it—in a pure way, for the sport itself. Jacobs did not need to see himself in its reflection—not now, not back in the Sixties, when D’Amato had talked with him, just as he had talked with McKinney, about taking an athlete who had never fought a round and turning him into a world champion. The difference being that the athlete D’Amato had sought was Jacobs himself.P
A year and two weeks after D’Amato’s funeral, Jacobs and Rooney had Mike Tyson in a boxing ring at the Las Vegas Hilton with a heavyweight fighter named Trevor Berbick, whom you would call undistinguished, except that he happened to be the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion of the world.P
Berbick had once survived 15 rounds with Larry Holmes—the first man to do that after Holmes became champion—but he hadn’t tried to win, only to last; and in the end, the distinction of staying 15 rounds was forfeit to his lack of ambition.P
At any rate, it was the wrong night for Berbick to try to make things right. The wrong night and the wrong ring and the wrong opponent. You never know what gets into somebody else’s head, but Berbick went right at Tyson—a man with twice his ability—tried to back him up, and in two rounds he was gone.P
And Mike Tyson, 20 years old, was the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of the sport. That night, he said he felt Cus watching.P
I don’t know.P
I’ve never been much of a believer in being watched by the dead, but I do know that Michael Spinks, the man who had taken Larry Holmes’s International Boxing Federation title, was watching at ringside and shortly afterward backed out of the contract he had signed with Home Box Office to fight the winner of a heavyweight-champion elimination match between Tyson and the World Boxing Association champion.P
On one hand, you cannot fault Spinks. One minute, you’re fighting Tyson, the next, you’re up there with Cus, watching the doctors work over your body. P
On the other hand, what Spinks did seemed to drop him into the same category as the other heavyweight “champions” of recent years—guys like Berbick and Pinklon Thomas and Greg Page and Tim Witherspoon and Bonecrusher Smith and Michael Dokes—who had cheapened what was once the most prestigious title in sports until it had no meaning.P
You cannot talk about cheapening the heavyweight title, of course, without mentioning the three ruling bodies of boxing—the W.B.C., the W.B.A. and the I.B.F., each of which has the integrity of a Cleveland pimp. In the long years since boxing was divided into ruling bodies, you sometimes forgot that being heavyweight champion of the world was once a serious job.P
And part of what Tyson holds out is a return to that. It is part of his appeal, a return to a time when the heavyweight champion of the world could fight.P
The night I decided to write a piece on Mike Tyson, I was sitting on the couch watching theDick Cavett Show with my dog McGuire. I have been trying to teach the animal the rudiments or house watching for a long time, without results.P
The scarier somebody looks, the friendlier he gets. A Hell’s Angel once gave him a hamburger at a Burger King and he never forgot it.P
So you start at the other end, with a twerp.”You see that guy in the suit'” I said to him when Cavett came on. “Anybody like that comes near the house, you fuck him up, all right? Him and his suit.” P
McGuire studied the set a long time, memorizing Dick Cavett. I had the sudden thought that l might get him on David Letterman’s show, which features a segment called “Stupid Pet Tricks.”P
“Well, Dave, McGuire here fucks up Dick Cavett…” and they bring Cavett in, and the dog breaks his legs. Then I take him to Burger King as a reward.P
And so, not wanting to distract the dog from Dick Cavett, I left the television on and went into the kitchen for some Oreo cookies, which McGuire loves. If a Hell’s Angel had given him an Oreo cookie, he’d be riding around on the back of a Harley right now.P
Anyway, by the time I got back to the couch, Cavett was talking with Mike Tyson, dazzling him with that precious twerp wit. And then Cavett, in as memorable an attack of little man’s disease as I have ever seen, stood up, in front of a television audience that must have run into the thousands, and induced Tyson to try to hold on to his (Cavett’s) wrists.P
Tyson moaned. You could see he did not want to grab Dick Cavett’s wrists; you could see he was embarrassed by what was happening.P
Tyson took his wrists.P
“Now hold on,” Cavett said.P
Tyson held on.P
Cavett made an oblique reference to his 80-some-year-old martial-arts instructor and then moved his arm against the place where Tyson’s thumb met his fingers and pulled free. This, obviously, is invaluable stuff to anyone grabbed by the wrists on television and, just as obviously, means that hidden underneath the wonderful suit and all that wit is a very dangerous guy who can probably handle himself with the ladies, too.P
And I wondered, sitting there as McGuire finished the Oreos, what a 20-year-old kid made of rich little white guys who wanted him to hold on to their wrists, and decided to ask.P
I caught up with Mike Tyson a month or two later in Catskill, New York. It was two months before the fight with Bonecrusher Smith, his first day in the gym since taking the title from Berbick.P
The gym had once been an auditorium, and Tyson was undressing in a room off to one side of the stage. Jeans, a sweat shirt, tennis shoes. I think there was an American flag in the corner. One of the truly horrifying things about Tyson is that in loose clothes, he looks pudgy, like somebody you might pick on in a bar. Alright, that is not exactly all of it.P
What is horrifying is the similarity to the movie Alien, in which Sigourney Weaver and a bunch of ordinary guys are sitting around having lunch in space when all of a sudden, one of them goes into convulsions and this awful thing eats its way out of his chest and leaves him lying there in his plate. I mean, you’re just naturally terrified to find out somebody you might know has something like that inside. P
And there is something like that inside Tyson, and he isn’t the one who gets eaten.P
Anyway, thoughts of pudginess disappear as he takes off his shirt. He is not the most muscular heavyweight I have seen, but there has never been another, at least to my knowledge, who carried as much muscle and could fight as long without seeming to tire. A lot of that is conditioning, of course, but a lot of it is simply a gift, like speed or natural power.P
Tyson covers his chest and arms in grease and then slips into a black leotard. “I like this,” he said. “It feels good.”P
I ask him then, while he’s tying his boots, what it’s like to grow up in the streets, get saved by Cus D’Amato and turned into a professional fighter, fight all the way to the top and knock out Trevor Berbick in two rounds for the title and then have Dick Cavett get up on national television and ask you to hold his wrists. P
“That didn’t bother me much,” he said in that familiar soft voice. “I think they must pay him to act like that; I don’t know why. There’s always somebody wanting to tell you something about a fight they had—might go back to sixth grade. I don’t pay too much attention. Or they tell you how bad they were, but their mother made them stop boxing. I don’t know what to say to somebody like that. I don’t even know for sure what they want.P
“I’m a serious person, but I don’t take this for more than it is. I like the fights themselves; I love that moment before it starts when you’re scared and excited and you know it’s time. The talk doesn’t mean much. I’m not going to tell anybody how bad I am; I’ll do that in the ring.P
“And when I’m through in the ring, that’s it. I’ll find something else. You’ve got such a short time. You can’t go around being the legendary champion because that’s what people expect you to be.” P
That is one of the things that bother Tyson about his celebrity—the obligations to people he does not know. “Society puts these things on you,” he said. “Some of them are saying you are insensitive to be part of this brutality; they don’t know the first thing about who you are. At the same time, here are all these articulate people they look up to, sitting in the best seats at the fight. What about that?P
“I do not see that I’ve got to be the focus of a bunch of bullshit. I do what I do. You’ll never hear anybody leaving this camp thinking anything bad about me. I don’t try to hurt anybody in the gym; I leave the 16-ounce gloves on, even if somebody else is wearing 12s. I will always put myself at the disadvantage; that’s when you learn. P
“I have my fights, and people say things about them. About me. But you can’t confuse that with what I am and what I do. Fighting is all I do, but I’m something else besides the fighter.”P
And somehow, that is at the core of things. Think of the heavyweights over the past 30 years. Patterson, who hid behind beards and sunglasses after Liston beat him, and never really quit hiding. Liston, dead from an overdose, probably murdered. Muhammad Ali, the best and the brightest, fogged in and showing up from time to time with Evil Knievel. Joe Frazier, who never learned to live with his losses to Ali, sending his own kids into the ring with Larry Holmes and then with Tyson, when the kid had no chance. Holmes, who has never learned to live on the same planet as Ali, and, assuming his comeback fight with Tyson comes off, never learned from him, either. Leon Spinks.P
All of them out of place in the world, because after the ring they had no place.P
A few minutes later, Tyson is in the ring. The fighter with him is a new sparring partner, who has come in with his trainer. I do not know exactly what the fighter and his trainer have in mind for the afternoon, but as soon as they see that Tyson spars without headgear, the sparring partner removes his.P
He begins the round moving to his left, away from Tyson’s hook, throwing jabs. There is some feeling that Tyson is vulnerable to a fighter who moves and can jab, and the sparring partner is clearly here to take some rounds from the champion. P
Fifteen seconds into the round, however, Tyson throws a jab of his own—it is not a slow punch, but it carries all his weight—and staggers the sparring partner. The sparring partner is shocked; I am shocked. Tyson isn’t supposed to have a jab.P
The first fighter who took Tyson the distance, in fact, was a man named Quick Tillis, and Tyson went 10 rounds that night without throwing any jabs that I remember. If he had thrown jabs, Tillis would not have been there at the end.P
The hand is gone from the sparring partner’s face less than half a second when it returns from the side—a hook, and then a right hand. A minute and a half into the round, the new sparring partner is holding his head, defenseless, and Tyson, not wanting to embarrass him, pulls his punches and holds, giving him time to recover; but the new sparring partner has lost interest, and Tyson stops altogether.P
For the ten or 15 seconds it takes the sparring partner to get through the ropes, Tyson ignores him. It is exactly as if he wasn’t there.P
Another sparring partner comes into the ring, a good-natured journeyman heavyweight named Irish Mike Jameson, who goes the rest of that round and two more. Jameson is not quick enough, but he takes a punch well and is not afraid to mix it up.P
He is the kind of fighter who makes Tyson look unbeatable, which right now he may be. No one in the division boxes well enough to keep him off—witness Tyrell Biggs—no one with enough power and speed to stand in one spot and trade.P
Three times in Tyson’s career—against Quick Tillis, Mitch Green and Bonecrusher Smith—he has been taken to a decision, but each of those opponents gave up on winning early (if any considered winning) and held on to Tyson for the entire fight.P
You cannot win like that, of course, but you get to live.P
At least for now. It would seem to be only a matter of time before Tyson reacts better to holding, giving up some of the powerful arc punches for shorter, straighter jabs and rights. It is a harder proposition to hold on to someone who is three feet away, on the other side of the fist, than it is to hold someone who is standing under your chin, trying to reach your head with off-angle hooks. But I’m going to leave that end of things to Tyson and Rooney.P
What I am more interested in is what happens after that.P
Tyson is still a kid.P
He seems to know things that 21-year-old kids shouldn’t know, and some of that—most of it—comes from Cus D’Amato.P
In the end, though, you drive your own wagon. When the training and the fighting are over, when things are not clean-cut, the way they are in the ring, and the old man’s words are not so fresh, it will be easier to talk about who Tyson is. I know this much about it—there will be something to talk about.P
Tyson is smart; he feels things; he has standards.P
D’Amato did not teach that; he helped him find it.P
The old man was a visionary, and it did not begin or end with boxing. When he saw Tyson, I think he saw the rarest kind of heavyweight there is:P
The one who would not break his heart.P
[Photo Credit: Richard Harbus/Corbis]
Over at Esquire, Chris Jones has a long piece on Hugh Hefner:
Playboy will survive, at least as a company, as a business proposition, as a brand owned and managed by private-equity firm Rizvi Traverse Management. The white rabbit will still be on T-shirts in the Czech Republic and beer bottles in Brazil. The magazine will probably continue to exist in some shape or form, profitably perhaps only in countries like Mongolia, like Thailand, where it still means the things that it doesn’t mean here anymore. There are still places in the world where Playboy represents change, not changelessness. Cooper Hefner might succeed in becoming the company’s new face, which will look so much like the old face that it will take a moment to remember that the party, this particular party, will be over. It’s not just this universe that will collapse when it loses its center. It’s not only these bizarre, beautiful, damaged, openhearted people who will be left homeless, who will be cast adrift absent the anchors of Manly Night and Mexican Train. All of us will lose something. Hugh Hefner is no longer ahead of his time; time has caught up with him. And you can feel, late at night, when the Mansion is quiet, that this place is already a museum, and it isn’t hard to imagine those tourists in the van at the bottom of the driveway lining up for their tickets to Heaven on Earth and being allowed through that gate, and they will look at these rooms, at the bed with its black satin sheets, at all that dusty underwear hanging from the chandelier, and they will smile and shake their heads in wonder. But Playboy, at its best, wasn’t just an artifact of its time. It helped make us who we are. Yes, Hefner’s magazine was a Rorschach test. It was also a stick in your eye. “It had lightning bolts coming out of it,” Jimmy Jellinek says. For sixty years, Playboy has been on the right side of history — on sex, birth control, civil rights, AIDS, gay marriage, war, social tolerance, personal liberty — while also serving as a vehicle for that history. But it wasn’t Playboy, really. It wasn’t the brand or the rabbit. It was him. It is him. And without him, it will be no more.
That’s not a very nice thing to think about. Why even think about it? It’s better to stay here, fixed in time and space, and to escape into another movie, into another Movie Night in a lifetime of Movie Nights. In the interest of time, Hefner dispenses with his usual introductory speech, which he normally reads from notes written by his friend Dick Bann. This further departure from routine is also regarded solemnly, but soon the room rallies, and Hefner receives his customary round of applause all the same. Then the lights go out. The movie starts. Here is our host, only a little behind schedule, with his wife at his side, and his brother behind him, and his friends all around him. Hefner pulls up his blanket closer to his chin, making sure he’s sharing it with Crystal, making sure she’s comfortable and enjoying her piece of cake. Then he sinks back into his favorite spot on the couch, and all things are possible. The place feels warm, and it smells like popcorn.
[Featured Image by Danielh85]
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]
It’s hard to believe that Dick Schaap died over ten years ago. For sports fans of my generation we knew him as a constant, reassuring presence in a world of TV hype–bright, even-handed, moral, with a wry sense of humor.
Before he moved to television, however, Schaap was an accomplished writer. Here’s a glimpse of his talent, a remembrance of Lenny Bruce which originally appeared in Playboy (1966) and is reprinted here with permission from Schaap’s widow, Trish.
“The End of Lenny Bruce”
By Dick Schaap
Lenny Bruce fell off a toilet seat with a needle in his arm and he crashed to a tiled floor and died. And the police came and harassed him in death as in life. Two at a time, they let photographers from newspapers and magazines and television stations step right up and take their pictures of Lenny Bruce lying dead on the tiled floor. It was a terrible thing for the cops to do. Lenny hated to pose for pictures.
The truth is what is, not what should be. What should be is a dirty lie.
Lenny was a very sick comedian when he died. He had grown to more than 200 pounds, with an enormous belly, fattened by candy bars and Cokes, and his mind was fat, too, with visions of writs and reversals and certificates of reasonable doubt. But he wasn’t a junkie. He wasn’t strung out. He just wanted, on August 3, 1966, a taste of stuff. It was his last supper.
You really believe in segregation? You’ll fight for it to the death? OK. Here’s your choice: You can marry a white, white woman or a black, black woman. The white, white woman is Kate Smith. And the black, black woman is Lena Horne. Now make your choice.
He was funny, frighteningly funny, with the kind of humor that could create instant laughter and instant thought, that could cut to the core of every hypocrisy. He was a wit and he was a philosopher.
C’mon, Lenny, said the television producer, be a man. Sell out.
He never sold out, not even to his friends. He thought that the petition circulated in his support, signed by Reinhold Niebuhr and Elizabeth Taylor and almost everyone in between—Lenny could have done something with that image—was ridiculous. He wanted nothing to do with it. He didn’t want to be a cause, a symbol of free speech. He had heard the clanging of too many false symbols. He simply believed he had the right to talk in night clubs the way corporation vice-presidents talk in their living rooms and their board rooms.
Suppose it’s three o’clock in the morning…. I meet a girl … I can’t say to her, “Would you come to my hotel?” … The next day at two in the afternoon, when the Kiwanis Club meets there, then “hotel” is clean. But at three o’clock in the morning …
The idea of a memorial service for Lenny Bruce would have, at best, appalled him. His friends knew this, but they held the memorial, anyway; it was held, as memorials are, for the benefit of the living. It was held for people who suspected they were alone until, maybe six, seven years ago, before Mississippi marches and draft-card barbecues, Lenny bound them all together.
Paul Krassner, who still wants to grow up to be Lenny Bruce, despite the implied life expectancy, conducted the memorial, and Lenny’s kind of people—kikes, spades, fags and other fortunates, perhaps 1000 strong—jammed New York’s Judson Memorial Church. One young man wore a blue sweat shirt with a single word emblazoned on it: GRASS. There were babies in arms, and a girl on crutches, and even a few people who actually knew Lenny. Cardinal Spellman did not attend.
Allen Ginsberg and the poet’s companion, Peter Orlovsky, sang a Hindu funeral chant, a fitting hymn to a Jew in a Protestant church. And then a young man wearing bright green pants and waving a tall American flag leaped to the stage, sort of a beat Billy Graham. None of the organizers of the memorial had arranged his appearance; Lenny must have sent him. His name was Nathan John Ross, a proper flag-waving name, and he had wild sideburns with eyes to match. “You will pay the dues,” intoned Nathan John Ross. “God will not be mocked.” Of course he will. God, obviously, has a sense of humor, sometimes even a slightly sick sense of humor.
Allan Garfield, an actor and poet, followed the flag act, and he told how he once sought to use Lenny’s act as an aphrodisiac. His strategy worked, partly. The only slip was that the date he brought to the night club left with Lenny.
“… I don’t make it with anybody …”
“How come you don’t make it with anybody?”
“I don’t like to talk about it.”
“You can tell me. I like to hear other people’s problems.”
“All right. It’s the way I’m built. I’m abnormally large.”
The Fugs came on. They are a rock ‘n’ roll group named after Norman Mailer’s most famous typographical euphemism, and the words to their songs were, for the most part, unintelligible. Their patter, unhappily, was not. They made jokes about pocket pool and sniffing armpits, the kind of jokes Lenny always found obscenely obvious.
Ginsberg read one of his poems, urging his disciples to “be kind to the universe of self,” and Nathan John Ross tried to top him with an impromptu cry, “I will be done and was done,” which, offhand, sounded logical enough.
Then Krassner quoted a song by Lenny that ended something like, “The hole in the ground is the end,” which triggered Nathan John Ross once more. “If I thought the hole was the last stop,” said good old reliable Nathan, “I wouldn’t bother getting up in the morning.”
“May your alarm clock never ring again,” suggested Tony Scott, the jazz clarinetist. Scott’s trio played hot blues, setting off thunderous applause and a few “Bravos!” courtesy of the male dancers in the congregatjon. Krassner thanked the jazzmen, called them “The Holy Trinity,” then remembered himself and mumbled, “Nothing personal,” to Nathan John Ross.
“I’ve got a Bible,” shouted Nate Ross. “Why don’t we say a prayer?”
“OK,” Krassner agreed. “A silent prayer.”
The Reverend Howard Moody minister of the Judson Memorial Church, the final speaker, talked about three of Lenny Bruce’s most notable characteristics: “His destructiveness, his unbearable moralism, his unstinting pigheadedness.”
Lenny Bruce, said the minister, “exorcized the demons that plagued the body of the sick society … He led a crusade in semantics … May God forgive all those who acquiesced in the deprivation of his livelihood.”
The Reverend Alvin Carmines, assistant minister of the Judson Church, concluded the service with a song, stressing the refrain, “I have to live with my own truth, whether you like it or not, whether you like it or not.”
“To the Jew first, then the Greek, then the gentile,” yelled Nathan John Ross to the departing mourners. None of the gentiles in the congregation seemed offended by the low billing.
One last four-letter word for Lenny.
While we’re at it, please enjoy this sampler of some of Lenny’s most famous routines: