A new anthology offers a selection of writing about American football, from the odes of Grantland Rice to the current discussion of brain disease in former players. For reviewer Miles Wray, the collection raises questions about what is overlooked when we celebrate the sport’s golden age.
Here is a hypothetical scenario that I nonetheless believe with religious fervor: Were an NFL team of 2014 somehow transported back through time to play a team of decades past, even the worst team in the league today would level the champions of previous generations in a resounding blowout.
It’s nothing against the players of yore. It’s just that they played during a time when they had to spend their off-seasons selling insurance or laying bricks. Now, players are compensated luxuriously, and they can focus the entire year on maintaining their bodies, which they do. The jolly, beer-chugging player of the 1950s or 60s could use training camp to play into shape, while today’s player must be in peak condition on Day One, or he will not be employed by camp’s end. The competitive advantages accumulate like a downhill snowball from there, I believe.
I seem to be in the minority in thinking that a time-machine game would shake out this way. Across the dozens of articles collected by John Schulian in the Library of America anthology Football: Great Writing About the National Sport, both the various writers and the players they interview are convinced that each successive generation of football players has lost the previous era’s luster.
The thing about it is: these men seem incapable of appreciating the golden days without passive-aggressively condemning the contemporary game.
For instance, Schulian includes his own profile of Chuck Bednarik, “Concrete Charlie,” who played both offense and defense for the Philadelphia Eagles from the late 1940s to the early 60s. Not only are we assured that Bednarik is “the kind of player they don’t make anymore,” but the article makes a large tangential loop in order to call quarterback Drew Bledsoe (the hot rookie of the day) “snot-nosed.” Bizarrely, historically versatile athletes Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, who toggled back and forth between the NFL and Major League Baseball, aren’t mentioned in this article, or anywhere else in the entire anthology.
Among the many pieces in this book that celebrate football of the way, way back, a few themes begin to reveal themselves. In profiles of the players of yesteryear, we are given extended descriptions of the elders’ physiques as they are hoisted on a pedestal. For instance, Arthur Kretchmer on Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus: “He has the widest shoulders on earth. His name seems too small for him; they entire alphabet could be printed on the back of his uniform and there’d be room left over.” While no one is doubting Butkus’ skill, his listed size of 6-foot-3, 245 pounds makes him just a few pounds heavier than plenty of current players who patrol the defensive secondary – a position that requires speed more than size. Today, the description of Butkus feels a lot more like airy exaggeration than awe-inspiring.
But there is another, less flattering theme that slowly reveals itself as one moves through exultant profiles of Butkus, Bednarik, Joe Namath, Pat Summerall, Johnny Unitas, Y.A. Tittle, Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry, Bear Bryant. This sport, as presented in the anthology, is a heck of a lot paler than any football game I’ve ever seen.
I count five articles in the book, out of 44, about individual black football players (with a sixth about Grambling State, the small-town, all-black college football powerhouse). Two of those pieces, on Gale Sayers and Kellen Winslow Sr., revel in the artistry and dominance of those players in their primes. The other three pieces on individual black players take off the sepia-shaded glasses used so frequently to revel in the past and instead appraise the players in their sobering present: Joey Browner’s body creaks and aches as he gets out of bed after game days; Dave Duerson’s brain, battered from his long professional career, leads him down a steep and dark slope to his own suicide; Rae Carruth is found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Even Ira Berkow’s piece titled “The Minority Quarterback” is not about NFL stars like Warren Moon or Daunte Culpepper or Cam Newton, but rather about a white quarterback who starts at mostly black Southern University.
Not that any of these chapters are, on their own individual merit, unworthy of being anthologized. It’s just that, assembled together as they have been, the image they present of the history of football is so cropped and airbrushed as to be unrecognizable. (Even the book’s cover, featuring the iconic shot of San Francisco receiver Dwight Clark making his catch to win the 1982 NFC Championship, looks less and less like just a great piece of photography as the chapters roll on.) Black players are not just sporadic interlopers in the background of football’s history. As has been the case for a few decades now, black players are the game of football. It is their discipline, expertise, and talent that we spend the whole week urgently waiting to see on the weekends. Any history that doesn’t acknowledge this is simply incomplete.
The essays I enjoyed most were the ones that stepped away from the bloated myth-making. As a writer-turned-practice squad quarterback with the 1963 Detroit Lions, George Plimpton has no time to discern between black and white – or up and down – as he loses gobs of yardage in every possible way during an intra-squad scrimmage. When Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball and The Blind Side) profiles longtime placekicker Adam Vinatieri, who is white, he does so in full knowledge that kicking and kickers occupy some seriously eccentric territory within football culture. Nobody is being put on a pedestal here: Vinatieri is described as looking like “a high school history teacher who still jogs every day around the school track.” One of his more interesting skills on the football field is being able to tell, without looking at a clock, whether the snap-to-kick process took a rushed 1.25 seconds instead of the desired 1.3.
Probably my favorite piece is Wright Thompson’s heartfelt ode to the start of football season, as observed from his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Reading the following made me want to substitute my relatively football-less childhood in greater Los Angeles with this communal experience from the heart of SEC territory:
The entire South is about ready to explode as summer ends and autumn begins. Football’s coming. The preseason magazines appear. Wallet-sized schedules materialize on gas station counters. Meals out are eaten over the soundtrack of folks predicting wins and losses – and not just sports fans with fantasy teams and chicken wing sauce on their chins. No, grandmothers in Chanel and pearls get worked up – I mean fired up, brother – about beating LSU.
Personally, I would rather revel in this type of ecstatic present than grouse about how much better the olden generations were. Thompson’s celebration of football sounds like the sort of thing that binds communities together, instead of separating towns into right and wrong sides of the railroad tracks.
As flawed as today’s game is, at least the cultural forces and biased personalities that kept early football so doggone white no longer have influence. I find little to celebrate about old-time football, just as I don’t yearn for baseball to revert back to the eve of Jackie Robinson’s arrival. It’s not like every relic got to be that way on accident.
Library of America, 2014. 484 pp. ISBN: 9781598533071