In light of the increasing attention to brain injuries in football, we offer this look at one man’s love of the sport.
“Seasons of Violence, Seasons of Grace”*
By Stephen K. Bauer
Some loves can’t easily be explained. My childhood passions for fishing and tennis have faded or withered away. Though they have been revived to some extent through my kids, they are largely relics. But my love of football is different. I sometimes wish I felt differently, but I fell for football young and stayed that way; it’s a love that still burns brightly through the years.
The first fields I played on were small, studded with hazards. At my dad and stepmom’s house in Minneapolis, a tree stood at one goal line, and part of a sideline was formed by brick steps. On winter afternoons, padded in snowsuits, we played two or three to a team. We kept the plays simple, each offense grinding its way forward. Later, when I was 11 or 12, during most visits to Minneapolis I played with my stepbrothers and their friends in a triangular island bordered by the close-rushing traffic of Franklin Avenue. Further north in Superior, Wisconsin, where I’d moved with my Mom and stepdad Ray, I played in a park across the street on a field surrounded by embankments. (In winter, the depression at the center was filled for ice-skating.) A telephone pole marked one goal line, and we designed plays to run a defender into the pole, or at least cause him to slow down while dodging it so the receiver could break free. My friend Duane, who could seemingly recover from anything, was sidelined only briefly by striking his head on the sidewalk after a late hit at the back of the end zone.
I remember the solid knock of Duane’s head against cement, but I don’t recall if it was that injury or another that prompted us to seek freer expanses. From the time I was 13 or 14, we played our pick-up games on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior, on the same fields where I had served as waterboy for the college team, the Yellowjackets. In Madison, too, I played on fields with plenty of room to run. By college, the games were co-ed and I had stopped playing tackle football in favor of the “touch” variety.
While in Junior High, I churned through biographies of football players, but found myself less interested in those players who were spotted early, the “golden boys” who excelled in high school and college on a fast track to stardom. Underdogs earned a larger share of my sympathy and admiration.
Dick “Night Train” Lane, the son of a prostitute whose name I haven’t seen recorded and a pimp known as Texas Slim, was rescued from a dumpster at the age of three months and raised by a widow who had several kids already. After serving in the Army and playing Junior College football, he worked at an airplane factory but tired of the job. In 1952, he walked on to the training camp of the Los Angeles Rams, undrafted and uninvited, and managed to make the team. In his first season, he had fourteen interceptions, a record that still stands. When a newspaper column referred to him as “Night Train,” Lane, an African-American, initially disliked the moniker, feeling it had “racial overtones.” He accepted the nickname, though, upon realizing it added to his fame. The derivation of “Night Train” is not clear-cut. One source has it that a teammate, Tom Frears, was playing the jazz hit “Night Train” and that another teammate, listening to the record with Frears and Lane, pointed to the latter and said, “There’s Night Train.” Another source claims the nickname sprang from Lane’s habit of traveling apart from the rest of the team: owing to his fear of flying he took a Friday night train to the site of a Sunday game.
Tapes of Lane capture his vicious tackles; nowadays he would be labeled a “headhunter.” In fact, his predilection for catching a receiver up high with a swinging forearm and dropping him like a lead weight became known as the “Night Train Necktie.” The NFL changed its rules, trying to protect the player being tackled, in response to Lane’s devastating hits.
As a boy, I identified with the anger of those hits. I listed to myself the disadvantages and slights Lane absorbed: he was abandoned (his cries, issuing from the dumpster, were first mistaken for those of a cat), then starred at Junior College but went unnoticed by the pros, then made the Rams when African Americans rarely had the chance to play. No wonder he tried to knock out opponents; I saw his life as one long fight from which he emerged victorious.
I viewed the portraits of “Night Train” Lane and Fran Tarkenton (“The Georgia Peach”) and “Broadway Joe” Namath from a single angle of heroic pursuit, and if I’d known then that Lane’s union with the jazz singer Dinah Washington was one of her eight marriages, or that Tarkenton was accused of fraud in his later business career, or that Namath acted boorishly toward a woman reporter on national TV, these revelations would have barely altered my narratives. And even now, I can set much aside. Far from holding the athletes to a higher standard, or idolizing them as I once did, I nonetheless strive to maintain my appreciation for their grace and strength and perseverance on the field of play.
I have sunshot memories of playing football in Madison during college. As I thought of it then, all of those with me in the huddle were beset by problems: one was hung over and just gaining an inkling, long after the rest of us, that he needed to stop drinking; one was struggling in his mid-30s to finish college; two were on the outs with each other, and I’d heard they had talked through most of the night until, I imagined, surrendering to troubled dreams, only to find themselves awkwardly paired on the same team this afternoon; and I could continue around the huddle, putting myself on the list too, with my sorrow over the divorce of my mom and Ray. But all of us, I believed, set aside our cares for a couple of hours on this green field on the shore of Lake Mendota.
When I played quarterback, there were some receivers I connected with particularly well; strangely, these connections had little to do with how we got along away from the game. I haven’t spoken to Liz Polcari in decades, and even when we traveled in the same circle (Liz was the girlfriend of a close friend) we rarely spoke for long, but on the field we had a great sense of each other. Once, on a mild fall afternoon, I was being chased by a defender, scrambling behind the line of scrimmage to get a pass off rather than throwing the ball away or taking a big loss. My other receivers were well covered and not improvising to find open space, but Liz read the situation and broke off from her route to give me a lane for throwing. Running hard, just a step behind her defender, she raised her left arm in encouragement and I floated a pass beyond her. She raced under it and gathered it in. I caught up to her in the end zone, after she’d scored a touchdown, and though she was fighting for air, bent forward at the waist, she smiled broadly at the sight of me.
Though more than thirty years have passed, I still sometimes replay sequences like that in my mind. I doubt Liz ever thought of that play again—the ball spiraling toward her, the reach of her fingertips, that perfectly-timed connection—but it mattered to me then, and still does.
Concussions in football are nothing new. As a boy, I read about the vicious hit delivered by Chuck Bednarik in the 1961 title game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants. Studying the famous photograph of Bednarik standing triumphantly over the unconscious form of Frank Gifford, I felt deep satisfaction on behalf of both men, figuring that Bednarik won that particular battle, true enough, but Gifford had given it his all. The severe head injury caused Gifford to miss a full season, but he later returned to star for the Giants once more.
In spite of rule changes meant to protect players, and improvements in the technology of creating helmets, concussions are still far too commonplace, and if you watch an NFL game—even if you tune in for just a few minutes—you see why. The players are huge and fast; their collisions look and sound brutal. Heads snapped back, or helmets striking knees, all at high velocity. A silence descends on a stadium when a player lies prone on the turf, unmoving, tended to by a circle of medical staff. Then a cheer rises when the player is wheeled on a stretcher toward an ambulance.
The sources of that applause seem complex. There’s support for the injured player, certainly; the applause crescendos if the player manages a wave to the crowd. If he waves, then he may not be seriously hurt, and we’re glad for that, partly for his sake and partly because any guilt or culpability on our part is assuaged. There’s also relief that the unanticipated break is over and the game can go on. After all, we want more of the grace and the hitting. More tension and release. More beer. We appreciate all that the players put on the line, every week. Charles Seifert, who wrote about his nephew’s playing career in “The Hard Life of an NFL Long Shot,” quotes his nephew, Pat Schiller, while they listen to music—comprised of “soaring chords and tribal chants”—that gets Schiller psyched up, shifting into the “lunatic” mode he enters at kickoff time: “(W)hen I’m listening to this, I imagine myself running through a primeval forest somewhere with just a loincloth on and a huge hunting knife in my mouth. I’m really looking to kill something.”
For years, I was aware of watching, for entertainment, men who would grow old before their time, with bad knees and arthritic hips and other ailments. Now it seems much worse, as revealed by recent research and high-profile suicides. Concussions can lead to a degenerative condition of the brain known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. We read accounts of retired football players who spend their lives in darkened rooms, depressed and confused, even showing signs of dementia. Dave Duerson, former defensive back for the Chicago Bears, committed suicide after battling depression. His suicide can be read as an act both of helplessness and generosity, as he left a note requesting that his brain be sent to a Boston University Brain Bank researching CTE, then shot himself in the chest to leave his head intact.
Offensive linesmen receive relatively little recognition. Centers get their due sometimes for their leadership of the line, and left tackles are occasionally highlighted; a recent book by Michael Lewis on the childhood and football career of Michael Oher, entitled Blindsided, explains that left tackles like Oher play the central role of protecting a quarterback’s blind side, shielding him from the hits that leave him most vulnerable to injury. But, taken as a whole, offensive linesmen are under-appreciated.
Without good offensive line play, though, the stars are not afforded time and space to excel. On passing plays, the offensive linesmen sag back as the quarterback sets up to throw downfield. They’re knocked backward and shoved by the charging defensive linesmen. Sometimes their helmets are slapped, or their eyes gouged, but still they need to absorb the punishment and fight to stay on their blocks, giving their quarterback the crucial extra second he needs to find an open receiver. Then, on most running plays, the offensive linesmen become the aggressors. They battle forward, or turn their opponents sideways, so that running backs like Frank Gifford have a seam to burst through. It can be assumed, seeing the girth of the linesmen, that they lack athleticism, until you see a guard sprinting downfield to make another block on a long gainer for the offense. And it may appear that not much thought is required, but strength and speed alone are not enough. The linesmen have to memorize blocking schemes and match them to the play that’s called, a choreography of spacing the field that involves all eleven players. On draws and screens and traps, they use misdirection, or intentionally usher their defensive counterpart through the line, allowing him to run himself out of the play.
The quarterbacks, receivers, and running backs garner the headlines, their personal lives splashed across gossip pages. While the stars make millions in endorsement deals, fans don’t seem to care what shoes offensive linemen wear, what trucks they drive. If offensive linesmen come to the consciousness of the casual fan, it is often because a quarterback has bought them all Rolexes at the conclusion of a season, or because their legendary appetites are mentioned—the receipt of a night out eating BBQ itemized. And if one is singled out during a game, it’s often because he’s been penalized, when a mistake—getting caught grabbing the jersey of a defensive lineman—has cost his team ten yards, often robbing an offensive drive of its momentum.
One offensive linesman who did tell his story was Jerry Kramer, author of Instant Replay. Though I grew up a Minnesota Vikings fan, and Kramer had played guard for the rival Green Bay Packers, I was transfixed by his story of life in the trenches, as it is termed. The Packers didn’t fool anyone when they ran their sweep play during championship seasons in the 60s, but time and time again they overpowered the defense. Kramer “pulled,” running down the line to lead Jim Taylor going wide, and stuck his block on a linebacker, freeing Taylor to turn upfield. They played in mud and rain and ice. More than anything, and in contrast to myself—nursing a sore shoulder or fat lip or dislocated finger with inordinate concern and worrying obsessively about developing appendicitis—I admired Kramer’s toughness. He played through many injuries, and was nicknamed “Zipper” in tribute to his 22 surgeries in 11 years. In one postsurgical photo, he lies in a hospital bed squinting at a jagged piece of wood with a carefree, cocksure expression. It turns out that as an adolescent he was running on his family farm and the splintery end of a plank, pivoting like a see-saw, was jammed violently between his legs, up into his intestines. Only years later did the remnants from that accident start to bother him.
I can draw a line tracing the ways that football has served to lift my spirits during times of anxiety or awkwardness, discomfort or fear. I noted in my diary in 7th grade that for a string of days in General Business class I had to leave the room in a near-panicked state to escape the stifling atmosphere (that we spent several weeks learning to write personal checks surely didn’t help matters). I exhorted myself to be stronger, but what calmed me in the end was to daydream about the Minnesota Vikings or to plot out additions to the “sports collection” in my bedroom. Marked by bright yellow goal posts, the collection took up significant floor space with its stacks of magazines and cards, replica helmets and other knick-knacks, team photos, and prized items like a Joe Namath photo with his signature in black marker and “Peace” scrawled across the bottom. During college, on an afternoon when I was leaving an off-campus program I’d loved to return to a campus whose memory I dreaded, I was riveted by a game televised in the hotel bar, breathing more freely as I watched a receiver being laid out by a cornerback, the ball skittering out of bounds. During college, too, my Dad and I took a break from contentious political discussions by settling before Vikings’ games, and more recently, at Thanksgiving, a friend and I avoided talking further about his impending divorce by heading to the basement to take in whatever game happened to be televised. My mom’s husband lived in a nursing home in the last months of his life, and though he wasn’t a football fan himself, I was interested to see, on a Sunday afternoon, the enthusiasm of residents being wheeled into the rec room to watch the Vikings play. A couple of years ago I was hospitalized for six days for a stomach ailment, and after the second day, upon recovering enough to commence worrying, I struggled to stay patient, to avoid falling prey to loops of anxiety over my neglected work and the strain on my wife and next steps in my treatment. But when Monday Night Football came around, featuring my own New England Patriots against the New York Jets, I was able to forget my concerns. Better yet, I felt energy coursing through me for several hours, felt the same crystalline focus I felt as a kid in a pick-up game, when the first head-clearing tackle of the day brought all my senses to life.
Football involves skill, and in the passing game, for instance, there’s elegance, as well. One of my favorite receivers, a Pittsburgh Steeler who was graceful in dragging his feet inbounds on sideline catches or in leaping high to gather in passes, has the fitting surname of Swann. And Rob Gronkowski, a hulking tight end for the Patriots, recently made a touchdown catch that reminded me of the way massive machinery can be directed with delicacy, a huge crane gripping and carefully lifting a narrow steel band; in a full-out swan dive, Gronkowski stretched to reach the ball with his fingertips, lost his grip, then regained control just before hitting the ground.
But in spite of the beauty I appreciate, there’s no escaping the knowledge that nearlyunbridled aggression and brutal violence are at the heart of the game. The ability to hit with the ferocity of Lane or Bednarik is celebrated and richly rewarded, and the willingness and capacity to absorb such punishment is glorified. Writers and fans expressed outrage when an investigation revealed that the New Orleans Saints offered financial incentives, or “bounties,” to defensive players who injured their opponents or, better yet, knocked them out. I share that revulsion, but wonder if the Saints were only formalizing an accepted code of behavior that’s simply not usually stated so explicitly.
I competed angrily, always trying to the hilt and most often not succeeding, on the baseball diamond and the tennis court and the hockey rink, and on the football field I loved hitting and did not mind being hit in my turn. I could not understand, and still envy, those who compete intensely but with equanimity, who control their emotions even in the heat of the action and end the contest neither obnoxious winners nor sore losers. For me, the exhilaration of playing the games was always tightly tied up with rage.
When I act rashly—shoving a younger cousin on the basketball court just a few years ago after I felt I’d been fouled too often and too hard and seeing his surprised expression as he flew backwards into a fence, or (already in my twenties at this time) telling a receiver to run his man near an obstacle to get free, then watching the defender writhe on the ground after striking the stone monument, then apologizing at the hospital while he awaited x-ray results and being forgiven but not absolving myself, or, twenty years ago but as fresh as yesterday, playing tennis with my uncle, who worked me into a lather by spinning and lobbing and dinking his way to victories until I smashed the ball toward where he stood at the net, a direct hit between the eyes breaking his glasses and bloodying his face, his gallant message as he staggered back to his feet (“I’m all right. I’m all right and I’m not upset!”) hardly reaching me as a shroud of self-loathing descended—the tightness of regret lingers in my head and chest, and I vow to change. And for the most part I have changed; with my kids, on fields and on courts, I’m able to relax to a great extent. My blood can start to quicken, anger still simmering even last Christmas during a pickup football game in Minneapolis, but I counsel myself to breathe and stay calm.
One day in Madison, during my senior year, a couple of inches of snow had already fallen by the time we met for our weekly game, and it was still snowing thickly as we marked corners of the field with scarves and hats and dragged our heels in straightish lines to form the sidelines. Figuring that landings would be cushioned by the snow, we decided that, for once, we would play tackle football rather than touch. This decision immediately set me on edge, though we promised each other to not go full-speed, to not go anywhere near the head, to take it easy on those who were smaller, etc. and etc.
That day there was a new player lining up for the other team, a guy I’d never met, though I’d seen him riding his motorcycle in our neighborhood. He wasn’t particularly big or fast, but he played hard and scrappy from the start, and several times we warned him to tone it down. He simply waved off our admonitions.
Near the end of the game, our offense was driving toward a touchdown but faced fourthand-goal; we either had to score on this play or give up the ball to the other team. Playing quarterback, I took the snap. While everything flowed to the right before me —linesmen, receivers, and defenders—I took a few steps that way to sell the fake, then tucked the ball away and sprinted to the left, toward the corner of the end zone. But the new guy wasn’t buying it.
I was hellbent to score and he was hellbent to stop me. At the end it happened very fast: he went airborne, straight for my head. I could have ceded ground, sliding in the snow and letting him fly over the top of me, or I could have just taken the hit. Instead, with a flash of indignant anger, I ducked low, and in the instant he reached me I came up hard, flipping him over me, trying to inflict pain on him before he inflicted it on me.
He laid face-down in the snow. I began to walk away. I called to my girlfriend tht it was time to go, and kept walking slowly away. Loudly, in a strained voice, I said we had agreed not to play that way. I accused him of trying to take my head off. In a growing rage, I left my friends slowly behind. I should have waited with them; I heard later that my opponent had separated his shoulder, and that he “wasn’t too fond” of me. I know now, and knew even later the same day, that I should have calmed down, remained there until I realized how wrong I’d been, that I’d acted in a way I never did in any other arena and needed to apologize, but I kept walking away.
In A Fan’s Notes, a book by Frederick Exley that’s termed a “fictional memoir,” the protagonist is a fan obsessed by the New York Giants, and particularly by their halfback, Frank Gifford. Early in the book, after ending a dismal teaching week at a high school in Glacial Falls, New York, and decamping to a Watertown tavern to watch the Giants on TV for three hours of drunken, oblivious bliss, the protagonist wonders, “Why did football bring me so to life? I can’t say precisely. Part of it was my feeling that football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it.”
When my family moved to Superior, Wisconsin, and I was striving to grow accustomed to a new home while still just getting used to my new stepfather, I was likely searching for something simple and straightforward, and the practice field where I served as waterboy at the local college, the University of Wisconsin-Superior, seemed analogous to Exley’s “island of directness.”
The coach, Mertz Motorelli, took on three of us as waterboys for the Yellowjackets, and I loved all aspects of the unpaid labor. We needed to arrive to practice when the players did, and while they hung around the locker room, blasting music as they pulled on shoulder pads or had their hands or ankles taped, we filled water jugs, stuffed pennes and footballs into mesh bags, and dragged tackling sleds onto the field. The practice time flew by, as we shagged balls for the kickers, knelt with tongue depressors on rainy days to dislodge mud from the players’ cleats, poured water for backs and receivers after they ran through agility drills, or rode on tackling sleds to create extra weight for the linesmen to slam against and push across the turf. After practice it was left to us to gather laundry into rolling bins and sweep the locker-room floor of tape, Dixie cups, and candy wrappers.
Many players treated us like mascots, or like the kid brothers they’d left behind. During breaks in practice they threw us passes or held the ball as we attempted field goals. In the locker room they gave us bubble gum, teased us relentlessly, and ordered the three of us to stand on a wooden bench learning verses to a song we didn’t understand at age 11, one that began, “Bang bang Rosie, Rosie bangs all day, who’s gonna bang on Rosie when Rosie goes away?” They rubbed our heads before games and, on Homecoming, they broke through a paper banner strung across a corner of the field, thundered toward the spot where Coach Motorelli had indicated we should wait, and lifted us high, carrying us to the sidelines while the crowd cheered.
But, as if all that affection came too easily, we focused on a player who seemed more distant. On a team that was decidedly second-rate (we won a total of two games in the two seasons I was waterboy), Gerry Uchityl stood out. A fleet wide receiver, he would be chucked and held at the line in an effort to slow him down, and double-covered as he ran a pattern, but he still managed to get open, and if a pass was thrown anywhere in his vicinity he could, more often than not, outsmart or outmaneuver or outrun his defenders to catch it. He made All-American in my first year as waterboy, but stayed hungry, always the first on the field for practice and the last to leave, perfecting his routes and catching passes from a second-string quarterback or an assistant coach if no one else was left to throw to him. We wanted to stick by his side, as if close proximity to that excellence might infuse us with more athleticism and grit, but he was inwardlydirected, merely polite. He was apart from all the rest; he even seemed to fit better in his uniform.
For years, well into my twenties, I loved fishing, and killed fish with little feeling. But then, after a gap of some years, I went out again and pulled a 15-pound bluefish from the shallows of Nantucket Sound. My young daughter met me on the brick walkway of our rented vacation cottage, marveling at the fish. But when I started to clean it, and a pool of blood spread beside its severed head, I watched her backing away. I finished the job with jaw clenched, sorry that I had not returned the fish, alive, back into the surf.
As I fell out of love with fishing, so the poet and essayist Donald Hall changed his mind about football. In “The Goalposts of Life,” he traces his path from devoted fan to disgusted observer, referring to the game as “anachronistic, deterministic, masochistic,” “an organized and socially endorsed mob ritual of licensed fury” which he locates “at the dead center of the male American psyche.”
I don’t disagree with a single word of Hall’s essay, and yet I remain a fan. I’m still drawn to the stories, of Johnny Unitas emerging from a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania and struggling to get a break before leading the Baltimore Colts to a championship, staying for hours after practice to perfect his timing with receiver Raymond Berry. Or of another quarterback, Slinging Sammy Baugh: meeting his coach for the first time, he was asked to hit a downfield receiver in the eye, and drawled, “Which eye?” Undoubtedly what I feel for the game carries over from childhood, when I was particularly enamored of narratives involving winners and losers and lay awake at night spinning the radio dial to catch games near or far, whether a North Stars hockey game in the winter or a more-staticky Detroit Tigers baseball game or the early national broadcasts of Monday Night Football.
My enthusiasm remains current, though. While the protagonist of Exley’s A Fan’s Notes may grow a tad overheated, I nonetheless relate to his appreciation for watching an excellent New York Giants team with his buddies from a high perch in the Polo Grounds: “ . . . we had all tried enough times to pass and kick a ball, we had on our separate rock-strewn sandlots taken enough bumps and bruises, to know that we were viewing something truly fine, something that only comes with years of toil, something very like art.”
My love for football has grown more complicated, especially now that the sport is facing a reckoning, with the rules and perhaps even the culture of the game needing to change in response to the growing evidence on head injuries and their aftermath. But if the game’s intensity is tempered, I’m not so sure I’ll care for it anymore.
Each year when the August nights start to cool, I search the basement for a football and head to Payson Park, a few blocks away, with whoever can be cajoled along, throwing post patterns, curls, and square outs. I remember an icy afternoon in Superior, how I managed to stay close to a quick and shifty receiver. The pass came in high and he jumped, barely grazing it with one gloved hand. I bent forward and made the interception with my fingertips just before the ball hit the snow, stumbling and then heading upfield.
And when the Patriots open their season in early September, any mixed feelings are set aside for the moment. I pace before the TV, waiting for the action to begin.
*Appeared in NDQ Vol. 79.2 and used with permission of the author.