A Fan's Lament
Y.A. Tittle, one of the great players of the old NFL who signaled the new game that was rapidly evolving and a part of three consecutive Eastern conference title winners for the New York Giants, died this week at the age of 90. This photograph of Tittle is one of the greatest and among the most heartbreaking ever taken during a football game. Tittle is on his knees, helmet knocked off, likely dazed from a concussion, feeling the effects of a broken sternum and at the end of his career – he knew it, and everyone who’s seen the photo knows it.
Its power is haunting. Students of the game and its older fans know why Tittle is kneeling there and they know why his helmet is off. Some know who he was playing and at what moment in his career is captured, yet for people who don’t know Y.A. Tittle from T.S. Eliot and have never seen this photograph before, these people still know something ranging between sad and tragic has been captured by the photographer, Morris Berman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The photograph didn’t even run in the Monday paper, and only picked up steam after Berman entered it in a contest and it slowly made its way to the pages of Life Magazine and ultimate, to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio (click the link for the full, fascinating story of the photo).
It is usually baseball that gets the good historical American sports photos – Babe Ruth leaning on his bat at he takes a final bow at Yankee Stadium and Lou Gherig, also at Yankee Stadium, standing at home plate with his hat off, his head bowed and a hand scratching the back of his head, giving the greatest speech ever delivered by an athlete, bring chills.
Even the action shots have a tranquility about them – Willie Mays’ over-the-shoulder catch, captured from what feels like fourteen blocks away, is pure art.
There is no greater peaceful human spectacle than the Olympics, which every two years give us a feast of human emotion. As the opening monologue of ABC's Wide World of Sports used to say, "the thrill of victory..."
"...and the agony of defeat..."
Football, of American sports, remains its most photogenic – the uniforms, the gear, the mud, the blood, the sweat, the grace, the violence and the pure athleticism make for a beautiful composition be it in color or not. My love of the game was fostered as much by the beautiful photographs that were common in the once-great Sports Illustrated as they were by watching the actual games. Photographs of American football at any level are its best propaganda – whether it’s a Super Bowl or a Pop Warner game played in the rain, the game is visually compelling and made even moreseo by anyone with a shutter and an eye. Once asked by a reporter why the streets in movies at night are always wet, an Oscar-winning cinematographer remarked, “You want to make the shot less interesting? Don’t wet the streets.” Football is interesting wet or dry, but there’s something about it being played in the mud and, even better, the snow that makes it magical.
It is not pastoral like baseball nor is it dynamic in the manner of soccer and basketball. Of sports played on a field, it is the most tactical – football (gridder), rugby (league or union) and soccer (football) are as closely related as brothers yet as different as a hog, a rat and a bird, three animals that, respectively, encompass each sport quite well. George Will, possibly America’s best-known baseball fan who wears a bow tie, hates football – his clever description is that it combines two of the worst tendencies of American life, violence and committee meetings.
Football is described as a game of inches, but that falls well short, as life is a game of inches multiplied by seconds. Its common unit is the yard but the only statistic that matters to anyone who plays it professionally is if they won a title, and if they did, how many. Individual records are kept and they are important to the Hall and to the fans, but unlike baseball fans, football fans do not care about personal records if the wins don’t back them up – they’re called garbage-time stats for a reason.
I played, and twenty-four years later, I do not regret for a moment never playing another snap once I stopped. In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace writes that tennis (which he was excellent at and passionate about) is actually a combination of boxing and chess. My adoption of this spirit applied to football is such: it is beautiful planning ruined by human imperfection and chaos. Entire seasons have been dominated by one team’s ability to execute one or two plays – to the layman it is complex, but it need not be so. Oklahoma State University’s high-powered offense this year runs, by Coach Gundy’s estimation, a variation on 14 plays. If I were an offensive coordinator, my offense would run nine basic plays out of four basic formations. A tackle and a guard who can open a hole, a tight end who can pick up a linebacker and a running back who can follow those blocks can defeat any defensive scheme known to man – easier said than done, though.
At the same rate, all the preparation in the world cannot account for the gods interfering in the game. As my high school coach put it, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” The most famous of NFL and college plays involve a lethal combination of luck and talent, and woe be to the competitor who is the wrong side of that equation (see also: 2007 New England Patriots, 18-1, “the helmet catch”).
For four generations, football offered a way for young men not yet military age to exorcise their demons and exercise their bodies. Basketball and soccer players run far more over the course of a game, but football players run at full speed, down after down, and the running often ends in violence. The violence is the draw for many who play it, and not all of them are thugs, for I was one of them drawn to the violence, and I was not a thug. I am of the middle class and was always more of a smart guy than a jock guy, but I was an aggressive, ruthless hitter with a soft set of hands and a bizarre competency for deep-snapping. There are thousands of guys just like me every single year who can’t wait for August practices which lead the way to September games and, occasionally, glory in the early days of December.
We had exercises with names like Oklahoma drill and Bull in the Ring, sadistic, controlled-chaos games overseen by coaches who’d played the game 10 or 20 years prior and who knew and sometimes didn’t just how far they could push players. We had two-a-day practices in the August heat on practice fields that barely had grass and not even the most die-hard dads were out there watching. I was tough, but not specially so, and I vomited, bled, cried and cursed my way though an incalculable number of hideous practices with men I hated in the moment screaming epithets at me about being the literal dumbest damn smart kid – as Varsity Blues so aptly showed, there’s one on every team.
In 2010, Auburn beat Alabama in the so-called Iron Bowl, among the nastiest rivalries of any sport at any level in America. Cam Newton was the quarterback for Auburn and he played sensationally. After the game, an Auburn fan put a Newton jersey on the statue of Bear Bryant, a godhead in Alabama and college football in general.
This did not go over well. A former Alabama State Trooper, Crimson Tide fan and modern-day Abimelech named Harvey Updyke took matters into his own hands, traveling to Toomer’s Corner at Auburn the following weekend and poisoning the ground around the famous oaks more than a century old with Spike 80DF, an herbicide used to kill trees. Updyke then called into Paul Finebaum’s (then) regional football show and alerted Tiger nation that he had poisoned their beloved trees with 80DF before signing off with “Roll Damn Tide.” Shortly thereafter, a horticulture professor from Auburn called in and said if true, the trees were as good as dead.
The fallout from this was typically southern. Updyke would end up spending six months in jail and, seven years later, remains unapologetic about his curiously vile action, at last count having paid $99 of his $800,000 court-levied fine.
Relevant here, attempts to regrow trees at Toomers Corner continue to fail. Updyke so thoroughly poisoned the ground and attempts to foster new trees there have failed, and Updyke’s “success” was so great that he poisoned the groundwater, thus getting the attention of the FBI for a possible act of terrorism.
Thus, an apt metaphor for the NFL, a League that is dead but doesn’t quite know it just yet.
The NFL is committing suicide and it’s a strange thing to behold. The world does not need another hot-take about players taking a knee or protesting in other ways during the national anthem, and I won’t be providing one – my lone comment on the anthem is to say that standing for the anthem is historically, traditionally and civically apolitical, it’s not something that just conservatives or just liberals do, it’s something all Americans have done together for a very long time. This too shall pass.
Football lore has always been in my head, a place of wonder and awe. I’ve spent far more of my time actually playing basketball and since I first started casually watching soccer in 1999, I’ve watched far more of that game than I’ve watched of football and I’m not shy about saying I enjoy soccer far more than I enjoy American football. The game flows better, and while the NFL has made dozens of rule changes over the last 20 years, FIFA has made none regarding the play of the game.
My first memory of watching sports was The Catch, Montana-to-Clark in the 1981 NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park (my paternal aunt was at that game, a fanatical 49ers supporter) against the Cowboys. Growing up in southern Oklahoma, college football was a much bigger deal, especially since this was the peak of the Barry Switzer era at Oklahoma, but I was always drawn more to the NFL and the New York Giants, specifically, I can remember each of the Giants’ four Super Bowl wins (and their lone SB loss) like it was yesterday. But this isn’t about the Giants.
The NFL has cheapened itself and allowed other to cheapen it. I don’t know how much there is to CTE (concussions), but I firmly believe that tackle football is no less safe than soccer, and I have a folder with a thousand gruesome injuries in soccer matches at all levels that prove me anecdotally correct. If I had a son I’d prefer him play soccer because I prefer watching it, but I wouldn’t think twice if he wanted to play football. If the League were serious about player safety, they’d outlaw shoulder pads and plastic helmets tomorrow, return to leather helmets (or update them to nylon filled with sand or some other such contraption), no facemasks and minimal pads, and their concussion problem – real and imagined – would stop at once.
A major problem in the NFL is a microcosm of a major problem in our nation in the early 20th century: we no longer take people we disagree with on good faith, and you have to actively take people on good faith if you want to keep a civil society - I do, but I have the gnawing suspicion that a very loud minority of people do not.
It has ruined the NFL, and like Harvey Updyke's action at Toomer's Corner, it is not only going to destroy something that was once beloved by a vast swath of the nation, it's going to do so in such a manner that nothing realistically will ever be able to grow to replace it.
The photo of the soccer player taken through the net is of Colombia's Andres Escobar on June 23, 1994. Colombia were playing USA in a World Cup group match in Pasadena and early in the first half, Escobar moved to deflect a ball away from goal and accidentally scored an own goal - this photograph captures his immediate reaction. Escobar was murdered a week later in Medellin, shot twelve times by three men for his accident. The incident, along with the Colombian cartels funding of the nation's soccer passions, is the subject of the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary "The Two Escobars." You can read the July 2, 1994 story from The Independent about Escobar's murder here.