What this article is about, nominally: The Sweet Season, written by one Austin Murphy and published by HarperCollins. In 1999 Murphy, a writer for Sports Illustrated, took a sabbatical and moved with his family to Collegeville, Minnesota, where, as his book's subtitle puts it, he rediscovered "football, family, and a bit of faith."
What's in Collegeville for a sportswriter? St. John's University, which has arguably the best Division III football program in the country. The Johnnies are a dynasty: They have trophy cases brimming with hardware, and their legendary coach, John Gagliardi, has won more games than anyone in the history of the sport except for Grambling State's now-retired Eddie Robinson. He's also considered by a lot of people to be a sort of Zen master of football, an oracle whose gridiron Delphi is a worthy destination for a pilgrimage. Murphy describes the coach in near-religious terms: "I spent a lot of time with prehistoric fossils, these Neanderthal-type characters. Gags is totally different; he's a mystic almost."
The Sweet Season, Murphy's paean to the purity of amateur sport, covers a lot of ground: Gagliardi's biography and philosophy, the history of St. John's, the character of various players on the team, the author's heroic salvage of his own marriage, hanging out with monks from the adjacent abbey. The book is maybe, in and of itself, not that interesting (though pretty damn funny in places). But it also has me reflecting on competitive football, which I played for 12 years. Unlike the Johnnies, I was never better than average and never played on better-than-average teams. Our Minnesota small-college team was, in fact, on the toe end of a number of Old Testament-style St. John's ass-kickings.
It strikes me, though, that there is something archetypal about the experience, that both the Johnnies and I and millions of other young men were part of a sociologically significant subculture--one that thrives on authoritarian order and self-sacrifice, while also promoting a Zen-like disassociation from the game's brutality. As anyone who's spent time at the athletic mill wheel will likely tell you, there's a certain pleasure in the numbing drudgery of practice, in giving yourself over to The System. Every minute of life is ordered; there's no time left over to grapple with the hobgoblins of self-doubt and anxiety. Surrender is paradoxically freeing.
A lot of this gets elided in The Sweet Season; it's more like a fan's diary, following the trajectory of a very good football team as they rocket into the glorious stratosphere. But then why do I think it significant that Murphy repeatedly conflates organized religion and organized football? Both require a lot of dressing up and tend to monopolize America's Sundays, of course. But they also represent the enduring power of ritual, a tribalism that's otherwise been filtered out of life.
Murphy's take on competitive football as an ennobling exploit makes an interesting study in contrast with H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, which was reissued last year in a tenth-anniversary edition and which remains the best thing ever written about football's near-sacred spot in American culture. Like Murphy, Bissinger spent a season following a representative team--in this case, the Permian Panthers of Odessa, Texas. During the course of the season, he came to know the players, their hardscrabble oil town, and the religious fervor that the game inspires in the citizenry of Odessa. The picture Bissinger paints is both brutally honest and honestly brutal: We see young men showered with adoration for their ability to perform on Friday nights, then abandoned on Saturday morning. The game makes them kings while youth lasts, yet their castles are always built of air.
Competitive football, Bissinger realizes, is a religion. It's also an infrastructure of Pavlovian positive-negative stimulus, a cult of masculinity, a rigidly codified kind of violence, The System. Don DeLillo might have articulated this best, in his 1972 novel End Zone: "People stress the violence. That's the smallest part of it. Football is brutal only from a distance. In the middle of it, there's a calm, a tranquillity. The players accept pain. There's a sense of order even at the end of a running play with bodies strewn everywhere. When the systems interlock, there's a satisfaction to the game that can't be duplicated."
Let's start with shoulder pads. Made of molded gray or black plastic, these consist of two large plates held together at the cleft by a series of hooking straps, and smaller shoulder plates that terminate just above the rotator cuff. The exact shape is variable by position. To more comfortably accommodate a crouched stance, linemen generally choose pads that end just above the solar plexus. Linebackers, who regularly sustain crushing blows to the chest, often choose models that extend further, to the middle of the abdomen. Quarterbacks and wide receivers pick the smallest, lightest pads possible in order to facilitate movement.
For these pads to function properly, they must be settled on the contours of the shoulder. If they are not snug, contact may cause blossoming welts beneath the arm. This is why, as part of the pre-game ritual, football players often smash their fists down on one another's shoulders. Fact: Everyone looks cool in shoulder pads. Ninety-eight-pound weaklings. Me. Even kickers. This is not a quirk of design but an integral part of their function.