The Athletic Cup

The fascist rules. The inner calm. The funny pants. Chasing the grail of football's myth--and utter lack of meaning.

John Gagliardi, of whom Murphy's The Sweet Season is pretty much a hagiography, is a different sort of coach entirely. We are told that he disdains whistles, the sports equivalent of Pavlov's dinner bell. He doesn't let players hit each other in practice. When they get thirsty, he gives them water. "In an era of screaming troglodytes who routinely abused their charges, verbally and physically," Murphy writes, "at a time when denying players water during practice and having them beat each other into steak tartare five times a week was seen not as sadism or idiocy but as instilling toughness, Gagliardi had the intelligence and courage to go the other direction."

The author makes much of the fact that the coach allows his players as much water as they need, cancels practice when the gnats are too thick or lightning flickers on the horizon, and disdains most of the superfluous drudgery of practices. He's especially entranced by the "Beautiful Day Drill," during which players are instructed to roll around in the grass and comment to one another on the weather. "This drill does for me what a sharp handclap does for a Buddhist, bringing me into the moment."

Indeed, the distillation of Gagliardi's philosophy--which is really a philosophy of no philosophy--might be a Lao-tzu poem.

 

The sage rules by emptying hearts and filling bellies; by strengthening bones, leads people away from knowing and wanting; deters those who know too much from going too far: Practices non-action and the natural order is not disrupted.

 

What Murphy sees in Gagliardi is a sort of Zen response to the gung-ho football culture he's grown disgusted with. By surrendering his authority, the coach shapes the world in his image.

It's not all sweetness
and enlightenment. Throughout The Sweet Season, Gagliardi seems constitutionally incapable of making small talk. He can barely summon four words when his star quarterback suffers a devastating injury. It isn't just that he's elusive or cagey, either. The great coach seems most of the time to be only half present. In a revealing moment toward the end of the book, Murphy explains that the real reason Gagliardi can't retire is not that he's chasing the record, but that he simply has no other interests. Without the game--which is just a game, after all--he would simply vanish. This strikes me as both profoundly sad and also kind of holy.

 

Game

We arrive hours early, take our time suiting up, maybe wander out to check the consistency of the turf if it has rained overnight. We know in the back of our minds that we may well spend the evening in a dejected stupor. We have spent the entire season developing an intimate, almost spiritual relationship with defeat (we're 2-6). On post-loss bus rides through the big Midwestern night, we have looked out the windows and contemplated loss at a metaphysical level, as a way of life, the natural condition. We have, by now, acquired a Zen-like tranquillity in the face of the abyss. We are learning that freedom follows from surrender.

On game day some of us lie quietly and stare at the holes punched in the ceiling of the locker room where insulation bleeds out. Others run around punching things and whooping like extras from a war movie. With an hour to go, we begin to feel a tightness in our stomach, a familiar old sensation that, far from being uncomfortable, is somehow reassuring. The tension is so thick now that you could cut it with a knife, spread it on toast, and eat tension sandwiches for a week. Every molecule is charged. It's so quiet that we can hear our own blood circulating. Time seems to slow and blur.

Eventually, amid the clicking of cleats on concrete, we come together, jostling happily against one another. The team captain says a few final words, a benediction of this shared enterprise. It's usually some variation of this:

 

Captain: "Guys, let's fuck some shit up today. We're gonna kick some fucking ass."

Guys: "Yeah!"

 

Then we crash through the doors, up out of the heavy shadows of the stadium, and into the clear air.

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