The Athletic Cup

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

The Subtext

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."

Nate Pack

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."

 

Gear

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.

Move on to the pants. Generally constructed from dark, slightly reflective material and terminating at a cuff just below the kneecap, these include pockets designed for knee, hip, and rump pads. The latter two are considered expendable; the kneepad is not. It is insane not to wear kneepads. According to my girlfriend, I look good in these pants. This is also a fact.

Beneath the pants, there is a tight garment made of stretchy, itchy spandex-like material. This is officially called a girdle, though for obvious reasons we avoid calling it so whenever possible. There are also pockets in these for hip and rump pads. There is a slot for the athletic cup, the plastic codpiece designed to protect the groin. Fact: In every team I have been on, from peewee to high school to college, the cup has been considered a pussified affectation. This leads to a lot of terrifying injuries, which we sometimes chat about during lulls in practice. My friend the Berserker tells a story about a guy who got kicked so hard that his testicles disappeared into his stomach like a pair of frightened gophers. I, frankly, don't believe him.

The Berserker spends a lot of time scooping his hand down the front of his pants to adjust his cup. This mortifies the Berserker's mom. We all spend a lot of time with our hands down our pants. I'm not really sure what to make of this; perhaps Don DeLillo might.

The helmet, designed to prevent brain injury, is pretty obviously redundant in a lot of cases. Just kidding. In fact, the helmet is indispensable. It is, however, also extremely susceptible to temperature change: In heat it becomes a private sauna for your cranium; in the cold the molded plastic inside hardens and you feel like you're wearing a concrete hat. We have been instructed not to sit on our helmets. We do so anyway, although they aren't made for sitting on, and are not very comfortable.

 

Practice

Semi-personal revelation: Between the time I started playing football, at age eight, and the time I stopped, my senior year of college, I spent an estimated 3,760 hours, or 1.7 percent of my total life span, on a field, practicing in the snow and the mud and heat so intense it turned the air wobbly. This is a modest time commitment by the standards of the sport. To get really good, players spend at least that much time in the weight room, pumping Volkswagen-equivalent amounts of iron.

Like a lot of time-intensive activities, football is built on repetition. Repetition. Depending on your position--I was a defensive end--it is likely that you will conduct the same drills throughout your career. Each practice begins with calisthenics, including jumping jacks, leg lifts, and, if you happen to have a coach inclined toward sadism, belly busters, which, don't even ask. This is followed by a period of stretching that athletic trainers consider the most important part of the routine and players consider the least. My friend the Snake and I sometimes take this opportunity to toss a ball around, or, if we're feeling lazy, just lie on our backs in the grass and stare up at the wispy cirrus clouds drifting overhead.

If it's late summer, when training camp begins, we're allowed a break to hydrate. Water is dispensed from a vertical pipe with a dozen spigots spaced along its length. This device, while eminently practical, is extremely sensitive to pressure changes and, if you're not careful when turning it on, can send a blast of warm, chlorinated liquid in your face. When 80 football players crowd around the water pipe and shove their faces in its spew, the scene resembles nothing so much as a pig's feeding trough.

At this point football's militaristic taxonomy kicks in, and we are segregated by position. Linemen, who are football's cannon fodder, spend their afternoon rolling in the mud and the dust and smashing one another. Backs and wide receivers, meanwhile, rarely get their uniforms dirty, and almost never hit one another. The logic being: Infantrymen are expendable, but officers with good hands and fast legs are invaluable. At the top of football's evolutionary ladder is the quarterback, who generally hovers mothlike around the coach and who enjoys an ex officio exemption from all contact. Even to disturb a quarterback's personal space is to incur the coach's wrath, which generally entails some combination of the words goddamn, idiot, and candy-ass.

Much of the equipment utilized in drilling has a distinctly Sisyphean flavor. Take, for instance, the blocking sled. This device, measuring approximately 12 feet by 4 feet and consisting of six bright blue nylon pads on spring-loaded chassis, is designed to simulate an opposing line (albeit an inanimate one). Someone has gone through the trouble of painting tiny heads on the pads, to heighten the vérité, I guess. A close cousin of the sled, the tackling dummy is a four-foot phallus that pops back into position after it's hit. The Animal, a mountainous lineman with a really bitchin' dragon tattoo on his right leg, discovers that the dummy can also be used as an offensive weapon and, for the rest of the season, takes great delight in hefting the dummy up to shoulder level and cold-cocking people when their backs are turned. These drills, medieval in spirit, are designed to separate the wheat from the chaff, then stomp on the chaff's face.

We learn that the best adaptive strategy is disassociation. We separate body and mind, let one do the heavy lifting and put the other out to pasture. We move in a trance; pain morphs into tranquillity. We gaze at the changing leaves, suck the clean air in and let it go.

 

Lockers

After practice, we gather in the locker room, amid clumps of turf and balls of athletic tape and the acrid tang of sweat. We are assigned lockers at the beginning of each season, identifiable by a piece of tape inscribed with our name and jersey number. There is no discretion as far as numbers go; my personal number, for instance, happens to be "69," and it takes me until my sophomore year to figure out why some people think this is hilarious. I learn by then that the best way to deal with small indignities like this is to ignore them. Playing an organized team sport, especially one as rigidly, completely organized as football, requires the surrender of individual ego, not necessarily for the team's good, but for one's own psychic health.

The locker room is the ceremonial center of the game, the place where a lot of the tribal bonding-type stuff goes down. Everyone has weird rituals designed to bring and/or sustain good fortune. One player wears the same T-shirt for the entire season; luck apparently being dispelled by laundry detergent, the shirt eventually qualifies as a biohazard. Others spend hours taping their wrists and ankles and ribs, until they come to resemble AWOL intensive-care patients. I have lucky socks. The lineman occupying the locker next to mine eats exactly three hard-boiled eggs before each game, despite the fact that this gives him vile, sulfurous gas. If you suggest a dietary change, he gives you the look one might offer a stupid child. Don't mess with luck, is the message.

There is, during this fart-punctuated repose, an exchange of war stories. Chunk, a big, good-natured lineman with slightly crossed eyes, tells us that he was once hit so hard during a game that he involuntarily evacuated his bowels. When he regained consciousness a half-hour later, severely concussed, he was covered in blood and excrement. He smiles proudly as he shares this, as though he were describing a noteworthy achievement instead of a mortifying embarrassment. "Now that was a hit," he reminisces fondly.

There's a strong tendency, I notice, toward this kind of braggadocio. There's an equally strong tendency toward self-sacrifice. This manifests itself as a willingness to throw one's body in the path of danger, to play with broken bones poking up beneath the skin, to suffer foolishly, gladly.

During the course of The Sweet Season, there's a running back who, after tearing his posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments ("profoundly messing up his leg," in layman's terms), decides to keep playing despite a doctor's advice to the contrary. In telling the story, Austin Murphy exhibits a bit of the vicarious masochism common to television sports commentators (e.g., "Ooo, that must have hurt. Let's take another look!"). "I didn't know he had stainless steel cojones," Murphy writes. "It is an overused word in sportswriting, but I apply it to [him] because it fits: He is a warrior." It is an overused word; it's also a stupid idea, pervasive in the game. Isn't it better to have knees than cojones?

The Snake, my closest friend on the team, is a defensive back who'd been a high school star on the Iron Range. Though he was too small to ever become a stand-out college player, he found a place as a "hit man" on the kickoff team. These are the two players who line up farthest from the ball and, after the kick, sprint down the field and hurl themselves at the protective wedge of men formed by the receiving team. You are running full tilt into a wall, in other words. It's a nearly suicidal job; you have to be wildly devoted, even a little crazy, to apply.

And nearly everyone who does it gets seriously injured at one point or another. The Snake is no exception; by his senior year, he's had a number of invasive surgeries, followed by long rehab periods during which he hobbles around on crutches. "I have more titanium in my knees than the space shuttle," he jokes. What is truly impressive and frightening, though, is that he simply won't stay down. When on crutches, he bemoans the fact that he isn't out hunting heads. When off them, he goes out hunting, gets stomped, and ends up back in the hospital. It's a pathetic, pathological kind of bravery. We all admire him for it.

 

Coach

Like military and corporate leaders, football coaches use a lot of acronyms. I wonder sometimes whether this is the reason that ex-athletes tend to thrive in corporate-type environments; they already speak the language. My own all-time personal favorite is "GOYA," which one coach shouted at us at regular intervals. It took me two years to realize that he was not invoking the Spanish painter, but exhorting us, "Get off your ass." There's an almost fetishistic obsession among a lot of coaches with order, with routine, with ritual. They are the embodiment of The System.

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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