Coming of Age in the Locker Room
What the players say about their life in the game.
A coach likes to have a lot of those old trained pigs who’ll grin and jump right in the slop for him. —UT Coach Darrell Royal
Ah, yes, Daddy D! Don’t they, now? You summarize so beautifully even your enemies despair of better saying it. You capsule those grim, sappy communal teachings I most took to heart in my burnt West Texas village about five lives ago. In one burst of cracker barrel candor you bring back the former cotton-mouthed guilts, agonies, and humiliations of the practice field; you fill my head with ancient losses: fumbles, blocked punts, imperfect tackles, fourth and nineteen. Forgive me, Daddy D. Royal, for I have sinned . . .
Our Midland High School coaches, wearing their rumpled good luck clothes and otherwise as faithful to rituals as witches, stomped the sidelines and ranted as if exorcising luck’s bad demons; at half-time they implored, threatened, cursed, kicked ass, sometimes cried. After losing games, as we wearily shed purple-and-gold jerseys, we avoided eye contact and shrank from view. In the showers we berated ourselves, offering contrite confessions of malpractices that might have done credit to felons hoping for the grace of a lenient court’s mercy. My fault, gang, goddammit . . .
Our defeated coaches tramped the steamy sullen dressing room like wandering gypsies, puffing cigarettes and muttering grief as if their collective dogs had died: Dammit, my ole trained pigs just wouldn’t jump in the slop tonight. It became near to unbearable to watch those intense, salaried Boy-Men who had goaded, cheered, pushed, punched, cajoled, and otherwise instructed us in the fine arts of Bash-and-Cracking, while preaching that some vague dark dishonor awaited those unwilling to Pay The Price. In defeat, we reacted with the shamed guilt of True Believers caught at heresy. Erring backsliders, we awaited our punishments.
No matter that one may have played near to one’s top potential, or had lost by a single point or by luck’s ill-whim; no, the sense of unworthiness—of failure, of ineptness, of having somehow dropped the soap—washed us in great melancholy waves. In permitting defeat one had somehow betrayed one’s team, one’s town, one’s self: had lost one’s youthful, uncertain gonads. “You’re not even in the backfield,” a high school temptress slurs her interior-lineman boyfriend during a lover’s spat, and shortly after his team has newly known dishonor in Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. She sensed, yes, where young Texas boys might be most effectively kicked. Now her lover knew, for certain, that never would he dash for the winning touchdown with the Thalia wind in his hair . . .
After a double tough loss to Abilene, as we sat in stricken silence listening to the noisy celebrations of our conquerors in their adjoining dressing room, our coach said: “One more good block, boys—hell, just one more good hard tackle—and that could be us livin’ it up in there. Did you play your best? Or did you dog it? Can you look in the mirror and say you gave it all? Do you feel like men?” Forty sweaty young heads dropped to stare at four-hundred sweaty young toes, each certain in the indictment applied directly to him. It didn’t help when our First Baptist pastor prayed from the locker room in a way seeming to apologize to God for our football transgressions; where had his prayers been when we faced third-and-long?
During the post-game meal one gloomy Friday night in San Angelo, after we’d been thoroughly battered by the defending State Champion, fullback Bobby Drake grumbled: “Shit, even steak don’t taste good when you lose.” I guess one of our coaches heard him: Monday’s pre-practice pep talk ran to the theory that even steak don’t taste good when you lose, thence progressing to affirm that steak tasted absolutely wonderful in victory’s aftermath. I wondered—but knew better than to ask—how steak might taste after a tie.
Do not think that Midland High School’s Bulldogs constantly dealt in dishonor. No, we won as often as not in the early 1940’s. But at night, now—though past my forty-fifth birthday—when my sleepless spooked old ranging mind unaccountably strays back to West Texas football fields long replaced by housing developments or shopping centers, it is not the good times I recall: not our whomping of Fort Worth Poly, not the 18-13 upset of Pampa, not the 32-6 pasting we laid on Austin High of El Paso. No, I remember what might have been . . ..
The Lamesa Golden Tornadoes are giving us a mean, close game. Such was not meant to happen, and substitutes bring reports form the bench of increasing ire and disgust. Running a deep pass pattern I am suddenly and magically in the clear near Lamesa’s goal line. The ball is coming in over my right shoulder, spinning and accurate and lovely; I hear again the grunting pounding desperations of the defensive back, and rejoice in having the knotty little bastard beat. I place my hands in welcome for the certain grab but a single step from touchdown glory, feel the good sharp sting of the ball and—Jesus, I’ve dropped it! Just flat dropped it. I cannot say how, or why, though that old brain movie has reeled in my head since shortly after the matching tragedy at Hiroshima. The day ends in a tie as unsatisfactory as a sister’s kiss; I learn that tie-game steak tastes remarkably like bitters and sawdust.
Reel Two. We closely tail Big Spring. The Steers are punting from inside their ten. Time is short. As our offense has been unusually inept, we agree that we must block the punt to salvage victory. Word comes from the bench that the Bulldog blocking it need not practice on Monday and may reap bonuses of free hamburgers or milk shakes. Royce Higgs and I desperately shoot through, clawing and cursing. Thawhunk: together we get large, stinging, thrilling pieces of the ball. Blood pounds and surges in the ears as, dazed, we chase the erratic ball into Big Spring’s end zone. Higgs flops on it . . . and it squirts away. I hurdle him to flop on it—and, inexplicably, as if greased, it squirts away a second time, to maddeningly . . trickle . . out . . of . . play. We get only a two-point safety, where victory required a touchdown.
In many reveries of bed and bar have I seen that insane old scene: the Big Spring players hugging each other, dancing and whooping their great relief, while Higgs and I—spent and unbelieving and cursed by luck—sprawl on the ground to kick and sob our frustrations like spoiled rich kids. And though it’s pluperfectly crazy, making no sense and affirming no worthy values, there are moments—if one could but buy a return ticket on the Time Machine—when I might surrender a bit of my remaining time, talent, or treasure for one more shot at the bounding elusive football. It might not improve history much, but it would rid me of a nightmare.
Finally, Reel Three. In the summer before I would become a husky senior, less than two weeks away from opening football drills, I quietly joined the Army out of many private compulsions. My coaches were astounded: they thought they’d hyped me with promises of how, should I be willing to Pay the Price, I might win a coveted college scholarship. When word circulated that I’d soon be off to basic training, it was made clear—by coaches, teammates, and formerly friendly members of the downtown Bulldog Booster Club—that I had awarded the worse possible betrayal to my team and to my town. A generously ignorant lad of seventeen, I skulked away my final civilian days in avoiding the normal social contacts.
Five months later, when I eagerly visited the old school as a brand new PFC, my former coaches hardly seemed to remember my name: where were those old mentors, who, for all their ass-chewings, had sometimes kidded me, predicted my good future, spoke of all-for-one-and-one-for-all? “We might have won nine games,” one of them said, “if you and Burt Stringer hadn’t lost your minds and joined the goddamn Army. You left us without any depth. And three of our losses were by less than a touchdown.” No more than a dozen times a year do I wonder, these 28 seasons later, what might have been had I stayed behind to attempt that one vital block or saving tackle.
Ah, yes, Daddy Darrell! Yes, indeedy! In the dark nights of the soul’s winter discontent it is those times they failed to “grin and jump right in the slop” that spoil the pointless guilty reveries of your average former old trained pig. Hold up your heads, ye coaches of yesteryear: you did your jobs well.
“You can take your wars and your starvation and your fires and your floods, but there’s no heartbreak in life like losing the big game in high school.”
From Semi-Tough, by Dan Jenkins
I have lately read or re-read a half-dozen football books, each of them preening some Texas connection at the high school, college, or professional level. These works vary in their truth quotients, though each returns certain strong whiffs of deja vu; I suppose that’s because the basic football drives, goals, rituals, myths, and tortures are universal—no matter whether one plays in the Pop Warner kiddie league or for potential Super Bowl champions.
Still, it is those authors who have stuck their helmets in at the college or professional level—Gary Shaw at The University of Texas in the early 1960s, Pete Gent and Lance Rentzel for the Dallas Cowboys—who get closest to the battered football bone and psyche. It is they who make you understand just what a mean damn business is football, and how Texans may be peculiarly susceptible to its root poisons.
Though feeling semi-guilty about the decision, I don’t intend to dwell long on Semi-Tough, that marvelous gut-bustin’ spoof by Dan Jenkins, the Sports Illustrated writer out of Fort Worth. As I intend at least a semi-serious examination of football and its fruits, I find it difficult to make use of Semi-Tough: it’s simply so damned funny it ill-serves my poses and preachments. But make no mistake: the saga of Billy Clyde Puckett not only deserves its enormous success as pure entertainment, it provides many broad insights as caricature. If you would inspect the light side of Texas craziness and observe our hang-ups and excesses multiplied times nine—whether patriotic, racial, sexual, regional, or financial—then don’t ignore Semi-Tough. Indeed, should you read the other football books here cited, then maybe reading Dan Jenkins is required; otherwise, you might go to bed thinking the evils of Texas football outrank the sins of pestilence, Watergate, or war.
Yet, it is less a reliable sociological study than the roman a clef by ex-Cowboy Pete Gent, North Dallas Forty, or the angry personal memoir of Shaw—Meat On The Hoof—or the strangely muddled, ambivalent recollections of the troubled Rentzel in When All The Laughter Died In Sorrow. Rentzel, alone among the six authors, was an active player at the time of his writing; he therefore may have been less a free agent of the total truth.
I don’t know if Giles Tippette, author of Saturday’s Children—a study of Rice University’s 1971 season—played the game beyond high school. Tippette often seems more instinctively protective of the game than not, more patient with its excesses, perhaps a little more on the side of the team or the coaches than of the individual. Even if inadvertently, however, Saturday’s Children affirms many of the institutionalized brutalities offered in evidence by ex-jocks Gent, Shaw, and Rentzel. Say of Tippette that he has a good feel for the game’s tortures and troubles, as well as for its stirring excitements. I suspect that he shares with me a love-hate relationship toward football, the demon struggling with the angel each time we witness a kickoff.
The sixth and most unabashedly Gee-Whiz offering is Spirit, by Carlton Stowers, who treats the 1972 Brownwood High season. Though we see many glimpses of Coach Gordon Wood (remarkably, seven times a coach of Texas schoolboy champions at multiple schools) and while Stowers provides interesting looks at football-crazed Texas towns as well as those untiring Superfans inhabiting them, he is next-to-silent when we yearn to know something of the heads, hearts, and inner-tickings of youthful Brownwood Lions while they fall from near perennial Class AAA schoolboy champions to an atypical, frustrating 6-4 season. In missing such important meat and basic potatoes, Mr. Stowers thus leaves the definitive Texas high school football book to the future.
A pity. For it’s in the high schools, after working up through ambitious secondary “feeder” systems, that the boys of Texas begin to sense something of the demanding football life ahead. Gary Shaw, a product of Denton High School, relates crying himself to sleep as a football freshman who felt, at fourteen, a failure for life. Shaw’s high school coaches later benched him during mid-week practice sessions and convinced him, though his teammates had elected him co-captain, that he might be unworthy of starting at linebacker. Naturally, when the coaches suddenly “relented” and started him in the next game he played like a wildman: “And it was only after the season that I realized they had manipulated me to get a better performance.” Shaw’s eyes opened when he discovered opposition scouting reports, speaking so highly of his talents that their offenses had been completely geared toward avoiding him. Schoolboy Shaw remembers vomiting before each game, nervous muscle spasms, playing with hobbling injuries, fearing his best efforts would somehow leave him disgraced, and coaches “who made no comment one way or the other” even after heroic performances in which he had astoundingly made twenty or twenty-five tackles.
Pardon it, but that again sends my mind back to the old days in Midland: linebacker Barry Boone being kicked in the tailbone by an assistant coach shouting Git up, goddamn, you ain’t hurt when, indeed, poor Barry had been knocked cold in a thunderous scrimmage; Jimmy Edwards, our blue chip All-District center-linebacker, suffering official ridicule because a Sweetwater speedster had caught him from behind after Edwards had zipped a mere 60-odd yards with an intercepted pass; our coaches collectively screaming of how we were bums, cowards, and lazy fartknockers when Pampa’s Randall Clay returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown.
King, you’re flounding around out there like a goddamned old woman.
Coach, I got bad ribs. I think maybe somethin’s busted.
Your ass is gonna git busted if you don’t show me more.
I think they called it “Building Character.”
Sometimes when the pressures accumulated we gathered, safely out of official earshot, to stage verbal mutinies. Bob Drake was incensed, during a screening of the Lamesa game film for parents and other Bulldog Boosters, when our coach remarked: “Drake would have scored on that play with a little hustle.” His eyes glittering from anger and forbidden beers, Drake later offered his defense: “Hail, I was playin’ on a broke laig!” A slight exaggeration, yes; but the 138-pound Drake had, in fact, toted the ball many times when it pained him even to walk. Privately, we cursed and reviled our coaches almost as expertly as they did it to us in more public displays.
Only rarely does Carlton Stowers provide hints that in adversity Brownwood High’s young Lions may have occasionally had their craws full. After losing to Sweetwater they are told they are not in shape and on Monday will face particularly odious drills; a boy in the back of the bus grumbles, “Shit, we aren’t going to run those things ‘cause we aren’t in shape. It’s just going to be punishment drills.” After the kids get their reward of a tongue-lashing for having only beaten Vernon 21 to 0, a disenchanted player says: “Let’s get some beer and go out to the lake. I want to forget about football and district standings and all that crap for awhile.” A key starter, knowing that only combat wounds are tolerated, invents a story of having broken his hand in the game: “The truth was that earlier in the day he had argued with his girl friend and broke the hand when he slammed his fist into a locker.”
Not all football coaches are total ogres; it would be unfair to so indicate. Even those I liked, however—say, two of perhaps eight or nine—often disappointed with their narrow visions and victory obsessions. I resented, too, their presumptions that we belonged to them body and soul; that what we did off the field, in our private lives, qualified for official punishments or censure. Sometimes, frothing or screaming, they appeared to have gone mad. I feared them in such moments beyond their mere authority: they frightened me with visions of my own inadequacies and presumably bad judgments. It is not difficult, when you are fifteen or sixteen, to be convinced that your sum total equals a piece of shit.
Our coaches were hired to win, of course, and might soon be gone if they didn’t. Their futures and fortunes depended on the performances they could coax or bait or scare from us. Get two or more touchdowns behind and they grew frantic: “Dammit, we’re being humiliated! Crack somebody! They’re pushing your tails all over the field.” As Giles Tippette writes, “Football is a very hard game; it’s hard on everyone, coaches, players, secretaries, office staff, trainers, fans. A season of strain generally brings everybody down to their fundamental beings.” If Tippette is right, then perhaps football fans—and some football parents—deserve more censure than do coaches.
My parents not knowing or caring the difference between a touchdown and a quick-kick, I knew no home pressures. Certain teammates did. The more dedicated parents rarely missed our daily workouts or weekly Booster Club meetings. These sometimes embarrassed their sons with scornful exhortations form the sidelines, by buttering up our coaches presumably on their son’s behalf, or by berating them should Little Johnny be benched. After a home-field victory, I arranged a ride form the gym with a teammate whose family awaited. We cavorted to the car, happy that we’d passed another muster. “What’s the matter, Max”—his mother literally snarled—“ dammit, can’t you play football?” We were astonished. “If you don’t wanta pay the price, Max,” the father said, “why, just hang ‘em up and quit.” Max finally choked out that maybe, by God, he just would. His mother whirled, an angry Dragon Lady: “You try it, Buster, and I’ll slap your jaws!” We rode in silence, save for the hissing air-brake sounds she made in taking jerky puffs from her cigarette.
“The only thing worse than a football fan is two of ‘em.”
–Bubba Smith of Beaumont, moments after being booed in Baltimore’s one-point loss to Cleveland, in 1971
Is there a Texas town without its undisputed Superfan? In Midland it was a 300-pound janitorial supply salesman, in Odessa a police chief, in Rotan a black shoeshine “boy”: each boasted of not having missed a performance of their favorites in 30 years. In the late 1950s I knew a promising young Congressional aide who deserted Washington politics to retain his record of having never missed a home town game—as player or fan—since first grade. “They’ll be kicking off in two weeks,” he said. “Something just won’t let me miss it.” There was the Odessa citizen who rushed home at half-time to change clothes, after concluding his team’s poor showing might be connected with his abandonment of a threadbare suit he’d worn throughout a 22-game winning streak.
In Brownwood, Carlton Stowers relates, “A real scramble begins on Fridays when [there’s] an out-of-town game. People downtown start trying to figure out how they can get away from the store a little early. Shoot, they might as well close. Nobody does any business after people start thinking about getting to the ball game.” I.D. Dillard arrived in front of the Weakley-Watson Hardware at three a.m. to assure that for the third year he would buy the first season ticket; his reward included having his picture published in the Brownwood Bulletin and such intangibles as are known only to the Lord or to the ghost of Amos Alonzo Stagg.
But the prize—whether spun of pure gold or fool’s gold—is here awarded to one Wendell Morris, a 1942 Brownwood High grad. Morris, as the senior service representative of a concrete batching equipment company, travels to India, Australia, Spain, and Belgium. “In late August of each year he fills his desk top with itineraries, flight schedules, and a copy of the giveaway Lions football schedule printed by the Cross Drug Store. In a fashion he has almost reduced to a science, he works out his schedule so that he will be on hand whenever and wherever the Lions kick off. Year before last, flying a company plane, he was forced to make an instrument landing at the Brownwood Municipal Airport lest he miss the first series of downs against Weatherford. Twenty-four hours before he had been conducting business in downtown Brussels.”
Win and the town is yours. Midland in the 1940’s awarded its conquering gladiators cut-rate hamburgers at the Minute Inn, free haircuts on South Main, bargains in certain clothing stores; community leaders offered smiling accolades in hailing us as “Stud” or “Star” or “Toughy.” True to the breed, our fans were fickle. I’m sure there were those who provided friendly condolences. One most clearly remembers, however, those fans who informed us that in losing to San Angelo we’d played like maybe we had to squat to pee, or who groused that after they’d given twenty points our mere 13-7 squeaker over Cisco had cost them money.
We learned other values from our elders. A wealthy booster winked in handing out forbidden cash awards—$5 to $20 depending on the feat—to schoolboys who’d made key plays in winning games; break-neck losing efforts brought no profits. “Football Boys” could raise a little more hell in study hall or home room before the lash came down than could the average student. The year I was a sizeable sophomore thought to harbor promise, I learned with the opening of school—to my surprise—that I was not scholastically ineligible for football as I’d presumed an indifferent freshman academic performance had made me. An assistant coach revealed a grade book recording that I had successfully completed two courses in which I had never been enrolled. “Keep your mouth shut,” he grinned.
“When it comes to sports and education, I want a University the football team can be proud of.”
–Frank Erwin, former chairman of The University of Texas Board of Regents, and Longhorn hyper-fan.
If high school football knows its ignoble moments, they appear to multiply at the college level. Though I cannot recite personal examples, having been cut early in an abortive attempt to make Coach Dell Morgan’s Texas Tech squad, the world abounds with experienced ex-college jocks who tell horror-tales.
Gary Shaw’s Meat On The Hoof indites Darrell Royal’s program at Texas for everything but burglary and murder; if Shaw is to be trusted, then bright young men might better choose a stretch at Devil’s Island. George Sauer, Jr.—ex-Longhorn and New York Jet; son of the former Baylor coach—cautions in his preface: “Shaw makes the point that what he has written about does not exist only at The University of Texas but at other schools. I would have to think that true. From talking to various people from other schools over a period of years, the impression is that differences are only in degree, not kind. College football is big business and mustn’t be thought to be unlike most big business.” Lance Rentzel’s report on his days at Oklahoma under Bud Wilkinson, and much of what Giles Tippette permits to escape in his Rice story, would indicate that things are mean all over.
Since one cannot explore Saturday television without risking Wilkinson or Chris Schenkle interviewing some pious college coach with much to say of how the paramount concern at his institution is to graduate healthy, well-adjusted, well-prepared “student athletes” especially equipped to play The Game of Life, let us examine—through our authors who have been there—the other side of the “student athlete” coin.
Once Gary Shaw and his parents have been properly honey-talked by coach Royal, Shaw reports with other freshmen to Moore-Hill Hall, the UT athletic dorm. At the first meal, freshmen wait outside the dining room until varsity studs are seated: “Then finally an anonymous voice said, ‘You can come in now,’ and doors opened. Suddenly a low-pitched growl burst on us. We were in the midst of one hundred disembodied voices gone mad. We jumped back and hugged the walls while this jeering and growling kept steady for about five minutes. It was our first taste of one of the principles of football: intimidation.” Throughout the meal freshmen are required to pop up and sing; “student athletes” literally fight over meat platters, snarling and spearing and stabbing; to say “pass the potatoes” is to risk having the potato bowl itself thrown at you.
To aid their digestive processes, freshmen gridders were required to beat each other with tightly-rolled newspapers and to suffer the kicks or blows of upper classmen. Then came “record races,” yes: “ . . . they would strip several of us naked and divide us into two groups. Then they would bring out our ‘toy’—an old 45-rpm record. They placed the toy between the cracks of our asses. We had to carry it from one end of the hall to the other without using our hands. We would then have to—again without using our hands—place it in our teammate’s ass. If he happened to drop it, his partner had to pick it up with his mouth and put it back in place.” Just good clean fun, Mom. Just a little fellowship with the guys in the dorm . . .
Comes now Lance Rentzel to testify to the Oklahoma Sooner version: “Then came the ‘O’ Club initiation, for all who had lettered in a varsity sport. It began at five a.m. when we each put on a burlap sack—our clothing for the entire day including classes. A string was tied to the [penis, running] up the body and over the outside of the sack. Attached to the string was a pencil that dangled in front of a cardboard sign on one’s chest. We were obliged to get female signatures, the girls taking that pencil to sign the cardboard [and many] knowing what happened when they pulled on it—very embarrassing and sometimes painful . . ..
“We [then] lined up in military formation and marched to the girls’ dorms and sorority houses. Each of us was forced to sing romantic songs or recite nasty lyrics to the girls . . . and if the upperclassmen didn’t like our performances, they shocked the hell out of us with ‘hot shots’: battery-powered cattle prods that were used to move animals . . .
“But the climax of the terror was in the afternoon. At five p.m. we lined up outside the stadium for the finale. This began by getting limburger cheese stuffed up our noses and garlic bulbs shoved into our mouths. Then they stripped us down to our jock-straps and painted us completely with red paint, topped off with a big white ‘O’ on our chests. They poured glue into our hair and under our armpits. They sat us down before a dish full of urine and garbage with orders to eat it. And we ate it, just to avoid that hot shot . . .. We swallowed anything, Lydia Pinkham menstrual fluid, shaving cream, anything. They poured wintergreen on our [genitals] and made us rub it in, and it burned like hell.
“Then they put sacks on our heads, completely blinding us, which was the worst thing of all. They came at us from all sides with hot shots, driving us crazy because we couldn’t see anything. At this point many guys cracked, they couldn’t handle it. They started running wild, running into walls, running into the goalposts—or the hot shot. A friend of mine named Steve Davis had gotten mad at one of the ‘O’ Club members and took a swing at him; it was a fatal mistake. They shocked him so many times he passed out, so they carried him off like a dead tiger on a pole . . .
“This was followed by the grape race, they stuck grapes up our asses and made us crawl backward on all fours for fifty yards, and the guy who finished last had to eat everyone else’s grapes. Next they dumped us into a huge tub of ice water . . . and forced us to sink in up to our necks. They had hot shots about three inches over the water line, just to be sure we stayed in . . . they kept us in for three minutes and it became unbearable . . .”
Then the kicker, supplied by Rentzel, though I supply the supporting italics: “It was a preposterous initiation, barbaric, in a way, even though some of the coaches were there watching, just to see that it didn’t get too sadistic….
“The health and safety of our players are always uppermost in our mind.”
–Coach Darrell Royal
Should your son receive a football scholarship to a big-time school, don’t bet the rent money he’ll keep it. More hosses are recruited than a coach possibly can use, and even when he’s sweet-talking them the coach knows that some will be put out to pasture. He does not say so, of course. And if he can avoid it, he won’t say then—or later—that under National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, a recruited athlete is permitted to keep his grant-in-aid even should he fail to make the team. The ideal situation, as most coaches see it, is to encourage such surplus cannon-fodder to drop out of school. That way, the scholarship money is restored to the coach for new uses.
Gary Shaw tells of the plight of those Longhorns who—injured or otherwise found wanting—were judged expendable. A trainer first ran the human rejects up and down the steep steps of Memorial Stadium at dawn; survivors reported to a room where steam heaters pushed the temperature to 120 degrees. There, in addition to physical tortures, the unfortunates suffered the trainer’s quasi-philosophical outbursts on winning, manliness, patriotism, and religion: “He claimed it was impossible to be a good football player without being a good Christian. He was sure of the connection although he never made an effort to explain it.” Players who had missed church were called “heathens” and forced to perform additional work. They learned to lie rather than admit having shunned good Christian rituals.
Even the saintly were required to do exhausting jumping jacks and sit-ups, and to run while weighted by barbells; each exercise continued “until someone faltered.” Concrete floors rubbed knees and elbows raw, after which there was a punching bag drill with the trainer screaming hit it hit it hit it hit it hit it until Shaw felt “half-crazed.” Then the boys donned boxing gloves and fought each other. Should you at any point quit or refuse an order, dismissal from the squad followed.
Those stubborn enough to survive the trainer’s sessions graduated to “shit drill.” Misfits were segregated from meaningful practice sessions to do nothing but bash each other head-on after running long distances at high speed. “Those drills started out with forty-five guys and ended after three weeks with just five guys left . . . Everytime I looked over at those drills, some one else was down on the ground hurt. It was a constant reminder to put out and not fall below the fourth team.”
Consider the education of Chachie Owens, former Orange High star, who—largely, Shaw says, because UT coaches judged him “rebellious”—ended in shit drills carrying the ball without benefit of blocking help though fifteen players had been assigned to tackle him: “Five guys got there first and tackled me; the other ten ran over me. Someone’s cleats ripped my calf open. I didn’t get up fast and [Assistant Coach Pat] Culpepper came screaming for me to get up. He took one look at my open wound and gagged, then called the trainers who walked slowly over.” Owens walked to a doctor’s car, was driven to the hospital, and received about a hundred stitches. He already had a shoulder separation; the other shoulder was bruised. Before shit drills.
For the indestructible, there were other methods. Texas had a “brain coach” highly advertised by Royal when he talked to the parents of prospects. Presumably, the so-called brain coach scholastically guided young Longhorns. He seems to have spent much time attempting to cajole professors into generously grading team stalwarts, and in guiding top players toward snap courses. But should a given boy appear less than vital to Longhorn plans, he might find the brain coach requiring him to enlist in tough economics courses, foreign languages, or sciences beyond his capabilities. Flunking him out was a sure way to get that scholarship money back . . .
Rah. Rah. Raw.
“Well now”—you say—“all that’s plumb terrible and oughtn’t be condoned, but you’re a-talkin’ to me of ancient history. Hail fahr. Shaw and Rentzel and them ain’t played college football in a coon’s age. In this here more enlightened and sophisticated time, when kids smoke dope and don’t take no guff and seize school buildin’s and everthang, it’s bound to be a-heap better.”
Well, neighbor, perhaps to some extent. And yet, Giles Tippette’s Saturday’s Children tells of hard doings at Rice—“The Harvard of the Southwest”—only three seasons removed. One finds Coach Bill Peterson (since gone to the Houston Oilers, and more recently from there into limbo) holding sham elections. Players may vote as to whether suspended teammates may rejoin the squad, yes—but Peterson instructs his assistants to be damn sure everybody votes affirmatively should the suspended player be exceptionally talented. A certain Rice star “borrows” $50 here and $100 there from an assistant coach; neither mentions any repayment schedules. A player whose arm is broken in action is snubbed in his pain by coaches who felt that he’d been looking for an excuse to dog it. When a worried mother says that her son, LaRay Brashers, should quit because the family doctors fears that another hard lick might cause a melanoma, Coach Peterson assures her a special pad has been devised to protect the injury. Tippette writes, “Of course, they’d done no such thing, and Peterson later told LaRay, ‘Now, don’t you go to worrying your fine mother about that heel. It’s gonna be all right. We’ll get it operated on in the off-season and get it fixed up right. Hell, we ain’t got but four games left; you ain’t gonna get no melanoma.’” Peterson didn’t know what a melanoma was. “I bet that hick doctor they got don’t know himself,” he said. “Probably just some word he picked up somewheres to impress people.”
And what of the Rice “brain coach”? He, too, encouraged liberal marks for football worthies; cooperative faculty members were invited to share the glories of the Owl bench at home games. Attempting to dissuade the team kicking specialist from quitting football, the brain coach says the lad might earn up to $40,000 annually by kicking in the pro league.
“That’s not what I’m most concerned about,” the Rice kid responds. “I have other interests . . . I’m confused about the question of priorities. About what is important.”
The brain coach shouts: “Oh, f—! Don’t give me that shit!”
Football players aren’t people, who leave home and try to play football. They are football players, who come home and try to play people.
-Peter Gent, North Dallas Forty
Pete Gent and Lance Rentzel played for the Dallas Cowboys in certain corresponding years: notice I carefully avoid claming they played “together.” Despite all the certified hogwash about how each NFL team comprises a close-knit “forty-man family,” pro players are strangely alienated from each other. They form few close friendships and see less of each other socially than outsiders might imagine. Each man seems to be an island unto himself, if an insecure one full of potential volcanic eruptions. The cold, bloodless way in which players are traded, deactivated, or released makes each man wary of personal entanglements: it’s bad enough fretting over one’s own fate without assuming the burdens of a friend.
The “forty-man family” theory crumbles even in practice. Defensive units work apart from offensive units unless they scrimmage each other, and then the competition of survival precludes anything short of controlled hostility: look bad and you may be benched; benched, you soon may be discarded. As Gent and Rentzel competed for the identical flankerback spot, one may be certain they were never close.
Eventually, Rentzel—quicker, perhaps more naturally talented—would beat Gent out. This despite Gent’s reputation as a clutch player, one who would somehow catch the pass that had to be caught and leave you wondering how he’d managed to beat you. But there was never much doubt, in those happy days before Rentzel would be convicted of publicly exposing himself and later be charged with marijuana possession, whom the humorless Cowboy officials preferred to retain and whom they wanted to give the sandwich and the road map.
Rentzel tell us why: “The ideal player is a somber guy, preferably married, who hardly ever speaks except to say ‘Yes, Sir’ and who does nothing but think about football.” Gent, on the other hand, “had a clever wit and an extremely quick mind. He was the first player on the club to let his hair grow, and that was no small accomplishment in Dallas. He had a TV show late at night, and it was really wild. He’d come on dressed up like Abraham Lincoln, beard, stovepipe hat, but he’d never refer to it, he’d just talk football as though he were dressed perfectly normally . . . Pete was a rebel. He was his own man and he was true to himself. In the end, Coach Landry traded him to the Giants . . .”
When Landry decided to switch Gent from tight end to split end, he said, “Pete, I’m going to put you over on the other side this week.” Gent quickly reposted: “You mean I’m going to play for Philadelphia?” Landry didn’t think that was any funnier than when Pete Gent said of the complex Cowboy playbook, “It’s a good book, coach, but everybody gets killed in the end.” On receiving an impersonal form letter from management—saluting him as “Dear Player” even while dictating the seasonal particulars of his life—Gent responded with a like form letter directed to “Dear General Manager.” Gent read The Rubaiyat, quoted Camus, and was thought to be excessively inquisitive: a real smartass. All of which kept his fanny in the sling not only with the front office, but with his more traditional teammates. “They disliked me,” relates Gent’s fictional counterpart, Phil Elliott, “and I was terrified of them.”
Physical pain and injury are recurring themes. In Gent’s book as in the real NFL, players learn to live routinely with their major breaks and surgeries. They misrepresent themselves as healed to coaches or trainers, treating themselves on the sly or making it “on elastic tape and codeine.” This is because all physical facts are fed to computers. Once the computer shows “a piece of equipment”—i.e., a football player—to be wearing out, then that player soon will be gone. Thus the mental pressures become more sapping than physical problems. Football players constantly worry of survival, of making the team, of pleasing the coach or the front office. They are guilt-ridden, and fear that stripped of their football identities they will become invisible men, human zeroes.
Renztel, faced with up to fifteen years in prison if convicted of indecent exposure, curiously has as his first thought: “I would be nothing without being part of this team.” Gary Shaw quotes Longhorn teammate Rusty Workman of Arlington, who, after multiple injuries, is ignored by his coaches except as they attempt to force him off the squad: “It took me three years to accept the fact that though I had quit, I could still do other worthwhile things. And still, when I go back to see old players on the team or old coaches, I feel embarrassed, ashamed.” Gent concludes, after years of nerve wars, “I am a man who has learned that survival is the reason of life and that fear and hatred are the emotions. What you cannot overcome by hatred you must fear. And every day it is getting harder to hate and easier to fear.”
Once the fear takes firm grip, Gent’s fictional Pete Elliott accepts far less salary than his market worth because of the dangers of front-office retributions. The contract negotiation is “humorless, distasteful, totally frustrating”; he is humiliated and ridiculed in that losing battle, told in many ways that his value reposes in small coin. Reduced and surrendered, he begins tip-toeing around Authority as insurance against being scrapped or abandoned: “Time was my competition, and if I let down for a moment it would just go on increasing its considerable edge on me.”
To let go, or to be knocked away, from that foundation stone of tenuous personal identity—the team— would be to drop into that dark void where awaits anonymity and a job at the box-factory. Thus football players eat mighty pecks of dirt, taking abuse and manipulations and indifference. Gary Shaw spoke to Darrell Royal perhaps six times in four years, finding the private Daddy D—publicly advertised as personable and twinkly—to be cold and aloof; but when Shaw finally succumbs to injuries, he sheds guilty tears in feeling he’s somehow let Royal down. The Gent—Elliott composite communicates with Dallas coaches only when being lectured or disciplined; a rare kind word, however, sends him into unreasonable flights of euphoria and illogical fits of gratitude. Ditto for Lance Rentzel. After years of conditioning, they react as Pavlov’s slobbering dogs.
Such methods are indigenous to military training. There, too, young men are abused, worn to fatigue, propagandized, herded like cattle, subjected to mass punishments, taught blind obedience. The object is to strip the individual of any independent identity or dangerous non-conformities, to convince him that he is a zero outside the group, that his superiors—by definition—are always right. Enough of that, yes, and the old trained pig will jump right in the slop: remember Lieutenant Calley?
Part of the mold of being the sort of guy that’s tough enough to be a winner meant that there were only certain things we could talk about. Sports, but not how they affected us; sex, but not how we felt . . .
Americans are outstandingly up-tight about their sex lives. Not that they fail in large numbers to do just about everything possible. No, it’s more that they are reluctant to admit it, even unto themselves, or—worse—are so haunted by guilts and myths they miss many of the pleasures while going through the forbidden motions. There is a great deal of skulking about, and much hypocrisy. This man or that woman, given the right opportunity away from home, may indulge in enjoyable affairs or kinky group satisfactions and then—back in their home bedrooms—perfunctorily perform plain vanilla acts with the lights out. Don’t do that, Elmer, the kids will hear.
Don’t worry: I won’t attempt to place blame for all history’s sexual hang-ups at the feet of football. Our primitive shames begin with the teachings of home; they are vigorously aided by the pulpit, the classroom, the stated standards of our friends and neighbors. Probably people are more compelled to misrepresent themselves sexually, in order to attain some mythical norm, than in any other pursuit. So whatever miseries, misconceptions, or malpractices are to be found in the beds of Waco or El Paso, they owe their roots—hah!—to many sources. The teachings and practices of football, however, have made outstanding contributions and I ain’t of a mind to grant amnesty.
Lance Renztel, tormented and damaged, strangely seems only marginally aware that his old compulsions to flash himself may have been more than indirectly related to the degradations of the playing fields. I have particular reference to those officially condoned and sexually-keyed pranks (with the emphasis on the anal and the oral) constituting the initiation rites of the football fraternity: what do you think all those inserted grapes and “record races” and strings tied to privates signified? What all might that rattle in a fellow’s head, bruising his id, maybe? Especially if it were already sore.
There’s an astonishing preoccupation in NFL locker rooms with games of grab-ass and with aping (a bit desperately and roughly, perhaps) those with homosexual preferences. Players shake their gadgets at each other, mock-kiss in the nude, mince and prance, or otherwise parody what they think of as tutti-frutti-ism. Verbal invitations to teammates accentuate the oral.
Locker room references to women are base. They are exclusively represented as pigs, bitches, sex objects. Tales begin, “I made her do such-and-so,” or “I grabbed her head” or “I forced that bitchin’ dolly to . . .” It is the language of violence, of hostility, of sex crimes. Gent’s book treats this subject openly and honestly; Rentzel’s pointedly does not. I have witnessed some few heterosexual group hi-jinks involving NFL players; my main impression was one of uncontrolled manic exhibitions of machismo bordering on the worse explosions.
Poisonous preachments begin early. Schoolboy coaches warned of the sapping qualities of girls: sex would harm the athlete more than all the world’s cigarettes or carbonated waters, strip young men of their strengths as surely as did Delilah when she conned Sampson into getting that haircut. Gary Shaw invokes “emotional barricades” carried into the sexual relationships of UT studs: “Here, too, spontaneity and involvement were prevented by a total faith in the rules of masculinity. Since being a winner depended on a strict obedience to the right rules, any uncertainty about them could not be tolerated . . . To make certain I avoided any involvement, the maximum number of times I dated a girl was five. Dating a girl any longer meant to possibly lose control of the situation; to lose control of the situation was to be weak. To be weak was not to be a man. As a result, I never really knew a girl in my four years of college.”
Coach Bill Peterson, initially addressing his Rice squad: “For the next three months I want you to think about football. And nothing else. See? I want you to put that girl out of your mind. I don’t know what else you like besides girls, but give that up.” And later: “Now, I know that you know better than to go out and drink beer or something. You’re smarter than that. But you’re going to get out with the girl friend, and . . . and . . . and—well, just remember . . . don’t . . . just don’t dissipate! See? Don’t dissipate.”
Consistency apparently being the hobgoblin of little minds, we see a different view as Rice assistant coaches discuss how to retain a valued dissident:
“DeCrosta rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. ‘It’s nookie,’ he pronounced. ‘Take him out and get him laid. Those kids get used to getting it regular off their steady girl friend and then they get up here and can’t take it. He just needs to get laid.’
“ ‘Come by my office,’ Conover told Roberts. ‘I’ve got the names and phone numbers of some girls who are supposed to be real cooperative.’
“Roberts looked incredulous. ‘Are you serious?’
“ ‘Of course we’re serious,’ Conover said. ‘What did you think? Best remedy for homesickness.’
“Roberts still looked shocked. ‘I can’t do that!’
“ ‘Why not?’
“ ‘Why not! My—my god, I’ve got a doctorate in theology! I can’t just get some kid a—a—’
“Conover got up from the table. ‘Well, C.A.,’ he said, ‘you’ll never make a coach. A coach will do anything to win . . .’”
(Bulletin: Apparently, peculiar notions of the sexual role reach the highest football level. In the week before last year’s Super Bowl game, Miami Dolphin Coach Don Shula—a decent fellow generally not as given to conventional bugaboos or caveman beliefs as your average coach—ordered his grown, largely married charges to engage in no sex past Tuesday before the Sunday game!)
If I were required to indicate today that element of American life which is most characteristic of our nationality, my finger would unerringly point to our athletic escutcheon.
–General Douglas MacArthur
I don’t suppose you can grow up in small-town Texas—or you couldn’t 30, 40 years ago—without catching football fever. I was hooked from the moment the Baird Bears defeated our hometown Putnam Panthers, 12 to 6, in 1934 or 1935. What I most remember was the grumbling of Putnam grownups to the effect that Baird always cheated, always bought off the referees, always played dirty. I knew then that football involved community honor.
My early heroes were selected from the sport pages of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram: Sammy Baugh, Bulldog Turner, Davey O’Brien, John Kimbrough, Jack Crain, I.B. Hale, Ollie Cordell, Bullet Billy Patterson. I kept scrapbooks, memorized scores; for years I could recite the starting lineup of the 1939 National Champions out of College Station, Texas. In my better dreams I emulated those noble old giants of power and speed. We played football almost from the cradle: on vacant lots with tin cans serving as the ball, at recess and lunch time on the school ground, in the backyard with makeshift balls of rolled cotton socks. In fourth grade I became part of an organized team, with a coach and a schedule and pick-up uniforms: an ill-fitting helmet, a worn pair of shoes, a faded Big Brother jersey. By the time I was twenty, I had played for eleven consecutive seasons.
High school was where it mattered most. A poor boy might advance himself socially and romantically if fleet, strong, or brave enough. The ultimate dream was to win the state championship and then be named to the North-South All-Star game. We won not even a district title; no All-Star selectors beckoned. Somehow, it always came up fourth and nineteen . . .
After Midland’s season ended with our annual rowdy embarrassment at the hands of Odessa, I sat by the radio while my contemporary betters—Bobby Lane and Doak Walter of Highland Park, Kyle Rote of San Antonio Jefferson, Milton Rathbone of San Angelo, Froggy Williams of Waco, George Walmsley of Goose Creek, Hayden Fry and Bryon Townsend of Odessa, Lindy Berry of Wichita Falls, unknown huskies from Port Arthur or Paris or Amarillo—went about settling the state championship. As a young adult, I was a West Texas sports writer recording in purple prose the feats of regional knights. It seemed important at the time. Never having lived outside the football culture, hanging around with coaches and incurable fans, I didn’t question whether the game might be Pure or Good.
When my friend Mac McCutcheon ran for the Odessa School Board on a football-deemphasis program twenty years ago, I thought him crazy. And so, by a convincing margin, did the voters. Bankers, lawyers, politicians, and doctors attended the games in large lots as did roughnecks, truck drivers, and ribbon-clerks. Many dressed in the local colors for each game; the more manic rang cowbells. Over coffee in the courthouse or in the Club Cafe, one heard more in season of football than of politics, deer hunting, sex, or even the oil business. There were people in Odessa who believe that Coach Cooper Robins should be Governor, though Midland fans preferred Coach Thurman (Tugboat) Jones.
Some people tell me all that’s changing in Texas; that in the urban schools, at least, football is no longer the be-all, do-all; that, maybe, a little more sanity resides. Perhaps. Only last year, however, my 15-year-old son was harassed by Midland coaches and semi-ostracized to the point he skipped twenty-odd days of school’s remaining six weeks. His crime had been to quit football. The campaign to break him was necessary, you see, in order to discourage other defections. Déjà vu, Son. Ain’t nothing new: history’s no more than a re-cycling.
So in my maturity I am through with football, right? Well, no. I have simply transferred allegiance to the NFL, particularly to the Washington Redskins. It is irrational and embarrassing, that extent to which I match my moods to Redskin fortunes. Crazy. Just plumb nuts-silly when you try to reckon it why. No Redskin is my special friend, I am not fond of Coach George Allen or his No. 1 Fan Mr. Nixon, I feel no geographic loyalty to Washington, and yet I roast or freeze through Redskin games while paying $12 for the discomfort. Like all good fans, I applaud or boo the Redskins according to fortune’s tides. When they lose it’s a gloomy Sunday; I don’t enjoy the games so much as suffer them.
Dammit, why does the game turn so many brains to peas and so many necks red? If it builds character, then so does street mugging. It foolishly and unrealistically teaches that second place is steeped in shame: we can’t all be Number One whether playing ball, writing books, or pulling teeth. Maybe we might be a more compassionate people if we didn’t dwell on victory at all costs, wouldn’t hatch Watergates, or odd neuroses.
From what we read in these six books, football players seem unaware of the world’s larger joys. They place protective fences around their emotions. Conditioned to live with their own pains and fears, they indifferently look away from the miseries of others. Their lives are such weird mixtures of special privilege and eating dirt, of alternately being hailed as heroes or dogs, that they are at once naive children and expert cynics. They appear to be rootless, sad men living only in the moment and spooked by the future.
Even knowing that football should have its mouth washed out with soap, I continue to miss deadlines, good weather and nature’s beauties, good talk, and good books—because right there on Channel Four the Oakland Raiders are kicking off to Kansas City. No matter that I’ve seen it all on other fields or screens ten thousand times. Only the names and numbers change, really, as old players or team champions fade out and new ones appear. Duane Thomas had it in perspective when he said, “If the Super Bowl’s the ultimate game, then how come they’re playing it again next year?”
Well, because it’s big business and traditional and may even fill some deep national need. Maybe it helps us continue to act out our fantasies where we might otherwise despair; perhaps cheering winning touchdowns preserves our illusions, helps us to believe that it’s never too late, that miracles are still possible: the middle-aged, who may have encountered career or other disappointments, somehow appear to exhibit the sharper football angers or celebrations. They seem less aware that it’s supposed to be a game.
Perhaps it’s simply that in a world where decisions arrive slowly and undiluted triumph is rare or hard to define, we revel in the clean, surgical suddenness of football’s immediate rewards and punishments. The old boy who doesn’t know what the future holds on his job or in his bed or even in the matter of simply breathing, may look at the football scoreboard and find satisfactions in knowing that late in the third quarter his side is ahead of somebody-or-other by two touchdowns. Or, perhaps, that’s too fanciful. Maybe we like it mean and tough so long as the other fellow’s suffering the bumps or risks. We are reputed as a violent nation, and Texas as one of the more violent states; many men before me have compared the game to war, citing its war-like terms: blitz, shock troops, aerial attack, sweep the flanks, in the trenches. And each game is something of a small war as teams fight for territorial acquisition—attempting to defend or gain ground—knowing their losses, retreats, casualties. Football coaches and drill sergeants tell you pretty much the same thing, send you after similar objectives.
One could worry that bone to death, of course, and not find the answer to those compelling reasons why, by the thousands, we find it easy to ignore the game’s sordid side: young men left to life-long wheel chairs or hobblings in the extreme visible cases, or invisible scars in the deeper inner tissues. The exploitations, deceptions, savagery, assumed retained guilts. The compulsion to choke it up—as, particularly, have Shaw, Gent, and Rentzel—perhaps not so much to share their frightening knowledge as to understand the madness themselves. Food for thought.
Ah, but I must run. The season’s kickoff is again imminent; I’m primed to whoop for the old burgundy-and-gold, live and die with strangers wearing numbers on their backs: let’s hear it for the Redskins, fans, and may the Dallas Cowboys and those Miami bastards drop the ball frequently and never pick it up.