Summer days are getting shorter, and—despite war overseas, societal upheaval, and apocalyptic warnings in the headlines—our boys are out in the fields again, hitting one another. How could all not be well? Bodies collide, a whistle blows, the ball is spotted, and by mysterious ritual action a sense of order is restored. Give or take a few JumboTrons and air-conditioned practice facilities, it’s the same story in 2022 as it was in 1972, when Don DeLillo published his second novel, End Zone.
For those whose reading tastes skew cerebral, End Zone is probably the greatest football novel of all time. DeLillo wrote his hallucinatory farce, set at fictional Division III Logos College in West Texas, against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, atomic-age fears, and a post-sixties America grappling with a new normal. It’s relevant as ever now, with our current preoccupations—renewed conflict and tension between nuclear powers in Ukraine and the South China Sea, catastrophic climate change, and an ongoing political crisis—a warped mirror of fifty years ago. Football, of course, remains a constant.
The book’s enduring appeal lies not so much in its story as in its command of voice and swirl of ideas. Think more Thomas Pynchon or Herman Melville than a sports-movie yarn of underdogs done good. DeLillo’s narrator, transfer-student fullback Gary Harkness, sets the book’s ambivalent tone in the third paragraph:
“But let’s keep things simple. Football players are simple folk. Whatever complexities, whatever dark politics of the human mind, the heart—these are noted only within the chalked borders of the playing field. At times strange visions ripple across that turf; madness leaks out. But wherever else he goes, the football player travels the straightest of lines. His thoughts are wholesomely commonplace, his actions uncomplicated by history, enigma, holocaust or dream.”
DeLillo will spend as many of the following pages painting straight lines as he will excavating holocaust dreams and historical enigmas. He’ll intersperse concise, Hemingway-esque on-field scenes and half-satirical pep-talk mantras (“Write home on a regular basis. Dress neatly. Be courteous. Articulate your problems. Do not drag-ass.”) with haunting diatribes and absurdist humor. Throughout, DeLillo simultaneously celebrates football and critiques the culture that surrounds it, sounding the depths of American disquiet while still revering the violent game that is his subject. End Zone walks that tightrope with the nimble footwork of a three-hundred-pound lineman, buoyed by DeLillo’s once-in-a-generation stylistic talent, which can turn on a dime from epic to ironic mode.
Gary, our protagonist, is a lead blocker with a history of quitting on his team; in this, he seems to stand for the Vietnam draft–skirting, dope-smoking, tuned-in-and-dropped-out segment of his Boomer generation. Yet he’s a bit of a counter-counterculturalist at heart. He becomes obsessed with nuclear war and, specifically, the language of mutually assured destruction, clinical phrases like “dose-rate contours,” “kill-ratio,” and “spasm war.” This fixation begins with assigned reading for a course, but it grows into something darker as Gary begins to take pleasure in the jargon and can’t stop devouring books on the subject. Over the course of the novel, DeLillo draws parallels between the arcane lingo of thermonuclear conflict and the dialect of football plays (“burn-7 hitch,” “seam-X-in,” “snowbird flare”), which he intersperses between terse descriptions of violence, e.g.: “Both players down. The safety needed a stretcher.”
Gary gets a girlfriend, a heavyset girl named Myna who wears a dress with a mushroom cloud on it, prompting him to tell her, “You look like an explosion over the desert.” He also befriends the campus ROTC commander, who rants to him about a future of “humane war,” with only certain megatonnages allowed, so that nuclear-armed countries can go on fighting one another without destroying the world. “There’d be all sorts of controls. You’d practically have a referee and a timekeeper,” he tells Gary.
All the same, DeLillo is clear that his project with End Zone is not simply to compare football to war. “I love football,” a likable professor character says at one point. “I reject the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don’t need substitutes because we’ve got the real thing. Football is discipline. It’s team love. It’s reason plus passion. The crowds are fantastic. They jump and scream.”
Instead, DeLillo seems to be praising football as a respite from the madness of American life, for both player and spectator. For the spectator, football is a brutal, frenzied form of collective sanity, in which fans gather in a shared temporary reality where the misdeeds of the powerful carry actual penalties and competition is valiant and limited to a public schedule: “Sport is a benign illusion, the illusion that order is possible. It’s a form of society . . . that is organized so that everyone follows precisely the same rules.”
For the football player, the game brings even deeper peace, something we see in scene after scene. “People stress the violence,” Gary’s head coach tells him. “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.”
That coach’s name is Emmett “Big Bend” Creed, and of the novel’s three central characters, he is by far the most Texan. DeLillo, born in 1936 in the Bronx, New York City, where he grew up playing street football with makeshift balls made of newspaper and tape, is in no sense a Texan, though another one of his best novels, Libra (1988), a fictionalized retelling of Lee Harvey Oswald’s life and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, is set mostly in the state. DeLillo seems to have decided to write a West Texas football novel after visiting the region for an advertising job for Sears truck tires and being impressed by the extremity of the environment. Gary, also a hyperliterate New Yorker, can’t stop talking about the bleakness of the landscape, which he calls a “smoldering flannel plain.”
Creed, on the other hand, is a creature of that harsh environment, born on the banks of the Rio Grande. He’s a successful Division I coach who fell from grace after punching his quarterback in the jaw and has returned to his home region to rebuild his career. He dispenses Lombardi-esque koans like “It’s only a game, but it’s the only game” and decries a nation that is losing its sense of self-discipline. Over the course of the book, he becomes more and more remote, like a desert monk. In a touch that is characteristic of DeLillo’s unique sense of humor—as dry and elevated as the Llano Estacado—Creed lives alone “in a small room off the isometrics area,” a bare cell with only his coaching whistle and a small icon of the mystic Saint Teresa of Ávila hanging on the wall.
If you find this image pretty much hilarious, End Zone will be your favorite football novel ever, by a long shot. If not, expect to be flummoxed. The book does not culminate with a championship touchdown drive; it peters out well after the final game of the season. The All-American heroes of classic young-adult football novels would not feel remotely at home in the silly but foreboding world DeLillo creates.
Nor, apparently, did some Texan readers when End Zone was released. The Abilene Reporter-News was one of the few newspapers to give it a mixed review, writing, “West Texans must be warned before rushing out to buy the novel that the West Texas scene is purely contrived. . . . Evidently the author never has stepped foot in West Texas and hasn’t learned that football in this part of the country isn’t merely a game, but a religion.” The first criticism is fair enough—DeLillo knew little of West Texas as he wrote, and he did not make much effort to represent regional society. The latter objection is dead wrong, however. The book is practically a theological tract written half in football jargon.
Other reviews were generally raves, e.g. “A Touchdown for Don DeLillo” in the New York Times. Press clippings and early drafts can be explored at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center, which owns DeLillo’s archive. One insightful reviewer for Book World wrote, “DeLillo has done for (or perhaps to) football what Nathanael West did for (or to) Hollywood; the image of the riot that climaxes The Day of the Locust kept recurring as I read.” Indeed, both The Day of the Locust and End Zone take the laudable risk of writing with high literary intentions about a pillar of American mass culture, and both are consumed with visions of violence for the coming era.
Another useful, if extravagant, comparison to make sense of End Zone is Moby Dick. DeLillo draws an explicit comparison between head coach Creed and Melville’s monomaniacal whaling captain, calling the former “a landlocked Ahab who paced and raged, who was unfolding his life towards a single moment.” Once this image is in your head, it’s hard not to associate it with many college football coaches who appear on television.
As Melville does with whaling, DeLillo employs all sorts of rhetorical devices to illustrate football’s epic profundity to his readers. At one point, there’s a 31-page whistle-to-whistle description of a single football game. Later, Gary smokes pot before a game and plays stoned. He and the ROTC commander play a Risk-like thermonuclear war game, in which the destruction of cities is narrated as matter-of-factly as the book’s football action. Finally, after the season, Gary and his teammates play a pickup game in blinding snow in which passes and reverses are outlawed, a beautiful scene that pares the game down to its purest form.
Also like Moby Dick, End Zone starts out seeming to be about one thing, an interracial encounter, before more or less abandoning that thread. This is the biggest disappointment of DeLillo’s novel. On page one, we are introduced to a third major character, Taft Robinson, a running back who will be the first-ever Black student at Logos College, and early pages are devoted to the tensions around his arrival. The team, up until then content with the manhood-initiation rites of summer practice (“Being made to obey the savage commands of unreasonable men. . . . Being led in prayer every evening, with the rest of the squad, by our coach, warlock and avenging patriarch”), is troubled by an epochal shift (“My teammates seemed sullen at the news. It was a break with simplicity, the haunted corner of a dream, some piece of forest magic to scare them at night.”).
When End Zone published, programs at the University of Texas and Texas A&M had just integrated their teams a few years earlier, and integration was a vital story to tell both in the microcosm of football and the macrocosm of American society. Taft never really comes to life on the page, however. Little of his personal experience is dramatized, and he’s rarely given voice as a character until a final scene that seems to reach beyond integration for more portentous themes. One comes away with the suspicion that DeLillo shied away from the challenges of writing a Black character and story line. Important scenes are missing from the middle of Taft’s arc.
The end of his arc rings true, however: by the final scene, it’s Gary, the chronic quitter, who is proud to be made offensive captain for next year, while the seemingly NFL-bound Taft has stopped playing football, has converted to Islam, and is haunted by his own dark obsessions with wartime atrocities. A meaningful integration is put on permanent hold. The white kid, raised by a football-obsessed dad who believed that “a simple but lasting reward, something just short of a presidential handshake, awaited the extra effort, the persevering act of a tired man,” ends his flirtation with nonconformism and stumbles into a leadership role.
Fifty years ago, End Zone set a high-water mark for literary ambition in writing about football, and about football in Texas, and nothing has obviously exceeded it since. (Its closest competitor, actually, might be Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty, another Texas-set book released just one year later, which merits a separate appreciation.) The next, long-awaited great American football novel, however, surely must be more of a truly multiracial affair, reflecting the game’s vast changes since the 1970s.
As such, End Zone is a bit of a product of its time, but it’s also sneakily modern. Gary and Taft’s obsession with coming catastrophe is echoed in a million modern-day social media feeds of young people who intuit a world already on fire and an empire falling apart. The book should speak to these kids, if they can stay offline long enough to read it. And, if anything, over the past fifty years, football has only further cemented its place in American society as a secular church, expiating our violent agitations and salving our misgivings with transcendent notions of fair play and grit.
End Zone is likely to stay relevant well into the future, too, because DeLillo keeps his visionary eye trained on the most timeless and elemental aspects of sport, violence, manhood rituals, teamwork, and discipline as quasi-religious practice in a fallen world. As a teammate keeps telling Gary, “What we do out on that field harks back. It harks back.”