“You Got ‘Dinged.’ You Got ‘Blown Up.’ You Got ‘Thumped.’ You Got ‘Your Bell Rung.’ ”
Football books, old and new, glorify violence and toughness. Let’s hear it for one classic that was more concerned with a good time.
Cook, to his credit, addresses the NFL’s current concussion crisis and gets a quote from “one ‘70s player” that crosses the line from thoughtlessness to self-parody. “In our day,” says the old-timer, “nobody got ‘concussed.’ You never heard that bullshit. You got ‘dinged.’ You got ‘blown up.’ You got ‘thumped.’ You got ‘your bell rung.’ You got ‘smoked.’ You got ‘your clock cleaned.’ You got ‘your head handed to you.’ Fine, you got hit. Get back in the game.” The dissociation of that last euphemism haunts; lots of players have had their heads handed to them, and for many, their heads remain detached, metaphorically or—in the case of the ex-NFL safety Duerson, who shot himself in the chest so his brain could be studied after his death—literally.
For fans of such overheated, overcompensating rhetoric, I recommend Jerry Glanville’s 1990 memoir Elvis Don’t Like Football, which begins with the most wonderful dedication:
This book is dedicated to Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson and John Cougar Mellencamp, the last true rebels of our time.
Glanville’s teams, though just better than mediocre, made a name for themselves in the ‘80s and ‘90s for their relentless—some thought dirty—play. In 1987, his Oilers put a vicious hit on Saints kicker Morten Andersen, separating his shoulder and concussing him. “We didn’t go after his legs,” writes Glanville, who credits the idea for the hit to his strength coach. “We wanted a good, clean, legal shot in the chest.” Andersen recently suggested the hit was the result of a $1,000 bounty. Back in 1990, Glanville wrote: “I can’t imagine an NFL coach putting a bounty on another team’s players.” Then he tells a joke about former Arena League quarterback Ben Bennett. “The opposing team put a case of beer on his head. Unfortunately, Ben drank it.”
These days, Glanville groused in 1990, “kickers wear a lot of lipstick and try not to get their skirts dirty.” One offensive lineman comes under fire for slacking off; he “looked like Tarzan but played like Jane.” (Siragusa uses that same odd construction to describe the late-’90s Colts, with whom he began his career.) And Glanville brags about challenging his team to break 100 facemasks in a single season, a feat I have to hope not even the most sack-happy coach of 2012 would encourage. (Nor would most coaches agree with Glanville’s most provocative declaration: “If you don’t like Bubby Brister, you don’t like football.”)
Were the players of yore tough? Hell yes. Raiders center Jim Otto played 308 consecutive games from 1960 to 1974. After his career, he had 12 knee-replacement surgeries, until nerve damage caused his right leg to essentially die. Does Jim Otto think it was worth it? Almost certainly, writes Cook. In 2007, Otto let doctors saw off that limb and replace it with “a prosthesis stamped with the Raider logo.”
Was it actually worth it? No. Hell no. In these books you’ll read about Terry Bradshaw, Steve Young, and Ken Stabler playing entire halves severely concussed. (“Yo man, I like you,” a woozy Young replied when Sapp asked if he was all right.) Then as now, players who weren’t perceived as tough get vigorously abused; the Steelers used to give out the “Bleeding Pussy Award,” a tampon.
Soon, though, these books—no matter what era they chronicled—get tiring. So much score-settling with old coaches! (Rest assured that Chuck Noll, Ron Meyer, and Sam Wyche were all assholes.) So many proclamations that while others sure played dirty, we sure didn’t. (Sapp’s not-exactly-inspiring explanation: “My check was not going to change because I knocked somebody out.”) So many pointless rehashes of games gone by, like one of those Football Almanacs I devoured as a kid, but with more swearing. (I did enjoy learning that the Raiders used to write FUCK YOU in Magic Marker on game balls.)
After reading all these nonfiction pigskin chronicles, I was ready for a palate-cleanser, and so I turned to Dan Jenkins’ novel Semi-Tough, perhaps the funniest football book ever written, and certainly the dirtiest. A bestseller when it was published in 1972—it eventually became a somewhat tame movie starring Burt Reynolds—Semi-Tough is the diary of star running back Billy Clyde Puckett, as recited into a tape recorder in his “palatial suite here at the Beverly Stars Hotel in Beverly Hills, California,” as his Giants prepare to meet “the dog-ass Jets” in the Super Bowl. Billy’s pal, sportswriter Jim Tom Pinch of the Fort Worth Light & Shopper, is his ghostwriter, and Billy got them both a publishing deal by calling a house and requesting the editor with “the most hyphens in his name.” Sure, he’s getting paid—“a shitpot full of cash, is what it is”—but Billy, an idealist, also thinks his book might have a positive influence on the world. “Not to get too serious about it,” he muses, “but my ideas on football and relationships between athletes could help change the minds of several little old Southern motherfuckers whose families have taught them to hate niggers, hebes, Catholics and whores.”
Oh, right, Warning: Parental Advisory: The words in this book might be a bit offensive. The Giants’ locker room is evenly split between blacks and whites, and Billy Clyde is perceptive, in his casually racist way, about the way they relate to each other. He’s influenced in this by his best friend, receiver Marvin (Shake) Tiller, who’s got “a big old heart in him about like a grapefruit that went around feeling things in regard to the world in general,” and who gives an inspiring locker-room speech early in the novel reminding the team’s “spook” players that if they win enough, they can “go buy a Cadillac and a big house and start fucking up a good white neighborhood—or whatever it is you guys like to do.” Satire, sure, but not functionally all that different from the actual first thing Terry Bradshaw said when he walked into the Steelers’ locker room—“I never seen so many colored guys in one room!”—or the affectionate names Buccaneers teammates Sapp and Brad Culpepper called one another: “Colored” and “Whitey.”
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.