“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.
Illustration by Bianca Stone.
This Sunday, the panty-waisted twinkle-toes in the NFL will embark upon a new season, avoiding contact as if a little ol’ hit would muss their hair. And just supposing some player does manage to put a good lick on someone, ringing his bell just a little bit, you just know the nervous nellies in the No Fun League will come down from their fancy-pants New York City offices and fine the poor bastard.
To read an armful of books about football at the dawn of the season is to be reminded anew how much every other aspect of the sport—the strategizing, the athletes’ balletic skill, the loyalty of the fans—is subordinate to violence. Football is a game in which gigantic fuckers hit each other as hard as they can over and over again. That’s the sport, take it or leave it. Does that mean it’s unethical to watch football? I suspect the answer is yes, and I suspect that I’ll feel mighty guilty as I cheer the Packers on to their Super Bowl victory. I worry, too, that it’s unethical to read about football—at least to read the books of ex-players who glorify the violence of the game in the most predictable way. It turns out there’s never been an era in football in which people didn’t complain that players used to be tougher.
If the brain-rattling hits the authors of football memoirs sustained in their careers haven’t affected their prose, thank their co-authors: sportswriters turned career ghosts, with long experience transforming the banquet-circuit shit-talking of their subjects into not-unreadable product. The men who shepherded two recent examples, Warren Sapp’s Sapp Attack and Tony Siragusa’s Goose, from proposal to finished hardcover, David Fisher and Don Yaeger, are seasoned vets at this game. (Yaeger, also a sometime lobbyist of note, has worked on seven New York Times bestsellers, according to his bio; Fisher claims 17.) Both books follow the trajectory every fan has memorized by now: hardscrabble upbringing, overcoming naysayers in high school, college ball, NFL failure, NFL success, Super Bowl, wild and wacky stories from the road. Save 20 pages at the end for the ins and outs of the subject’s current broadcasting gig, and you’ve got a real book-like object on your hands. (Though such tomes existed before his, John Madden and his co-author, Pulitzer winner Dave Anderson, perfected this template—and came up with the most forthright football-dude’s-book title ever—with 1984’s Hey, Wait a Minute (I Wrote a Book!).)
Like every football book ever written, Sapp Attack and Goose reminisce fondly about the great collisions their authors generated. “I hit him like a ton of Sapps,” says the defensive lineman, describing a particularly brutal sack of Brett Favre. He also tells, with relish, a story about Tim Couch’s ex-fiancée revealing that the quarterback had nightmares about Sapp that woke him up screaming. How does Sapp feel about recent rule changes meant to protect “defenseless” players? “Hey rule people,” Sapp says, in a great example of Fisher capturing a very particular idiom directly out of Sapp’s mouth, “if you are on the field in an NFL game you are not a defenseless player.”
Siragusa, for his part, indulges in the kind of embarrassing tough-guy bullshit that makes discussion of the very real issues threatening the NFL basically impossible. One virtuosic aria:
You can look at the game, you can film it, you can study it, but unless you have the nuts to step on the field you’re never going to understand it. You walk out there and you better have your head on a swivel, the umbilical cord cut, and your nuts dropping so that you’re ready for what’s going to happen. Otherwise, go play tennis. When I see people talking about the violence in the game and how there’s too much of this and that, it aggravates me. I mean, really, what are we doing here? Football, at least the way I was brought up, requires a sense of intimidation. That’s part of the game. Ronnie Lott wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame if it wasn’t for that.
And maybe Dave Duerson wouldn’t be dead if it wasn’t for that, he doesn’t add. I winced when I read, during Sapp’s account of Super Bowl XXXVII, that he declined to put on his helmet for his pregame helmet-banging ritual with Buccaneers teammate John Lynch, instead going bareheaded and staggering away. It’s a moment that brings to mind a story from sportswriter Kevin Cook’s The Last Headbangers, a new account of the NFL’s “rowdy, reckless ‘70s,” in which Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano—enraged before a 1972 playoff battle because his helmet was too large—smashed his head against the cement locker-room wall over and over again. “Knocking his forehead against the wall had made his head swell a little,” Cook writes. “Now the helmet fit.”
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.