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.”
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.”
And anyway, the players in Semi-Tough’s NFL are colorblind in the most important respect: They’ll happily bang any woman, as long as she’s got a nice pair of “lungs” and some sweet “wool.” It’ll be a long time before I forget the masterfully described scene of Giants defensive end T.J. Lambert, the “meanest sumbitch that ever lived,” at a party in Billy and Shake’s penthouse apartment, collecting up three “spade hooks”—“they were hard-hitters and really good-natured”—and lining them up on the mantel over the fireplace. “I can still see them,” Billy recalls admiringly, “sitting up there with their legs spread, singing like the Supremes, while T.J. took turns eating all three.” So frequent is the sex in Semi-Tough that among Billy’s most charming neologisms is stewardi. He just lives the kind of life in which you need an easier-to-pronounce plural for stewardess.
Jenkins doesn’t seem to have been too far off regarding the sexual appetites of NFL players in the ‘70s; according to The Last Headbangers, such was the aura of the NFL that even the production staff at Monday Night Football was awash in wool. And Jenkins’ description of the pregame festivities at the Super Bowl are hilarious: thousands of trained birds painted red, white, and blue; 50 skydivers dressed as states of the union; an astronaut driving Pete Rozelle around in the Indy 500-winning car; the national anthem sung by “two thousand crippled and maimed soldiers on crutches and in wheel chairs and on stretchers.” I laughed out loud when I read it, and I laughed again when I remembered that this satirical ceremony is nearly indistinguishable from the actual pregame ceremony of Super Bowl VII, as described in The Last Headbangers, except that instead of maimed soldiers it was orphans.
In an era of athlete Twitter feeds, opinionated sports blogs, and intense, day-to-day coverage, it’s hard to imagine the football book lasting much longer. Who needs to write a book anymore? It’s all out there already. And who knows how long football itself will last anyway? I don’t know anyone who would let their child play tackle football in high school or college. Even the players struggle with it. Siragusa tells his son, “You’re going to own a team, you’re not going to freaking play.” But he lets him play nonetheless.
In Headbangers, ex-Raider Villapiano worries about his son Mike, a high-school quarterback in Connecticut. “When Mike got dinged—probably concussed—during a high school game,” Cook writes, “the two of them talked about what Mike should do. Sit out a few plays? A few games?” I read on, eager to see how Phil Villapiano would utilize the wisdom earned in 12 NFL seasons, after seeing countless teammates crippled or demented for life. “He couldn’t win games or scholarship offers sitting on the bench,” Cook writes. “So Mike didn’t tell his coach. He didn’t tell anyone. He went back in and led Rumson to a victory. As his proud dad put it, the boy’s got some Raider in him.”
Every football book, no matter how mediocre, contains something fascinating if you look hard enough. The personal revelations that do sneak through are made all the more poignant by their scarcity. I nearly wept when Siragusa, apropos of nothing, wrote, “My wife says she thinks I need an audience, that I can never be alone.” Though I remember nearly nothing from Madden’s Hey, Wait a Minute—a book I read at least 15 times as a kid—I’ll never forget Fred Biletnikoff’s description of what “good hands” actually mean to a receiver: “Good hands means both hands work together. If your right hand reaches out for the ball, your left hand reaches out on the same plane.”
These moments of actual wisdom, hidden among the preening and bragging and tough-guy stance, can make football books worthwhile in the same way that moments of athletic magnificence in between all the penalties and injuries and beer ads make football games worth watching. The truly great football books are packed with such moments: David Maraniss’ Vince Lombardi biography When Pride Still Mattered, say, or Jerry Kramer’s Instant Replay, or presumably some other books that aren’t about the Packers. The typical football book, alas, has maybe three or four.
And Semi-Tough is in, as they say, a league of its own. You want football wisdom? The biggest star on the dog-ass Jets is Dreamer Tatum, a linebacker and “a stud sumbitch” who got his nickname in college because “he put guys to sleep when he hit them.” Dreamer, it turns out, is as much a philosopher as our heroes, as we learn when he meets Billy after the Super Bowl’s final gun. As Billy points out that things could certainly have gone differently—a bad bounce here, a dropped pass there—Dreamer smiles. “Say, I learned something about football, baby,” he says. “What could have happened, did.”