Running Off-Tackle

Now that football has entered the literary life of this country, it has lost its innocence. We’ve begun to study it, analyze it, look behind the scene. We now see that it is no longer simply a game, however violent and complicated, but like other kinds of big-time entertainment a mixed bag of fun and business and virtuosity, and full of the folklore of boyish America. We are now sophisticated enough to know that there isn’t one thing called football: there is the game on the drawing board and the field; there’s the whole entrepreneurial, commercial side; there’s the life-style of the players; there’s the awe and cynicism of the spectators; there’s the inflated industry of sports writing with its façade of “color” and its pretense of revealing the inside stuff; and finally there’s the combination of spectacle and “fandom” and the intricacies and sublimated violence of war games that seems to pull everything together, particularly on Sunday afternoons.

It is George Plimpton’s achievement, probably not consciously, in his sprawling new football book, to get into all these diverse aspects of the sport. I suspect that the reason Plimpton was able to cover so much ground is that the subjects, the personal and football stories of Alex Karras, the appealing Detroit defense tackle, and his teammate, John Gordy, the offensive guard, along with Plimpton’s account of his four-play TV special as the Colt’s quarterback—that these subjects resist focus in the book. And because Plimpton does not pretend to have a tight system of organization or selection, he manages to touch all bases: the game on the field, the locker room, the owners, the coaches, the fans, and the private lives of the players, a good part of which appears to consist of pranks and escapades.

Much of the book is a kind of first-person third-person monologue about Karras and Gordy, but most of it is steeped in that atmosphere of boyishness and machismo that has become the trademark of the all-American man. It’s probably right that Plimpton does not put down completely the kid stuff that so many overgrown football heroes can’t seem to outgrow, for if he had he either couldn’t have written the story or would have produced another exposé. And who needs a football Watergate? Besides, there is nothing so boring as an exposé of something we already know and don’t care about, like the seamy side of sex, for example. With all our other troubles, what contribution to progress and enlightenment is made if we learn that the clean-cut athletic celebrities, the idols of American schoolboys, the pillars of every middle-class locker room, are venal, violent, pill-popping, perverted, full of hate, and so scared they have to work themselves up to forget they’re scared?

True, Plimpton does maintain an idyllic image of Karras and Gordy and |most of their teammates, and, therefore, of football itself. But he does not hide …

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