“If we do not like the survival of the fittest we have only one alternative and that is the survival of the unfittest. The former is the law of civilization; the latter is the law of anti-civilization.”—William Graham Sumner, as cited in Richard Hofstadter’s Social Darwinism in American Thought
“I wasn’t one of Vince’s favorites at Green Bay. When I hurt my knee in a scrimmage before the 1966 season he yelled, ‘Drag him off the field and let’s get on with the scrimmage.’ “—Bob Long recalls his initiation in Lombardi: Winning Is the Only Thing
The idea that football survives as our last undisputed expression of the Social Darwinism of Spencer and Sumner seems first to have drawn the attention of George Sauer, Jr., wide receiver of the New York Jets, while he was reading Eldridge Cleaver:
Our mass spectator sports are geared to disguise, while affording expression to, the acting out in elaborate pageantry of the myth of the fittest in the process of surviving. (Soul on Ice, p. 86)
Sauer has since occupied the void between seasons with refining that notion. His search for the origin of a credo set and never questioned in its church has carried him back, he told me, to the Yale of 1890 where Sumner taught the laws of society and Coach Walter Camp the rules of the game, and where each great preceptor preached from the principle of natural selection.1
Sumner had hardly enunciated his doctrine before having it disputed by Lester Ward and Henry George. But in Camp’s discipline the creed has gone so long without challenge that even now one is shocked to recognize a faint crack in the rock when one of the seven works under discussion appears to decry its fundamentals. That two of the other books should be attacked as heretical is only a mark of the ultra-montanisme of this church: Johnny Sample and Jim Bouton, the displaced Yankee pitcher, complain about the priesthood but they swallow the Revelation entire. Only Dave Meggyesy, the St. Louis linebacker who walked away from the game, can truly be called an apostate among these witnesses.
Meggyesy tells us that athletes call persons who fawn upon them “jocksniffers,” Jock-sniffing is so fixedly the donnée of sports literature that even the memoirs of professionals are often a protracted sniffing of their jocks. Los Angeles quarterback Roman Gabriel’s journal of his 1969 season has, for example, room in it for subjects of such uniform enthusiasm as Mrs. Gabriel’s Christmas present (“a hair-styling comb and brush set…I’m going to take to Minneapolis tomorrow [for a championship game] because it’s equipped with a blower, [and] the heat styles your hair at the same time you blow it”); the dedication of Johnny Unitas (“They had asked him to go to Vietnam that winter, but he turned them down. ‘I wanted $1 million of insurance,’ he told me, ‘and they wouldn’t go for it’….He’s a player’s player always alert to the possibility that athletes will be taken advantage of”); the author’s Volkswagen agency, his Porsche agency, and his interest in Sportstab Vitamins.
There are also his tie-in with Rawlings (“When people ask me for autographed balls, I suggest that they drop by a sporting goods store and get a Rawlings football with my name on it”); his love for his teammates (“We don’t have cliques on the Rams. We’re all brothers on this team”) and his admiration for his coach, George Allen (“The first time Joey Bishop handed him a question, George put in a plug for one of his accounts, Montgomery Ward”). Gabriel’s memoirs are so dreary a mixture of piety and cupidity that it is difficult to find in them any realized purpose at all except to solve the David Eisenhower Christmas Shopping Problem for Mr. Nixon.
Where jock-sniffing for Gabriel is an onanistic activity, Dan Jenkins, a sports writer, can take proper delight in it only according to the degree of its multiplication. He is a man for circuses on a continental scale. Saturday’s America is indeed an intergalactic orgy tour to novae as obscure as Columbia, Missouri, West Lafayette, Indiana, Fayetteville, Arkansas, or any other star where Sports Illustrated had descried the College Game of the Week. At last, when the traveler collapses in the presence of the last coach on the voyage—in this case Woody Hayes of Ohio State—no feeling remains except a bruised reflection rather like Yeats’s on Wilfred Owen (“There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him”).
And yet, reason though we try, the Cross remains so much harder to dismiss than the incense around it. The Cross, of course, is, in this case, a game whose prime social function is to unite us in the feeling that we are all still in high school.
“I suppose I shouldn’t have been,” says Jerry Kramer after his researches into the novitiate before the apotheosis, “but I was amazed by how closely Vince Lombardi, the high school coach, paralleled Vince Lombardi, the professional coach.”
Lombardi had no need to change his methods; he would likely have failed if he had. We are still surprised when we meet a high-school football player who talks like some elder professional; but we ought to have noticed long ago that elder professionals talk like high-school students. “I spent my life,” Dave Meggyesy says, “on the ‘will-I-get-approval?’ trip.” And Lombardi’s special skill in developing men appears to have been for keeping them high-school boys, and best of all boys conscious of the marks of acne still upon them.
“I always doubted myself…. Call it insecurity or anything you want, but that’s what I was like,” Frank Gifford says of himself when Lombardi was his backfield coach with the New York Giants. “And Vinny could put his finger on these elements in a personality. I know that, after a while, it got to a point where I was playing football for just one reason: I was always trying to please him.”
There is the further testament of Max McGee, the wide receiver of the Green Bay Packers, a man sophisticated enough to be recognized as the Fun-loving Rover Boy of the team. Even at thirty-five, McGee says, “I couldn’t stand being embarrassed in front of my teammates. I may not act it all the time, but, basically, I’m a shy guy. I’ve got to be accepted. When he chewed me out in front of my friends, I felt like a complete ass.”
“After practice today, George Allen told me,” Roman Gabriel solemnly records, “that he thinks Larry Smith is one of the few athletes who could ever play regularly for him as a rookie. ‘…I like the way he talks. All he ever says is ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.’ You hardly ever get that kind out of the universities today.’ ”
High school is, one remembers, one of the worst points of moral peril in life, and to no degree more testing than when under the influence of the coach. Johnny Sample, for example, takes particular pleasure in boasting of acts of which he might better be ashamed; he is especially proud of the maiming of Del Shofner, the Giant receiver, in a game absolutely meaningless to his own Pittsburgh Steelers. (“Shofner dived for the ball and caught it about three yards inside and then started rolling out of bounds…. Now I could have jumped over him touching him just enough to down the ball. But I didn’t. And the result was that I broke three of his ribs.”) Johnny Sample was, then, an athlete whose particular vanity lay in hurting people; most of us might hope that he would get over it; but, when he went to the New York Jets, his coach Weeb Ewbank seems to have feared only his moral improvement:
For example, the San Diego Chargers had as a running back a small kid named Dick Post…. Weeb asked me if I thought I could intimidate him and I told him I could. “If you get a chance to get close to him, hit him around a little…[the coach] said…. I got a good shot at [Post], right on his knee…. They took him out because his knee was hurting…. But it wasn’t necessary for the coaches to tell me to do it. It came naturally.
Lombardi spent time as an assistant coach at West Point, when Earl Blaik was in office there. Blaik, it must be confessed, is one of the most impressive men I have ever met; yet consider the moral self-examination which informs his contribution to Winning Is the Only Thing:
Vince was with me when the cribbing scandal broke at West Point, when practically the entire football squad, including my son, was expelled. Next to me, Vince was probably the most depressed person there…. Everything we’d built up, and everything we’d stood for, went right out the window in twenty-four hours. He, like myself, never forgave the people up there, the antifootball people who forced and magnified the whole thing. It was an asinine thing, sheer stupidity. They harmed a lot of young boys.
It did not then, in their grief, nor did it long after, in their regret, seem to have occurred to Blaik and Lombardi that their own obsessions, their own pressures on these young boys, might have had a share in their harm.
And yet, even Dave Meggyesy cannot be sure in truth that, if he had been lucky enough to play for Lombardi, he would ever have turned against the game. And Lombardi was only the mythic heightening of that ideal of the Coach that Meggyesy began to serve in the high school where, in the final game of the season, he carried the ball twelve straight times and on the thirteenth failed to score from the two-yard line and returned to the dressing room to hear his coach say, “If he had hit in there like he did on third down and not tried to pussyfoot it over, he would have made it.”
“I never completely believed in coaches after that,” Meggyesy tells us, “although I wasn’t quite able to step outside the father-son relationship that is football’s cornerstone.” Fifteen years later, in training camp, feeling cut off from the 1968 Democratic convention, he suggested to Rick Sortun, a Cardinal guard, that they write a petition supporting Eugene McCarthy and “see how many ball players we could get to support it.”
“Rick said he felt McCarthy was merely a reformist who would never bring about the kind of significant changes the society needed…. He agreed, however, that the petition would be a good tactic to make the players aware of the coming confrontation between the forces of peace and the forces of war.”
Still, for all the alienation suggested by this dialogue, Meggyesy started as a Cardinal linebacker in the 1968 season; and by the third game of the season, when he had been hit on the head and was struggling to keep up, he was on the one hand supporting Eldridge Cleaver for President and on the other as worried as he had ever been when “I noticed that the coaches were a little cool to me” because of his troubles with headaches.
You can observe, with real respect, those first signs of resistance among the professional athletes of which Meggyesy is an isolated example, and still recognize that their revolt did not begin until the high-school rebellion did.2
There is, of course, the cult of the game as an intellectual exercise; but that is very probably a protective cover for the embarrassment of athletes trapped in what is only a playground and for spectators who get caught sniffing around it. We are impressed to read that Henry Kissinger can go to a football game and tell in advance what every play will be, until we remember that many of us who have wasted enough time watching football can tell precisely what play the quarterback ought to run before he runs it, and sometimes with rather better judgment since we are detached from the damage and distraction that being hit around the head produces.
For these are most primitive activities: Casey Stengel, when he was at the point of success where he did not need intellectual pretension, used to say that the Yankees won because “my donkeys are bigger than their donkeys.” Meggyesy remembers his best year in football as one when his play was most simple-minded. When Gabriel tells us that a middle linebacker must know 180 audibles before he can hope to call the defensive signals, the sensible response is that no one could possibly know 180 of anything.
There are, of course, critical little things, quite beyond any layman’s command, but they mostly have to do with muscle memory and minute observation of the habits of one’s opponent. One’s game, in point of fact, is severely damaged by cerebration; athletes very soon learn, as Walter Beach, a retired cornerback, says, that if you have to think about what to do, you can’t do it. One source of the disquiet Mr. Nixon arouses is his fondness for explaining things with charts, blackboards, and pointers, the materials we especially associate with losing football coaches.
Bouton’s cankered memories of his own pitching coaches go far to dispose of any illusions about the weight of the intellect in these matters:
You’d get a weak left-handed hitter up in Yankee Stadium and somebody would throw him a change up and he hit it into the short porch and [pitching coach Jim] Turner would say, “You can’t throw a change up to a left-handed hitter, boys. Not in this ball park.” A week later a guy would throw the same kind of pitch to the same kind of hitter and the guy would be way out in front and Turner would say, “Change up. One of the best pitches in baseball.” Whatever the result, [Turner] always knew the cause.
Bouton found the same meager rewards in the tutelage of Sal Maglie, who, like Turner, had been revered for his pitching intelligence in his active days in the National League. One doubts, of course, whether either Turner or Maglie had quite known what it was he had been doing when he could do it, or whether the intellect had seemed of any importance until the arm finally flagged. Thereafter, of course, the intellect became transcendent and the affectation of possessing it the only means of and excuse for hanging around the schoolyard. Maglie, at least, could have been almost as comfortably off and his life considerably easier if he had gone back to his liquor store in Buffalo. Still he clung to the game and to his sense of himself as a repository of its store of intellectualization, the resource of the smallest use to its function.3
But refusals to let it go, like Maglie’s, are the heart of the game’s mystery. We escape no further from the game than to ambivalence about it, being alarmed to see others possessed by it yet uneasy with every sign of its diminishing possession of us.
“During those years when most men of promise achieve an adult education,” Scott Fitzgerald reflected, “Ring [Lardner] moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy’s game…. However deeply Ring might cut it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond.”
It was never that [Lardner] was completely sold on athletic virtuosity as the be-all and end-all of problems; the trouble was that he could find nothing else. Imagine life conceived as a business of beautiful muscular organization—an arising, an effort, a good break, a sweat, a bath, a meal, a love, a sleep—imagine it achieved; then imagine trying to apply that standard to the horribly complicated mess of living, where nothing, even the greatest conceptions and workings and achievements, is else but messy, spotty, tortuous—and then one can imagine the confusion that Ring faced on coming out of the ballpark.
“Ring,” from The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald, p. 37.
And yet the Fitzgerald who, with a precision so kindly, could isolate the illusion that had kept Ring Lardner from ever quite growing up, carried it in his own heart a long while after his head had discarded it. The dream endured for him as a device for quieting himself in his struggle with insomnia:
Once upon a time [I tell myself] they needed a quarterback at Princeton, and they had nobody and were in despair. The head coach noticed me kicking and passing on the side of the field, and he cried, “Who is that man—why haven’t we noticed him before?”
…we go to the day of the Yale game. I weigh only one hundred and thirty-five pounds, so they save me for the third quarter, with the score….
But it’s no use—I have used that dream of a defeated dream to induce sleep for almost twenty years, but it has worn thin at last. I can no longer count on it—though even now on easier nights it has a certain lull….”
Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up, p. 66
The persistence of feelings thus mixed is epitomized in the figure of Walter Beach, a cornerback on the champion Cleveland Browns of 1964. Beach came late to the game; he was thirty when he finished college and had the hardest way to go. He was acquired and dropped by the New York Giants, and then picked up by the Boston Patriots in the old American Football League, breaking his contract after two years because the team’s management consented to segregated housing for its Negro players while they were playing in New Orleans. The Cleveland Browns took him up in 1962 and he was a regular on that team through 1966.
Beach did not get into trouble until two years after the championship, first because he made the mistake of reading Elijah Muhammad’s “Message to a Black Man” while riding in an airplane with Art Modell, the team’s owner. “Why I’ve done more for the colored than the colored do for themselves,” Modell told him then.
He got into worse trouble by getting himself injured in 1966. He was not restored to his regular position after his recovery; in 1967, the Browns refused either to invite Beach to their training camp or to sell him to another team. The Browns first withdrew him from their waiver list when New Orleans wanted him and then, two weeks later, put him on waivers again, having presumably made themselves certain that New Orleans had gotten the message.
Beach is at Yale Law School now, and is suing the National Football League for having blacklisted him. He talks about the game with the bitter, adult realism earned by his grievance; yet it can still command a part of him. He works in the prosecutor’s office in New Haven and, one evening in January, he was invited by the county sheriff to address the championship celebration of Derby, Connecticut’s Pop Warner peewee football team. On the way over, the sheriff talked about how much he enjoyed the company of Bobby Seale.
The scene was the Sunday school of a religion whose doctrine is a closed question. None of the children was older than twelve; Walter Beach and one child were the only blacks present. The coach of the high school was there to salute them. “The Pop Warner League is a farm team for us,” he said. “So work with the weights, and get on the books and, when you’re twice as tall, four times heavier and five times as vicious come to see me.”
Walter Beach talked about how much you need to know to play football, touched very delicately on its secondary importance (“Football is great, but thinking is better”) and stopped, his popularity undiminished by this slight whiff of heresy, forgivable in his case, as in a Monsignor’s, because of the immunity of his ring. Afterward the children came to touch the 1964 championship ring. “This,” said one of their elders, “is what all of you are aiming for.” A witness wondered whether Walter Beach ordinarily wore the ring or whether he put it on only for occasions like this one when he was a ceremonial object.
“I’ll always wear it,” he answered. “Like I’ll always remember how it felt coming off the field in the snow and the darkness after that game. It is a feeling you do not forget.” The last memory, after Art Modell and all the owners have faded, will be, even for this grownup, that special moment of joy and community.
The uneasiness that Meggyesy causes among football players who, even if not revolted by it, have attained detachment from the game as an institution is, I think, caused by his heroic effort to expel every trace of this ambivalence. Anyone who doubts his indictment need only confirm it by reading Lombardi: Winning Is the Only Thing, where acts as callous and brutal as those Meggyesy arraigns as evidence of vice are celebrated as proof of virtue. Meggyesy’s book, almost as much as his person, is a most moving instance of a man’s search to be honest and to find a decent alternative for this way of life.
Yet the most pained and not the least scornful critic he will have is George Sauer, whose review of Out of Their League was written for the Newark Sunday News. Sauer does not object too strenuously to the general count of Meggyesy’s indictment, although he does question its methodology, being of that old-fashioned academic bent which is snobbish about sociologists. But what pains him most is Meggyesy’s entire negation of the game itself:
Indeed he strongly teases one’s incredulity when he says that “Even now after playing for fourteen years, I can’t really say that there is any worth in the game. I just can’t separate the game from the payoffs—approval, money, adulation.
Pete Axthelm’s The City Game is a clue to that residual sentiment about games which confuses Sauer as it does the rest of us who know so much less than he. Axthelm has really written two books which do not lie easily together. One is an account of the championship season of the New York Knickerbockers basketball team. It is highly superior jock-sniffing and has besides the advantage of a climax in one of the great scenes of the game’s myth—the sight of Willis Reed, the Knickerbocker captain, coming wounded onto the court for the last game, like El Cid dead in his cuirass borne at the head of his company for the final battle outside Valencia. Images are always strained in subjects so banal; still, when I am amused to hear that all the New York Giants cried over Love Story, I have to confess to myself that I cry at descriptions of scenes like Willis Reed’s. Otherwise, Axthelm’s Knick history cannot hold us much; as Edmund Wilson said about murder mysteries, who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd? It becomes impossible in every sports book to care who was on second when someone came in to pitch for the Seattle Pilots.
The other half of The City Game is quite something else; I suspect that I have never read a better book about New York. Axthelm’s subject here becomes the rite of passage in Harlem schoolyard basketball; his heroes are the boys who never escaped that schoolyard and who wasted their lives leaping there—legends with names like The Hawk and The Helicopter, men who stuffed themselves on Wilt Chamberlain and then drifted off into drugs or lonely country colleges and came back only to leap in that schoolyard again. It is curious that none of the Knicks Axthelm celebrates as the apotheosis of the New York style of basketball ever grew up in the schoolyards of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant; but then what child could survive the streets around Saint Peter’s and grow up to be Pope?
Axthelm’s stories, with their almost uniformly sad endings, will serve social historians to underline the observation a black Texas coach made to Jack Olsen:
A white kid tries to become President of the United States and all the skills he picks up on the way can be used in a thousand different jobs. A black kid tries to become Willie Mays, and all the tools he picks up on the way are useless to him if he doesn’t become Willie Mays.4
Still, how to dismiss that joy of the game which somehow unites George Sauer staking out his pass patterns in the clear morning of the stadium before the game and Axthelm’s manchildren still leaping and dreaming in the schoolyard? Is any such life entirely wasted? For even Dave Meggyesy will talk with special pleasure—a sudden infusion of joy—about the touch football he still plays now and then in Berkeley. “We are,” he smiles, “claimants to the championship of Hanoi Park.” It is in the face of the delight of that thought that the listener comes truly to appreciate how strong a character Meggyesy needed to make his stern refusal.
February 11, 1971
“Yale, after all, produced Walter Camp himself, ‘the father of American football,’ who gave us the down system, the idea of eleven players to a side and modern scoring” (Dan Jenkins, Saturday’s America). Also the game’s first law of civilization, a precept so enduring as to be taken for granted nearly seventy years later by Johnny Sample, an old Blue whose actual university had been the Eastern shore’s shabby, black Maryland State. In his first year as a professional, Sample had displaced Jesse Thomas as cornerback for the Baltimore Colts: ↩
The social philosophy of sport remains so encased in the nineteenth century that its votaries habitually attack the few rebels from within its society in the terms the nineteenth century used to employ against its rebels, that is, not as traitors, but as envenomed victims of a remorseless but fair Darwinian process. It is thus argued that Meggyesy did not begin to revolt or Bouton to gossip until each had learned that he could not make it in his game. ↩
The Harvard Program on Technology and Society has lately undertaken a study of the professional athlete as a model of the performance of industrial managers. The successful football player, the project director, Michael Maccoby, surmises, represents the sort of person who “wants to do what needs to be done for the organization.” ↩
Melvin Rogers in Jack Olsen, The Black Athlete, a Time-Life Book, 1968. ↩