August 30, 2009


Zero Of The Lions (George Plimpton, 9/0764, Sports Illustrated)

As a football player, the zero wedged unheroically at left between the broad backs of Nick Pietrosante (33) and Jim Gibbons (80) of the Detroit Lions is a nothing who even keeps his helmet on because it hurts his ears to pull it off. He is the author, and he is about to take the field for the climax of what began as no more than a Walter Mitty daydream. He had long wondered—as has every follower of the sport—what it would feel like to quarterback a professional football team. Sports Illustrated approached the Detroit Lions, who were willing to oblige him before several thousand fans in their big preseason scrimmage. What follows is his account of the smashing career of the most naive, inept, befuddled, tolerated and unnerved quarterback that pro football has ever known[...]

Raymond Berry, the knowledgeable Baltimore end, once told me that I would survive a scrimmage if I played his position (out on the flank) and was sure to stay out of what he referred to as the "pit"—a designation that often came to mind just before my participation in scrimmages. It was an area, as he described it, along the line of scrimmage, perhaps 10 yards deep, where at the centering of the ball the Neanderthal struggle began between the opposing linemen. The struggle raged within a relatively restricted area that was possible to avoid. Berry himself, when he told me this, had wandered into the pit only three times in his career—coming back to catch poorly thrown buttonhook passes falling short—and he spoke of each instance as one might speak of a serious automobile accident. The particulars were embalmed in his memory in absolute clarity: that year, in that city, at such-and-such a game, during such-and-such a quarter, when so-and-so, the quarterback, threw the ball short, his arm jogged by a red-dogging linebacker, so that Berry had to run out of his pattern back toward the scrimmage line so many yards to catch it, and it was so-and-so, the 290-pounder, who reached an arm out of the ruck of the pit and dragged him down into it.

"One thing to remember when you do get hit," Berry told me in his soft Texas accent, "is to try to fall in the foetus position. Curl up around the ball, and keep your limbs from being extended, because there'll be other people coming up out of the pit to see you don't move any, and one of them landing on an arm that's outstretched, y'know, can snap it."

"Right," I said.

"But the big thing is just stay out of that area."

"Sure," I said.

But when I arrived to train with the Lions at Cranbrook I disregarded his advice. What I had to try to play was quarterback, because the essence of the game was involved with that position. The coaches agreed, if reluctantly, and after the front office had made me sign some papers absolving them of any responsibility, I became the "last-string" quarterback, and thus stood in Berry's pit each time I walked up behind the center to call signals. He was right, of course. One of the first plays I called at Cranbrook landed me in the pit. It was a simple hand-off play. Opposite me across the line the linebackers were all close up, shouting, "Jumbo! Jumbo! Jumbo!" which is one of the Lion code cries to red-dog, to rush the quarterback. When the snapback came I fumbled the ball, gaping at it, mouth ajar, as it rocked back and forth gaily at my feet, and I flung myself on it, my subconscious shrilling, "Foetus! Foetus!" as I tried to draw myself in like a frightened pill bug, and I heard the sharp strange whack of gear, the grunts—and then a sudden weight whooshed the air out of me.

It was Dave Lloyd, a 250-pound linebacker, who got through the line and got to me. A whistle blew and I clambered up, seeing him grin inside his helmet, to discover that the quick sense of surprise that I had survived was replaced by a pulsation of fury that I had not done better. I swore lustily at my clumsiness, hopping mad, near to throwing the ball into the ground, and eager to form a huddle to call another play and try again. The players were all standing up, some with their helmets off, many with big grins, and I heard someone calling, "Hey, man, hey, man!" and someone else—John Gordy, I think, because he said it all the time—called out, "Beautiful, real beautiful." I sensed then that an initiation had been performed, a blooding ceremony. Wayne Walker said, "Welcome to pro ball." Something in the tone of it made it not only in reference to the quick horror of what had happened when I fumbled but in appreciation that I had gone through something that made me, if tenuously, one of them, and they stood for a while on the field watching me savor it.

But the trouble was that the confidence that came with being blooded did not last long. After 10 minutes, kneeling on the sidelines quaking with eagerness to be called again, one would feel it begin to seep away, and the afternoon would be gone, and when the night came, in the cubicle-sized rooms of the boys'-school dormitory where we slept, what was left would edge completely away, skirting the discomfiture and insecurity that waited, as palpable as cat burglars, to move in.

It made sleep at night difficult to come by—a problem not so much for me as for the rookies, who had their careers at stake. Frank Imperiale, in the daylight hours trying for an offensive guard position, told me that it was often 4 o'clock before he could get to sleep. He would lie and listen to the hands of the big clocks in the corridors click forward every minute, which I had noticed too, audibly, like post-office boxes clicking shut, and he would count from one click to the next, trying to match them to the count of 60. He got expert at it, mumbling his numbers in the darkness. There were variations he could switch to. His room was next to a latrine, which had a row of urinals that flushed automatically every 53 or 83 seconds, I forget which, and Imperiale would count the seconds off to whichever number it was, and when he got there a low moan of machinery would rise from next door and culminate in a harsh flush of water. Mainly Imperiale kept at his numbers to keep his mind off football and his chances of making the team [he did not] and to bore himself to sleep. But every once in a while his mind's eye would fill with a vision, always the same: an enormous phantom lineman opposite him on the line of scrimmage, down in his crouch, the hard eyes staring out from his helmet, and when Imperiale launched himself at the figure he did so with such an effort to establish contact, muscles straining, that in his bed he suddenly felt pounds lighter, not far from levitating himself completely, sailing up off the bed stiff as an ironing board, and then with a gasp he would collapse back, the sweat beginning to flow. He would blink his eyes open and shut to remove the image.

Imperiale had the fortune, nonetheless, of having a single illusory opponent to take care of. Mine, either in the closeness of my dormitory room or in my mind's eye as I sat gloomily on the bench at Pontiac, gaping vacantly out at the field where the contests were concluding, came in great numbers, cliffs of defensive linemen, toppling toward me, calling out, "Jumbo! Jumbo! Jumbo!" nearly loud enough to drown out, but not quite, the schoolmaster's pawky voice whispering close at hand, "Son, do this, son, do that," manifestations of insecurity so discomfiting that to cease being a captive audience to them I ripped off my helmet, despite the fact that game time was only minutes away, and let the outside noise of the crowd wash over me.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 30, 2009 12:00 PM
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