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ABOUT THE TITLE
I got all my stuff together one time, and then I couldn't lift it. —ROGER MILLER
PRO FOOTBALL PLAYERS ARE adults who fly through the air in plastic hats and smash each other for a living. I now know a bunch of them, and I think they are good folks. They are made up, loosely speaking, of rickety knees, indoctrination, upward mobility, pain tolerance, public fantasies, meanness, high spirits, brightly colored uniforms, fear, techniques, love of games, Nutrament (a diet supplement used, sometimes with steroid drugs, for "bulking up"), corporate kinesthesia, God-given quickness, and heart. Sober, one of them told me, "What it boils down to is, sacrifice your body with a picture in your mind." Drinking, one of them told me, "When I'm on the football field I'm a knight in shining armor. When I'm selling insurance I'm just an asshole." Stoned, one of them told me, "You can be hit so hard it burns." High on the game he had just played, one of them told me, "There was no other world outside it. There was nothing."
But there was a rich penumbra. I recall the afternoon of November 11, 1973. The Pittsburgh Steelers were beating the Oakland Raiders, 17-9, in a tempestuous game, in Oakland, on national TV. It was drizzling rain, great hunks of ill-rooted sod were flying through the air, sea gulls were frenetic overhead, Oakland fans were roaring and pulsing ambiguously ... it was like standing in the eye of a tumbler washing machine, only noise and throat-figures all around instead of soapsuds and clothes. Steelers were running off the field with snot on their moustaches and glee and strain and grass blades in their eyes, and Craig Hanneman, a reserve defensive end from Oregon with whom I had often chewed snuff, turned to me on the mushy sidelines and cried:
"You picked the right team! Oh, a great bunch of guys! And a bunch of crazy fuckers! I'm crazy too! We're all about three bricks shy of a load!" Hanneman's last sentence—as an expression of wild approval, which I shared, tinged with then-unintended undertones of fallibility, which I tried to register as the year went on—summed up my six months with the Pittsburgh National Football League team better than anything else.
I spent the 1973 NFL campaign, from the first day of training camp in July through the draft in January, loafing with (to use the old Pittsburgh term for hanging around with) a rich mixture of Steeler or Steeler-related persons: players, coaches, scouts, fans, wives, girl friends, relatives, media people, front office people, hangers-on and prospects. I fooled around the periphery of practice, habituated the dressing room, experienced games from the bench, and followed people home. I helped Mean Joe Greene, the tackle, buy his wife a birthday card; lost 11-10 in electronic Ping-Pong to Franco Harris, the running back; heard Terry Bradshaw, the quarterback, sing his own songs and speak of welding; considered stereo buys with Frenchy Fuqua, the running back; chatted up nurses with Moon Mullins, the tackle-guard; played the horses with Art Rooney, the patriarch; and listened to Center Ray Mansfield's little girl play "Faith of Our Fathers" on the clarinet. I talked labor-management with vice-president Dan Rooney (management) and player rep Andy Russell (labor, but he sells tax shelters). I threw my arm out returning Kicker Roy Gerela's field goals to him in the cold; elicited catcalls from Palm Springs residents by dropping (in street shoes) eight end zone passes from Quarterback Terry Hanratty; and sprained my ankle and had it taped up with a vengeance by trainer Ralph Berlin. I reminisced fleetingly about candy bars with head coach Chuck Noll, met a man who steals phonograph records for a living (can't give his name), saw tackle Jon Kolb's goat, and was helped up off the floor by Bill Nunn, the scout, at 3 o'clock in the morning in a black after-hours club in Jackson, Mississippi. I gained some thirteen pounds of Steeler-related beer and perhaps an ounce or two (from pushing on the leg-weight machine while talking to people with knee injuries) of Steeler-related sinew. I shared linebacker Jack Ham's shampoo, interviewed at her insistence Mrs. Bruce (guard) Van Dyke's obstetrician, and heard the word "collision" used as a transitive verb. I hardly ever did anything I wanted to do.
By just sort of drifting around, and not having any readily discernible immediate objective, I became more intimate than a press person, more detached than a football person, and possessed of a certain amount of gossip from all angles. As the bricks in the load shifted, I acquired interstitial inklings of how players, coaches, scouts, fans, press and front office people fit together and how they viewed each other. (Generally, as necessary evils.)
On the one hand the Steelers in '73 didn't make the Super Bowl, or even, as they had the year before, win a playoff game by a miracle; on the other hand none of them was caught up by tragedy—though two of the coaches were fired, two of the marriages broke up, and Mansfield, the veteran center known as the Old Ranger, did once offer, if it would help my narrative, to die of a pinched nerve. The Steelers won ten of their fourteen regular-season games and made the playoffs, but they were proved not to be as inevitable as they and their supporters thought they were. The previous year was the year the franchise lost its maiden, winning its first title, but '73 was a year that innocence was lost. I never had a headier year in my life, though, than I did checking out the various feels and levels of the Pittsburgh load of bricks.
I doubt that Chuck Noll—a constrainedly low-keyed man and reputed gourmet cook who speaks in terms of programming, preparation, adulthood and "good experiences"—would like to think of his team as being three bricks shy of a load, which is comparable to playing with less than a full deck. But what deck that is worth anything can ever be said to be full, and what is so boring as a complete, neatly squared away load of bricks? "We don't have the peaks and valleys," said a member of the NFL champion Miami Dolphins; neither do expressways through Kansas. The great thing in sports and nature is the way bricks slip and reassemble in unexpected combinations. That, for all the coaches' planning, is how the Steelers won games and lost them. The Steelers and the people around them were a great miscellany of minds, bodies, backgrounds and visions of reality, held firmly but hazardously together by the goal of winning all the marbles. In '73 they won only a good share of them—like most enterprises they fell short at the end, and heads rolled and players felt bleak and the fans in Pittsburgh very nearly started saying "The Same Old Steelers" again. But the Steelers' mix was more than their aim.
I want to thank the Rooneys, Noll, engagingly upfront publicists Ed Kiely and Joe Gordon, and everybody else in the Steeler organization for the access and help—not to mention the almost unlimited Vitamin-E-and-wheat-germ pills and cigars—they afforded me, and Andre Laguerre, Roy Terrell, Ray Cave, Gil Rogin, and Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated for their guidance and sponsorship; and the men in Black and Gold—Hanneman, just for instance, for the title and the snuff.CHAPTER 2
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
Après moi, le déluge, i.e., first things first. —FATHER ORFE IN CARDS OF IDENTITY, BY NIGEL DENNIS
ONE DAY LATE IN December 1972, Andre Laguerre, then managing editor of Sports Illustrated, summoned me, one of the staff writers, and said he wanted somebody to live with a pro football team for a season and write a book about it.
Well. I was thirty-one years old and just divorced, so I was at suitably loose ends, but otherwise I wasn't sure about the idea. I came into sportswriting unexpectedly from a newspaper job in which I made fun of, and occasionally deigned to talk to, politicians. I was the natural man, the politicians were the connivers. I was primary, they were secondary. In sportswriting I found it to be the other way around: the athletes were instinctive artists, just trying to stay inspired and exercise their craft, and I was in the position of trying to get them to conceptualize, to say something that they tended to feel would somehow get them into social, financial or ontological trouble. I will never entirely get over the sensation of realizing that my boyhood idol Willie Mays disliked me on sight. The fact that every other writer I know who ever tried to talk to Mays came away with the same impression does not really help. "Willie," I said to him at one point, "do you realize that the last eight innings you've led off, you've gotten on base seven times?"
"Man," he said, "I don't keep up with that shit."
All I want to happen to me in heaven is for Willie Mays to come up to me and say, by no means humbly, but appreciatively, "Do you realize that in the last eight descriptive sentences you've written you've used only one adjective?"
"Man," I will say (nicely, but firmly), "I don't keep up with that shit."
I prefer doing outré sports stories—coon hunting, synchronized swimming, an eighty-two-year-old lifeguard. I like to hang around with people I feel I am in the same boat with, which is to say that we are all confused but have visionary flashes occasionally and like to argue and tell stories. Then I like to go back to my office and render these people as semisympathetic characters, which entails a certain amount of betrayal I-Thou-wise, but after all, if you hang around with an eighty-two-year-old lifeguard you put up with certain things, and the same goes for hanging around with a writer. Everybody, as subject or object, is a semisympathetic character at best.
But whoever did this book was going to have to spend a lot of time in a big-time dressing room. Big-time dressing rooms had always made me nervous. For one thing I could never spend longer than a few minutes in one without being galled by not having my own stool and uniform and helmet, or glove, and some of those cleated shoes that click on hard floors like the bears' claws on the cement in the zoo. Faulkner said a novelist is a failed short-story writer who is a failed poet. I am a failed linebacker, or defensive end. I have gotten over those ambitions, at least vocationally, altogether (now I want to be a man who operates a steam shovel), but still my reaction around football practice is like that of my four-year-old boy Kirven. When I took Kirven to watch the Steelers practice he enjoyed it until he realized nobody in uniform was going to chase him. Then he wanted to go home. So he missed meeting Johnny Unitas, which was probably just as well considering the moods he and Unitas were in. (While the two moods were not identical, they were perhaps comparable, as we shall see.)
Another thing is that I had never liked being around a lot of people each of whom could so easily beat me half to death that there wouldn't be any point to it. It's not that I actively fear or feel antagonism toward football players. Many people do, I think, including football fans. And so might I, if I had gone to a college where jocks were more freely indulged than they were at Vanderbilt in the early sixties, where several Commodores were my friends— which may bear a relation to how seldom the Commodores won. Some drunk Georgia Bulldogs once threatened to kill my sister Susan and peed on her date's foot at a house party, and when she complained to Coach Vince Dooley he said the boys were under a great deal of pressure.
I never saw any Steelers bully any civilians, and in fact I saw some of them contain themselves when people were being pointedly obnoxious. "Lemme at them," I remember crying one night. "I'll pee on the bastards' feet."
"No," I was told. "It would reflect adversely on the organization."
I just made that up. But whenever I heard of Steelers being involved in barroom brawls I did wish, irrationally, that I had been there and had pitched in by doing what I once did as a fraternity pledge raiding the Sigma Chi house in college: leapt from the top of some stairs onto a crowd that was dragging a fellow pledge up the stairs toward the shower and knocked a good dozen people all the way down the whole long flight, in a thrashing heap. And ran.
But it wouldn't have been that way for me in a pro football brawl. I would have been hit spang in the middle of the face so hard that not only were my glasses broken and I had to be led back to the car but I also lost forever my sense of taste. That's what happened to a man I know who was fool enough to get in a fistfight because it seemed like the thing to do at the time. And the boys would have told me, "Well, you certainly took all the fun out of that donnybrook." (Or whatever the appropriate term would be. In Pittsburgh they call a brawl a "hey-rube.")
I had always felt uncomfortable in a big-time dressing room because everybody who belonged in it had laid his body on the line. I imagine that if you hang around a showgirls' dressing room for very long without making an advance you feel like a eunuch. Hanging around a sports dressing room without ever having knocked anyone in it down, or tried to take his job, or helped him knock someone else down, tended to make me feel wispy.
Not that I am, by any means, of a mind with the civilians who come up to Van Dyke in Pittsburgh bars and try to get him to go one-on-one with them—the civilian rushing some imaginary quarterback, Van Dyke blocking—in the parking lot. "I know you'll beat me," such a man once said, "but I just want to see."
"This one guy was so nice about it," Bruce said. "I almost did it, he wanted me to so bad."
"I drove it," Ray Mansfield said. "And I'd've killed him."
"Well, but you can't ..." said Van Dyke.
"I think I'll start carrying a couple of helmets in my car. And when some guy comes up with something like that, I'll do it."
"Well, but ..." said Van Dyke.
"And I'll kill him," Mansfield said.
I don't have any desire to test myself against the best hitters, or to make a living hitting, any more than I want to make a living punching cows. I just want to act like a cowboy, and sing cowboy songs. (Interestingly enough, there are no pro football player songs, in the sense that there are cowboy songs. I thought about trying to write one during the season, but the closest thing I could produce was the title to an Ode to a Stewardess: "My Seat Back, Tray-Table and You Know What / Are in a Full Upright Position Over You.")
But there is a shared sense of hardiness around a sports dressing room which a reporter pointedly does not share. Often have I watched a fellow reporter prying away (most often deferentially) at a sports figure in his cubicle after a game—trying to get him to say something catchy and courageous about the trials and tribulations of being the only Jewish defensive end on a team run by Arabs, say—and felt that I shared with everyone in the dressing room this unvoiced assumption: Well, old B. B. (short for Booger Bear, the sports figure's cognomen, richly earned in hand to hand combat with people justly named Hercules Koskov, W. W. "Bad" Tydings, C. M. "Crazy Mother" McFarlane and Boulder Feoli) could just stand up suddenly and with the updraft of his chest knock old Herb (the reporter) over into that pile of peeled-off bandages over there, if he wanted to.
Not that the likelihood of B. B.'s physically squelching Herb was high. (Though such a thing has certainly happened—I remember a New York baseball writer saying how much he liked Ralph Houk of the Yankees even though Houk had once picked him up by the shirt, in answer to a question, and held him against the wall of his office.) But the very fact that B. B. was refraining from the use of his physical presence against Herb—when that physical presence was the primary reason both of them were there—diminished Herb's stature. Conceivably, though by no means necessarily, Herb could have squelched B. B. intellectually, but there would never seem to be any point to that in a dressing room. For one thing, if Herb tried it, then B. B. probably would put him over into the pile of bandages, with some justice.
Excerpted from About Three Bricks Shy of a Load by Roy Blount Jr.. Copyright © 2004 Roy Blount Jr.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted January 23, 2014