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The Very Best Writing On The National Sport
By John Schulian
The Library Of AmericaCopyright © 2014 Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Of the millions upon millions of words lavished on football, the most famous, quoted, and parodied may be those written by Grantland Rice (1880–1954) as he feverishly transformed Notre Dame's backfield into mythological heroes: "Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below." Rice was just getting warmed up. His column for the October 18, 1924 edition of the New York Herald Tribune is, by contemporary standards, a hallucinogenic stew of gaudy prose and carpet-sample metaphors. But it was a product of a different time—no TV, not everyone had a radio—and Rice piled on the adjectives as he tried to paint the most vivid word picture possible. A courtly former Vanderbilt football player, he was the star of the Herald Trib's sports page throughout the Roaring Twenties and the Depression, and one of the nation's most beloved syndicated columnists. In the following excerpt from his 1954 memoir The Tumult and the Shouting, he trots out Ring Lardner, Knute Rockne, and George Gipp before explaining his inspiration for those four overwrought but unforgettable horsemen.
The Tumult and the Shouting
Coach Jesse Harper of Notre Dame took the real forward pass east in 1913. He brought it to West Point where Army and Notre Dame met that year for the first time. Harper gave the ball to quarterback Gus Dorais, who threw it to his broken-nosed roommate, Knute Rockne. Rockne caught it and Army was slaughtered 35–13. I didn't meet Rockne on that trip. I met him some years later when I returned to the Point after he became head coach at Notre Dame.
Ring Lardner, a keen Notre Dame and midwestern rooter, went with me on that trip to the Point in the fall of 1920. We ran into John J. McEwan, the big Army assistant coach. John J. was loaded with confidence. One of Army's all-time centers, John coached the Cadet line. Army's strong squad was headed by the flying Walter French, who earned his spurs—and an appointment to West Point—at Rutgers.
"I understand," said Lardner, "that Rockne is coming in again with that kid named Gipp."
"Who the hell is Gipp?" snorted McEwan.
"You'll find out at ten minutes to two tomorrow," replied Lardner.
McEwan did. With Army and the irrepressible French leading 17–14 at half time, Gipp put on a second half one-man rodeo as the Irish pulled out the game 27–17.
"How'd you like Gipp as a football player?" I asked McEwan after the game.
"Gipp is no football player," retorted McEwan. "He's a runaway son of a bitch!" One of the more volatile English instructors in West Point's long history, McEwan's descriptives remain as pungent as they are concise.
Self-reliant as a wild mustang, George Gipp came out of the iron-ore country near Calumet, Michigan, on Lake Superior's Keweenaw peninsula. He came up the hard way, but at making his point on a football field, Gipp could open with sevens and keep rolling 'em. He had more than his share of speed, power, daring and deception. At times he even baffled Rock. The following, told to me by a former Notre Dame star and assistant coach, occurred during the intermission of the historic 1920 Army game.
"Being behind by three points, Rock was really laying into the boys," he said. "He had about finished and Gipp, standing nearby, asked me for a drag of my cigarette. Rock looked up and spotted Gipp leaning against the door, his helmet on the back of his head, puffing the cigarette.
"Rock exploded, 'As for you, Gipp,' he crackled, 'I suppose you haven't any interest in this game ...?'
"'Listen, Rock,' replied Gipp, 'I've got five hundred dollars bet on this game; I don't aim to blow any five hundred!' "
Rock was younger then. Later, not even Gipp would have got away with it.
One of Rock's greatest gangs was his 1924 team that featured a veteran array of backs functioning behind a powerful, combative line.
In the fall of 1923, Army met Notre Dame at Ebbets Field because the World Series between the Yankees and the Giants was taking place at the Polo Grounds. I preferred the football game. That afternoon I took along "Brink" Thorne, Yale's great 1895 captain. We had only sideline passes so Brink and I watched from the rim of the playing field. In one wild end run, the Irish backfield of Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller and Elmer Layden, swept off the field over the sideline. At least two of them jumped over me, down on my knees.
"It's worse than a cavalry charge," I said to Brink. "They're like a wild horse stampede."
That thought occurred to me a year later at the Polo Grounds when that same backfield beat Army 13–7 en route to an undefeated year, and the "Four Horsemen" emerged on my copy paper. I'm afraid it was those four football players who averaged only 157 pounds and the glory they won that made the phrase stick.
They were an amazing four men. Fullback Elmer Layden, better than a 10-second sprinter, weighed 164 and was the heaviest of the lot. Quarterback Stuhldreher, at 154 pounds, was the lightest; and the halfbacks Miller and Crowley were in between. Layden could run, block, kick and handle a forward pass. Fast and shifty, the Four Horsemen had a brand of rhythm that was beautiful to watch. They were a hardy lot and were seldom hurt. They could all block and tackle and carry the ball—the memory of them made me scoff a little during the days of platoon football, with offensive and defensive specialists cluttering up the premises each Saturday afternoon.
All were keen and smart. Rockne liked players on his squad like these four—all individualists who did their own thinking.
W. C. Heinz
When W. C. Heinz (1915–2008) returned from covering World War II in Europe, it was an honor for a copy boy just to open the crate in which his typewriter had been shipped back to the New York Sun. The paper's editors tried to reward Heinz by posting him in the Washington bureau, but he had other ideas, and they involved sports. He wanted to write about more than wins and losses; he wanted to dig deep into the games that transfixed the nation, and the men who played and coached them, and the forces that drove those men, sometimes to the limits of courage and nobility. In doing so he refined a style that employed the techniques of fiction—scenes, dialogue, character—and would two decades later be hailed as the New Journalism. But Bill Heinz never claimed to be doing anything more than writing as well as he could, whether it was for his Sun sports column, magazines like Life, True, and Sport, or his memorable collaboration with Vince Lombardi, Run to Daylight! (1963), which detailed a week in the life of the legendary coach as he remade the Green Bay Packers in his image. When you read Heinz's profile of Red Grange, pro football's first great broken-field runner—written for True's November 1958 issue—his artistry won't be conspicuous, but it is there between the lines.
The Ghost of the Gridiron
When I was ten years old I paid ten cents to see Red Grange run with a football. That was the year when, one afternoon a week, after school was out for the day, they used to show us movies in the auditorium, and we would all troop up there clutching our dimes, nickels or pennies in our fists.
The movies were, I suppose, carefully selected for their educational value. They must have shown us, as the weeks went by, films of the Everglades, of Yosemite, of the Gettysburg battlefield, of Washington, D.C., but I remember only the one about Grange.
I remember, in fact, only one shot. Grange, the football cradled in one arm, started down the field toward us. As we sat there in the dim, flickering light of the movie projector, he grew larger and larger. I can still see the rows and rows of us, with our thin little necks and bony heads, all looking up at the screen and Grange, enormous now, rushing right at us, and I shall never forget it. That was thirty-three years ago.
"I haven't any idea what film that might have been," Grange was saying now. "My last year at Illinois was all confusion. I had no privacy. Newsreel men were staying at the fraternity house for two or three days at a time."
He paused. The thought of it seemed to bring pain to his face, even at this late date.
"I wasn't able to study or anything," he said. "I thought and I still do, that they built me up out of all proportion."
Red Grange was the most sensational, the most publicized, and, possibly, the most gifted football player and greatest broken field runner of all time. In high school, at Wheaton, Illinois, he averaged five touchdowns a game. In twenty games for the University of Illinois, he scored thirty-one touchdowns and ran for 3,637 yards, or, as it was translated at the time, 2 miles and 117 yards. His name and his pseudonyms—The Galloping Ghost and The Wheaton Iceman—became household words, and what he was may have been summarized best by Paul Sann in his book The Lawless Decade.
"Red Grange, No. 77, made Jack Dempsey move over," Sann wrote. "He put college football ahead of boxing as the Golden Age picked up momentum. He also made the ball yards obsolete; they couldn't handle the crowds. He made people buy more radios: how could you wait until Sunday morning to find out what deeds Red Grange had performed on Saturday? He was 'The Galloping Ghost' and he made the sports historians torture their portables without mercy."
Grange is now 55 years old, his reddish brown hair marked with gray, but he was one with Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden.
"I could carry a football well," Grange was saying now, "but I've met hundreds of people who could do their thing better than I. I mean engineers, and writers, scientists, doctors—whatever.
"I can't take much credit for what I did, running with a football, because I don't know what I did. Nobody ever taught me, and I can't teach anybody. You can teach a man how to block or tackle or kick or pass. The ability to run with a ball is something you have or you haven't. If you can't explain it, how can you take credit for it?"
This was last year, and we were sitting in a restaurant in Syracuse, New York. Grange was in town to do a telecast with Lindsey Nelson of the Syracuse-Penn State game. He lives now in Miami, Florida, coming out of there on weekends during the football season to handle telecasts of college games on Saturdays and the Chicago Bears' games on Sundays. He approaches this job as he has approached every job, with honesty and dedication, and, as could be expected, he is good at it. As befits a man who put the pro game on the map and made the whole nation football conscious, he has been making fans out of people who never followed the game before. Never, perhaps, has any one man done more for the game. And it, of course, has been good to him.
"Football did everything for me," he was saying now, "but what people don't understand is that it hasn't been my whole life. When I was a freshman at Illinois, I wasn't even going to go out for football. My fraternity brothers made me do it."
He was three times All-American. Once the Illinois students carried him two miles on their backs. A football jersey, with the number 77 that he made famous and that was retired after him, is enshrined at Champaign. His fellow students wanted him to run for Congress. A Senator from Illinois led him into the White House to shake hands with Calvin Coolidge. Here, in its entirety, is what was said.
"Howdy," Coolidge said. "Where do you live?"
"In Wheaton, Illinois," Grange said.
"Well, young man," Coolidge said, "I wish you luck."
Grange had his luck, but it was coming to him because he did more to popularize professional football than any other player before or since. In his first three years out of school he grossed almost $1,000,000 from football, motion pictures, vaudeville appearances and endorsements, and he could afford to turn down a Florida real estate firm that wanted to pay him $120,000 a year. Seven years ago the Associated Press, in selecting an All-Time All-American team in conjunction with the National Football Hall of Fame, polled one hundred leading sportswriters and Grange received more votes than any other player.
"They talk about the runs I made," he was saying, "but I can't tell you one thing I did on any run. That's the truth. During the depression, though, I took a licking. Finally I got into the insurance business. I almost starved to death for three years, but I never once tried to use my football reputation. I never once opened a University of Illinois year book and knowingly called on an alumnus. I think I was as good an insurance man as there was in Chicago. On the football field I had ten other men blocking for me, but I'm more proud of what I did in the insurance business, because I did it alone."
Recently I went down to Miami and visited Grange in the white colonial duplex house where he lives with his wife. They met eighteen years ago on a plane, flying between Chicago and Omaha, on which she was a stewardess, and they were married the following year.
"Without sounding like an amateur psychologist," I said, "I believe you derive more satisfaction from what you did in the insurance business, not only because you did it alone, but also because you know how you did it, and, if you had to, you could do it again. You could never find any security in what you did when you ran with a football because it was inspirational and creative, rather than calculated."
"Yes," Grange said, "you could call it that. The sportswriters used to try to explain it, and they used to ask me. I couldn't tell them anything."
I have read what many of those sportswriters wrote, and they had as much trouble trying to corner Grange on paper as his opponents had trying to tackle him on the field....
Grange had blinding speed, amazing lateral mobility, and exceptional change of pace and a powerful straight-arm. He moved with high knee action, but seemed to glide, rather than run, and he was a master at using his blockers. What made him great, however, was his instinctive ability to size up a field and plot a run the way a great general can map not only a battle but a whole campaign.
"The sportswriters wrote that I had peripheral vision," Grange was saying. "I didn't even know what the word meant. I had to look it up. They asked me about my change of pace, and I didn't even know that I ran at different speeds. I had a cross-over step, but I couldn't spin. Some ball carriers can spin but if I ever tried that, I would have broken a leg."
Excerpted from Football by John Schulian. Copyright © 2014 Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of The Library Of America.
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Table of Contents
ContentsINTRODUCTION by John Schulian,
GRANTLAND RICE from The Tumult and the Shouting,
W. C. HEINZ The Ghost of the Gridiron,
MYRON COPE from The Game That Was: Johnny Blood,
SHIRLEY POVICH The Redskins' Longest Day,
RED SMITH The Most Important Thing The Lost Cause,
FREDERICK EXLEY from A Fan's Notes,
STUART LEUTHNER from Iron Men: Pat Summerall,
GARY SMITH Moment of Truth,
FRANK DEFORD The Best There Ever Was,
JOHN SCHULIAN Concrete Charlie,
DAVID MARANISS from When Pride Still Mattered,
JIMMY CANNON Greatness,
JIMMY BRESLIN.... The One Last Good One That Wasn't to Be,
GEORGE PLIMPTON from Paper Lion,
DAN JENKINS An Upside-Down Game,
JERRY IZENBERG A Whistle-Stop School with Big-Time Talent,
JERRY KRAMER AND DICK SCHAAP from Instant Replay,
JENNIFER ALLEN from Fifth Quarter,
AL SILVERMAN Gale Sayers: The Hard Road Back,
JIM MURRAY Don't Look Now ... but the Funny Little League is No. 1,
LARRY MERCHANT from ... And Every Day You Take Another Bite,
ARTHUR KRETCHMER Butkus,
PAUL HEMPHILL Yesterday's Hero,
GARY CARTWRIGHT Tom Landry: Melting the Plastic Man,
TOM ARCHDEACON Smith Hates for It to End Like This,
RICHARD PRICE Bear Bryant's Miracles,
RICK REILLY A Matter of Life and Sudden Death,
LEIGH MONTVILLE A Miracle in Miami,
H. G. BISSINGER from Friday Night Lights,
MARK KRAM No Pain, No Game,
CHARLES P. PIERCE Legends of the Fall,
IRA BERKOW The Minority Quarterback,
PETER RICHMOND Flesh and Blood,
JOHN ED BRADLEY The Best Years of His Life,
WRIGHT THOMPSON Pulled Pork & Pigskin: A Love Letter to Southern Football,
RICK TELANDER Atkins a Study in Pride and Pain,
PAT FORDE Broncos Earn Respect With Improbable Victory,
MICHAEL LEWIS The Kick Is Up and It's ... a Career Killer,
JEANNE MARIE LASKAS G-L-O-R-Y!,
NATE JACKSON from Slow Getting Up,
PAUL SOLOTAROFF The Ferocious Life and Tragic Death of a Super Bowl Star,
BRYAN CURTIS Friday Night Tykes,
ROY BLOUNT JR. Immaculate Memory,
SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS,