Among the paradoxes and absurdities routinely accepted as establishing a human being’s greatness are football won-lost records and coaching authoritarianism. Just think of two famous quotes related to the legendary Vince Lombardi (neither of which was necessarily accurate, but still):
Lombardi supposedly gave us the decree that “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” (In fact, Red Saunders, who coached Vanderbilt and UCLA in the 1940s and ‘50s, first espoused that narrow doctrine of existence.)
Lombardi’s winning secret was attributed by his Hall of Fame tackle Henry Jordan to be that he “treated us all the same. Like dogs.” (Except Jordan’s teammate, Jerry Kramer, wrote in a 1997 New York Times opinion piece that Jordan’s flippant remark was “wildly inaccurate. Lombardi’s genius was that he treated us all differently.”
Anyway, this faulty, straight-line connection between unyielding demand and grid sainthood came to mind with the references this week to two old coaches, Paul (Bear) Bryant and John McVay—one universally celebrated, the other completely under the radar except for a single moment of disaster-movie proportions in 1978.
Because the University of Alabama was playing for coach Nick Saban’s potential sixth national championship on Jan. 9, there were repeated media genuflections to the late Bryant, who had won six titles for the school between 1961 and 1979. Bryant, though he affected a humble shuffle and a slow Southern mumble, was known as a sometimes brutal taskmaster and, late in his career, acknowledged his regret at having driven away one of the best players during his stint at Texas A&M in the mid-1950s.
The other fellow recently mentioned—almost in passing—was McVay, on the occasion of his 30-year-old grandson, Sean McVay, being hired as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams. I covered John McVay’s 2 ½ years as coach of the New York Giants in mid ‘70s, and witnessed the ability of a decent, respectful man to squeeze some pretty good results out of a rag-tag bunch of players. More than that, McVay demonstrated grace (even humor), especially in the face of a monumentally botched play that eventually cost him the Giants’ job.
That was on Nov. 19, 1978. McVay, who had been hired before the ’76 season with vague scouting and assistant coaching duties before being handed an 0-7 team midway through ’76, was about to get the Giants’ record even at 6-6 in ’78. They were leading the Philadelphia Eagles by five points and had the ball with only 20 seconds to kill. Philadelphia was out of time outs, and all the Giants had to do was take a knee. But McVay’s assistant, Bob Gibson, whom McVay had entrusted with the play-calling, ordered a handoff.
The Giants, shockingly, fumbled. In a heartbeat, the ball bounced directly into the hands of Philadelphia defensive back Herman Edwards for an against-all-odds 26-yard romp to the winning score.
It was Moby Fumble—Thar the Giants Blow It! It was the Archduke’s Assassination. Management fired Gibson, a McVay friend, the next day. General manager Andy Robustelli quit at season’s end and McVay’s contract was not renewed. A wrecking ball was taken to the entire organization.
But what I remember most was McVay’s demeanor, fully aware of crushing disappointment and the dire consequences in a bottom-line business—and yet….
When he showed up for his post-game remarks after the fumble, facing a roomful of pencils and pads and microphones poised to demand the (impossible) explanation, McVay leaned back against the wall and thrust both arms to the side. As if to say, “Go ahead; crucify me.”
He faced a roiling fuss over his preference for eschewing a headset, for not second-guessing his assistant’s calls from high in the press box. So, for the next game, he reported (slyly), “The way we’ll do it is put all the ugly coaches upstairs and all the good-looking guys on the sideline.”
His was the sort of perspective, and consummate endurance, that English poet Rudyard Kipling envisioned in his poem “If—“, two lines of which are written on the wall of the players’ entrance to Wimbledon’s Centre Court, essentially declaring that winning is not the only thing…
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same…
This is not to say that Bryant was a bad person for his unbending coaching style. I crossed paths with him only twice during his career, and neither occasion was unpleasant, though both times there was an undeniable reverence afforded him. All those victories made him something of a deity.
In December of 1968, my senior year at the University of Missouri, I was football beat reporter for the Journalism School’s Columbia Missourian assigned to Mizzou’s Gator Bowl game against Alabama, when Missouri coach Dan Devine told his kidding-on-the-square Bryant joke at a pre-game banquet.
“One night in the winter,” Devine said, “Bear had just gotten into bed and Mary Harmon”—Bryant always called his wife by her full maiden name—“said to him, ‘God, your feet are cold.’ And Bear said to her, ‘You can call me Paul.’”
Fourteen years later, dispatched by Newsday to Memphis for the Liberty Bowl to chronicle Bryant’s last game, I was reminded of Bryant’s exalted state by such extravagant recollections as this: Once, in a post-game dressing room, a reporter sat eyeing Bryant’s trademark houndstooth hat on a chair. Not planning anything untoward, just thinking what a prize it could be. When the reporter raised his eyes, an Alabama state trooper was looming over him, ordering, “Freeze!”
Only a month after that Liberty Bowl game, Bryant died of a heart attack and flags were ordered at half-staff both in Alabama and in Arkansas, where he was born. A state legislator during Bryant’s last years, Alabama grad Finis St. John III, had sponsored a bill to waive the mandatory retirement age of 70 for Bryant because “it is right for him in the South, in Alabama. People down here take their football very, very seriously, and so did Bryant.”
And so does Nick Saban. On Nov. 10, two days after the Presidential election, the current Bama coach admitted to reporters that he “didn’t even know [the election] was happening. We’re focused on other things here.”
Juxtapose that to John McVay who, during his tenure as University of Dayton coach, made a point of taking his players to see Niagara Falls before a road game in Buffalo. “It was part of their education,” he told me. “Let them see things. Now, I don’t want to say we were having a bad year,” he added with a twinkle in his eye, “but damned if they didn’t turn off the falls that day.”
In fact, McVay had few bad years. His first head coaching job in the pros was with the Memphis Grizzles of the short-lived World Football League, winning 17 of 20 games their debut season and sitting 7-4 when the WFL collapsed the next year.
After his brief tour with the Giants, he left coaching for a front-office job with the San Francisco 49ers, where for 17 years he collaborated with head coach Bill Walsh in operating one of the most successful reigns in NFL history, including five Super Bowl titles and the NFL’s executive-of-the-year honor in 1989.
Not that many people noticed. The Sports on Earth web site last year called McVay the “silent architect of the 49ers dynasty.”
So he doesn’t have a statue like Bear Bryant. McVay believed that “football can be fun.” He was known for shaking every player’s hand after every game, win or lose. He saw the wisdom of his one-time boss at Michigan State, Duffy Daugherty, that a team always can use a little luck. “And Duffy used to say, ‘It’s bad luck to be behind at the end of a game.’”
But not the only thing.
Football bowl season again has saturated us with sport’s most absurd cliché, the Gatorade bath for victorious coaches. In the past three weeks, players ceremoniously have dumped tubs of icy liquid on the heads of virtually every winning mentor at the conclusion of the 42 post-season bowls—New Mexico’s Bob Davie, Old Dominion’s Bobby Wilder, Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson, Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy, South Florida’s Charlie Strong, Air Force’s Troy Calhoun, and on and on—in this stale choreography that is well past its expiration date.
It really is a trite ritual, with not an ounce of imagination or originality. It is the ultimate copy-cat routine, whose practitioners surely don’t realize that it had its roots in avenging the demanding coach, rather than honoring him.
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, the seventh week of the 1985 NFL season:
The New York Giants, after consecutive losses, were 3-3 and preparing to play division rival Washington. Third-year Giants coach Bill Parcells, known for his sarcastic motivational tactics, was “trying all week to light a fire under [nose tackle] Jim Burt,” according to his Giants teammate then, linebacker Harry Carson, “by hinting that Washington center Jeff Bostic might be too quick and too strong for Burt.
“So Burt does a great job all game long and we win [17-3],” Carson recalled years later, “and Jim comes over to me and says, ‘Let’s get Parcells. Let’s get that [blankety-blank] with the Gatorade.’ When Parcells took his headphones off, we drenched him. It was Jim Burt’s concept.”
That appeared to be the end of such an impolite thing. Until the second game of the next season, when the Giants rose up to smite the San Diego Chargers after an opening-game loss to Dallas. Carson considered how Parcells was “very superstitious; if you do something one week and you win, you continue to do that.”
So he revived the Gatorade bath and continued it through the 1986 season. By the time the Giants had won the Super Bowl, TV’s most visible football commentator, John Madden, had begun to draw diagrams of the Gatorade stunt as if it were a key third-down play. At one point, Carson borrowed a security guard’s overcoat to allow him to sneak up on Parcells with the bucket—as if, by then, Parcells didn’t know what was coming.
In his 1987 “autobiography”—one of those quick-turnaround, as-told-to tomes by a sudden celebrity—Parcells related his conclusion that “those showers turned out to be symbolic” of players demonstrating that the coach was “one of them” in their triumphs.
Of course, the whole business—still prominent in televised coverage and game highlights—was a windfall for Gatorade, even if the dunking regularly was done with plain water. A Gatorade spokesman once told me that “you really couldn’t plan to market something as well as the dunk has for us, because it highlights our presence on the sidelines, that we stand for fueling athletic performance in the pursuit of victory.”
He also admitted that, “while we loved the fact that it’s affiliated with victory celebrations, Gatorade is about drinking it, not throwing it. We want to promote its consumption.”
Anyway, here we are, more than 30 years since Jim Burt imposed angry retribution on his coach’s disagreeable tactics, being repeatedly subjected to a custom that not only is juvenile but possibly dangerous.
In December, 1990, veteran coach George Allen told The Associated Press that he had not being feeling well in the six weeks after his Long Beach State players gave him a Gatorade bath at the end of their football season. Days after that public comment, Allen, 72, died.
A subsequent autopsy established Allen’s cause of death as cardiac arrest, though both his attorney and his son said Allen’s death was totally unrelated to a bout with pneumonia which had had him feeling poorly those last few weeks. But a doctor I knew confirmed that there could be “some potential of risk in shocking the body” with an icy shower, because “extreme cold is a significant cardiac stressor.”
Maybe that’s why Kansas State’s players, after defeating Texas A&M in the Dec. 28 Texas Bowl, doused coach Bill Snyder with a bucket of confetti.
Snyder is 77. May he—and all of us—outlive the banality of the Gatorade bath.
Once again, the NFL has evoked Mad Magazine’s goofy Cold War-inspired cartoon “Spy vs. Spy.” How else to consider the recent heavy-handed punishment of New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo? When his league-approved encrypted communication device, which pipes his voice covertly into his quarterback’s helmet, malfunctioned, the dastardly McAdoo resorted to the use of a walkie-talkie.
McAdoo was hit with a $50,000 fine and the Giants assessed an additional $150,000 penalty, as well as a degradation in their 2017 draft order. All because the walkie-talkie, unlike the NFL’s authorized CoachComm system, did not have a cut-off switch to discontinue the coach’s play-calling instructions with 15 seconds remaining on the play clock.
That theoretically unfair advantage over the Dallas Cowboys, who still were operating with the cut-off switch, nevertheless led to a drive-ending interception against the Giants. Still, the league must be forever vigilant in assuring a level playing field! Paranoia reigns among coaches, whose inherent tendency toward micromanagement—as a function of self-preservation—pairs with advancing technology to emphasize stealth and surveillance.
For a sport that sees itself as a simulation of war, with its blitzes and bombs and field generals, clandestine strategizing is of great consequence. Thus the strict rules against the use of, say, Navajo code talkers or Enigma machines.
It’s all secrecy vs. chicanery—with teams, for decades, bivouacking in huddles to guard again pilfered campaign intelligence, and more recently deploying sideline pantomimes and the helmet implant.
Football wasn’t far beyond its rugby roots when Washington D.C.’s Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, devised the first huddle in 1892 to shield Gallaudet’s hand signals from opponents, themselves often hearing impaired and therefore conversant in signing.
For a century afterwards, huddles worked wonderfully for all players because quarterbacks—without the coaches’ direct involvement—called plays out of earshot of the opposition. Then, in the 1950s, Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown, not satisfied to leave strategy to his soldiers on the field, began using “messenger guards” to shuttle play calls into his quarterback.
There were tales that wise-guy Browns quarterback George Ratterman once told rookie guard Joe Skibinski to “go back and get another play” when he didn’t like the one delivered from the sideline. So Brown took the next step, recruiting two Ohio inventors to build the first radio receiver into Ratterman’s helmet. That was in 1956.
“My helmet acted as an antenna,” Ratterman told me in a telephone conversation a few years before his death in 2007. “And I had to turn a certain way to hear, so I’d be standing outside the huddle, revolving around, trying to tune in the signal.”
Worse, Ratterman said, in a game against Detroit, the Lions got wind of the experiment, “so the Lions kept saying to each other, ‘Kick the helmet. Kick the helmet.’ And I kept trying to explain to them that my head was inside the helmet,” Ratterman said.
“Then, in Chicago,” he recalled, “we played a benefit game at Soldier Field against the Bears and they were planning all kinds of sets and displays for a halftime show. All during the first half, I was picking up walkie-talkies of these workers, setting up the displays. I couldn’t hear Brown at all, but I kept hearing stuff like, ‘Hey, Joe, set that up over there.’”
Brown’s messengers soon were employed by other coaches and, in the 1970s, Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry began shuffling quarterbacks after every play, something neither Roger Staubach nor Craig Morton much appreciated. As play-calling came to be wrested almost completely away from players by coaches, the NFL moved to provide direct communication that could cut through stadium noise via CoachComm, which became standard equipment in 1994. (Quarterbacks wired to receive transmissions from the coach’s headset wear small green dots on their helmets, and a fan of secret agents might make an immediate connection to the CIA. In a 1998 novel, veteran journalist Jim Lehrer wrote that CIA snoops had purple dots affixed to their license plates as a special privilege to warn off police and tow trucks.)
There are, meanwhile, many instances of coaches relaying signals by using coded placards, and coaches’ crafty hand-over-the-mouth delivery of commands. Because spies are everywhere.
In his 2007 book, “The GM,” celebrated sportswriter Tom Callahan recounted a classic undercover scheme in a 1977 game between the Colts (then in Baltimore) and New England Patriots. With Baltimore trailing late in the game and stuck with a third-and-18 on its own 12-yard line, the Colts had Bobby Colbert—then head coach at hearing-impaired Gallaudet—read the lips of New England’s defensive coordinator as he called for “Double safety delayed blitz.”
Colbert relayed the message to the Baltimore bench, which passed it on to Colts quarterback Bert Jones, who changed the play and threw an 88-yard touchdown pass for the winning score.
And that is why the always wary NFL, with Ben McAdoo’s walkie-talkie misbehavior, ruled that up with this it would not put.
With any big news story, there really are more questions than answers. Has Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem before NFL games enlightened the public about racial inequities in America? Or has it merely empowered the scribes and Pharisees—talking heads and comportment police—to lecture over what constitutes an appropriate protest?
Has Kaepernick sparked a debate about police treatment of minorities, which is his stated intention? Or has he fueled an argument about whether he, as a $19-million-a-year backup quarterback, is in any position to speak for the oppressed?
By not participating in what his critics consider an act of patriotism, is he disrespecting American military troops and those who serve the country? Or he is reinforcing what the anthem and flag stand for—the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment?
Should we be talking about this?
For the animated adult cartoon “South Park,” to which nothing is off limits, assumptions of uncompromising certainties in the Kaepernick case are skewered by its satiric rewriting of the Star-Spangled Banner’s lyrics:
Colin Kaepernick is great.
Cops are pigs, cops are pigs.
Wait, someone just took my stuff, I need to call the cops.
Oh, no, I just said cops are pigs.
Who’s gonna help me get my stuff?
Why did I listen to Colin Kaepernick? He’s not even any good.
Oh, I just got all my stuff back.
Cops are pigs again, cops are pigs.
Colin Kaepernick is a good backup….
As a career sports journalist, I was struck by the thoughtful observations of SUNY-Oswego communications professor Brian Moritz, a former sportswriter, who mulled whether reports subsequent to Kaepernick’s first protest on Aug. 26 somehow are hijacking his original intent.
“If two of the most primary news values are conflict (aka disagreements) and deviance (something outside the norm),” Moritz wrote on his sportsmediaguy.com Web site, “then it’s natural for reporters to focus on people who disagree loudly with Kaepernick. Ambivalence is not a great news value, especially not if one or more players voice strong disapproval of Kaepernick’s actions. Those disapproving voices get amplified in the follow-up stories (because they fit the established news values), and I wonder how much that amplification inadvertently isolates Kaepernick and his position.
“The point,” Mortiz added, “is not whether Kaepernick is right or wrong. We’re grownups. We’re allowed to disagree. The point is whether the way we…cover a story effects public perception of the issues involved.”
Does it stray from Kaepernick’s message to know that a principal in Florida told students they would be ejected from sports events if they didn’t stand for the national anthem? Or that a Massachusetts high school football player was threatened with suspension if he mimicked Kaepernick? That presidential candidate Donald Trump invited Kaepernick to leave the country and Iowa congressman Steve King compared a player’s kneeling during the anthem akin to “activism that is sympathetic to ISIS”?
According to a report in the U.K.-based Telegraph, an Alabama preacher informed a high school football crowd, “If you don’t want to stand for the national anthem, you can line up over there by the fence and let our military personnel take a few shots at you.”
Perhaps it further inflames Kaepernick’s detractors that Wesley Morris, in a New York Times Magazine essay, pointed to the football establishment’s long history of seeking “to conflate itself with the military, making it easy to confuse players with troops and political protest with treason.” Morris argued that “modern patriotism has become Kabuki citizenship” through rituals that have turned national loyalty into “a matter of optics—of theater.”
A few other pros have joined Kaepernick’s no-standing stance during pre-game anthems. As the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times noted, the Supreme Court in 1943 established that citizens cannot be forced to pledge allegiance to the American flag or engage in other patriotic demonstrations, and a 1969 ruling reinforced the constitutional right to express political opinions as long as they don’t impose on “the rights of others.”
In the end, it does not appear that Kaepernick has endangered anyone, with the possible exception of himself. He “has placed his livelihood in peril in the service of his conscience,” contended Penn State professor Abraham Iqbal Khan in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette opinion piece, calling that “a risk that merits our attention.”
Meanwhile, it surely does no good that Fox Sports commentator Jason Whitlock—like Kaepernick, an African-American—has questioned not only Kaepernick’s integrity and football ability, but also his blackness?
“This kid was about Instagram models, tattoos, his abs and building up the Colin Kaepernick brand—until the very moment he loses his starting quarterback job,” Whitlock said, “and now he’s out here and he’s ‘Martin Luther Cornrow.’ And he’s got cornrows, he’s Allen Iverson, he’s Angela Davis. I don’t buy it.”
Jason Whitlock, by the way, was working as a scribe for the Kansas City Star in 2009 when he similarly lit into Serena Williams—at the time a champion of 11 Grand Slam tennis tournaments—for being overweight and deficient of “guts….an underachiever [who] lacks the courage to fulfill her destiny.”
To that, Williams, who since has won 11 more Slam events, had a question: “Who is Jason Whitlock?”
The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra was well into its forceful, menacing rendition of The Requiem when I thought of New York Jets training camp, in progress just a few miles from Lincoln Center. Not because of conductor Louis Langree’s physical exertions—slashing the air with his arms, balling his fists, pointing and exhorting the musicians and chorus, sort of a Peyton Manning of maestros. Rather, I was reminded of what Langree had told me in a discussion of classical music in a football setting nine years earlier.
At the time, Jets head coach Eric Mangini had embarked on a brief—and arguably unsuccessful—experiment in which he piped the most culturally refined symphonic sounds into the heads of his gridiron behemoths during study portions of camp. Mangini was inspired by the so-called “Mozart Effect,” which suggests that listening to the 18th-Century master’s work makes a person smarter.
Langree, as director of the Mostly Mozart Festival since 2002, was an obvious man to query on the topic. In a phone interview, he confessed that he had “no idea” whether Mozart’s music stimulated learning, though he said he had “heard there were some studies on farms” in which “they put the cows in stables and at night put on different music. Michael Jackson. Beethoven. Duke Ellington. And when they played Mozart, the cows gave the biggest amount of milk.”
Langree, a Frenchman, admitted limited knowledge of American football. “I’ve heard of the Jets. I don’t know how many players there are on a team,” he said.
But he suggested that to promote more concentration by Jets players, or any workers, he might play Mozart’s last movement of the Jupiter Symphony (Symphony No. 41), which he described as “a vision like the time of enlightenment.” More to the point, and this is what struck me during the recent concert, he said he might attempt to provoke players’ aggression with “excerpts from The Requiem. This is music panic, almost. Truly hell, or fear of hell. The end of the world.”
Ominous. Rousing. Smash-mouth music. Hit-em-again, hit-em-again. Harder. Harder.
It should be noted that Eric Mangini, like Mozart, was a fellow who found unusual success at an early age in the field of his endeavor and, like Mozart (who was composing music at 5 years old), was labeled a “genius” by many critics for a willingness to break the molds of his profession. In 2006, Mangini not only was the youngest head coach in the National Football League, at 35, but also was named his conference’s coach of the year when the Jets won 10 of 16 games.
It was in August of 2007, however, that he attempted the Mozart project—a true rejiggering of the football DNA—and the team wound up going 4-12. In 2008, after an 8-3 start, the Jets lost four of their last five games and Mangini was fired.
Nevertheless, just exposed to the Mostly Mozart production, I am inclined to ascribe to a Leo Tolstoy observation that “music is the shorthand of emotion” and is therefore ideally suited to assertive sports activity. At last year’s U.S. Open tennis championships, by the way, there was a harpist performing just outside the player entrance.
Likewise, at the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis, a woman named Diane Evans, a member of the Indianapolis Symphony, played a harp in the foyer of the hall that was housing the Games’ weightlifting competition. All manner of grunting and groaning was going on inside the building, while Evans argued that harps and symphony halls “are perfectly appropriate” in the athletic setting. She had taken in the Pan Am baseball competition, and decided that the pitcher warming up was “just slow pieces followed by faster pieces.” She asked, “Do you know what an etude is?”
I had to look it up. It is a musical composition for the development of a specific point of technique. Strikingly similar, one could argue, to a drill that helps offensive linemen refine their footwork to improve blocking ability. Or a workout that hones a pass receiver’s routes.
So: Virtuosity in different forms. Mostly.
Did this happen Sunday? Or in 1974?
The Jets were playing the Giants in a rare regular-season NFL clash between New York teams, though the game wasn’t in New York. The Giants led, 20-13, early in the fourth period. The date was Dec. 6, 2015. Also, Nov. 10, 1974.
The Jets, their bacon saved on an implausible keeper by their quarterback, summoned the tying touchdown in the dying moments and sent the game into overtime at 20-20. Whereupon their sudden-death victory was finalized when the Giants’ placekicker missed a field goal. Wide left.
Same plot. Same details. Same ending.
In ’74, 31-year-old Joe Namath, whose multiple knee surgeries rendered him the least likely person in the entire stadium—spectators included—to run with the ball, shocked the outfoxed Giants by literally limping in real-time slow motion on three-yard bootleg for the tying score. (Namath completed the hobble with a lame straight-arm more evocative of a “please don’t hit me now that I’m across the goal-line” appeal.)
In ’15, an even older—but far healthier, at 33—Ryan Fitzpatrick, scrambled 15 yards on a desperation fourth-and-six to keep the Jets moving toward their late equalizer. Echoes that seem to qualify under the definition of déjà vu, the illusion of having previously experienced something actually being encountered for the first time.
There’s more. In ’74, when NFL sudden-death rules were new to the regular season and allowed a team to win on any first-possession score, the Giants needed only seven plays in the extra period to move to the Jets’ 25-yard line. There, on fourth-and-one, they opted for a decisive field goal try, but Pete Gogolak knocked the 42-yard attempt just left of the upright. (And the Jets soon answered with a Namath touchdown pass to Emerson Boozer.)
In ’15, it was Giants’ kicker Josh Brown who missed a 48-yarder that could have kept the overtime going and avoided defeat. He, too, missed to the left. A not-so-instant replay of Giants doom.
New York, New York? By 1974, the Giants had become Big Town ex-pats, leaving Yankee Stadium to play most of the ’73 season and all of ’74 in New Haven, Conn., at the Yale Bowl, their temporary home field while a new Giants Stadium was under construction in the New Jersey Meadowlands. So Connecticut was where they dueled the Jets that November.
In 2015, of course, the teams jousted in their five-year-old shared East Rutherford, N.J., home that replaced Giants Stadium. They’ve all been Jersey boys for a long time.
In ’74, Giants fans questioned why coach Bill Arnsparger hadn’t gone for a first down on that overtime fourth-and-one. In ’15, they are grumbling about coach Tom Coughlin’s choice to try converting a fourth-and-two on the Jets’ four yard-line, instead of taking an apparent clinching field goal when already leading by 10 points.
It could be argued that, 41 years later, there was a new back story to the Jets-Giants meeting, because in ’74, neither team was going anywhere, though the Jets—1-7 entering the Giants game—didn’t lose again in the old 14-game schedule and finished 7-7. The Giants, who had been 2-6, didn’t win again on their way to 2-12. In ’15, at least, both sides entered the local fray with some hope for the post-season, however frayed those hopes. Maybe the Jets can put the modest boost to a 7-5 record to good use. And even the 5-7 Giants, in dire straits, aren’t mathematically eliminated from the post-season.
But there is so much about this that hints at some cosmic burlesque. One beauty of sports is the unscripted drama, the surprise ending. And yet, as the Latin motto goes, nihil sub sole novum. Nothing new under the sun. Everything that is happening now has happened before.
I covered that 1974 game. I could have filled in the blanks.
Just who among us needs our heads examined?
Football players? Last week’s revelations of the late Giants star Frank Gifford’s positive test for the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, came days after St. Louis Rams quarterback Case Keenum, attempting to rise after a tackle, was all rubbery and disoriented, while little imaginary birds twirled around his helmet.
Football fans? There certainly are some who have begun to wonder about the ethics of supporting a sport faced with increasing evidence of its participants’ cognitive impairment. Gifford was the 88th of 92 deceased former NFL players examined who was found to have had CTE.
Parents of potential football players? At the Boston University center that studies CTE, the percentage of positive tests on former players from all levels is a whopping 90-plus percent, and pre-collegiate players have been sustaining some 90,000 concussions per year. Among the public figures who have said that, if they had sons, they would not allow them to play football, is Football-Fan-In-Chief Barak Obama.
How about anyone who thinks these headache-inducing reports signal the imminent demise of our most popular sport? It has been almost 14 years since the first case of CTE was diagnosed in a deceased football player, yet Harris Polls continue to find football to be the nation’s overwhelmingly favorite spectator sport—37 percent of the population lists the NFL as No. 1 and another 11 percent prefer college football. (Only 16 percent of the citizenry list Major League Baseball as top choice and no other sport breaks into double figures.)
In 2009, in a New Yorker magazine piece, Malcolm Gladwell considered football’s future extinction, and a stream of thoughtful reports since then have considered how the ramifications of head injuries might play out: Liability suits that could subject coaches, team doctors and referees to financial exposure. Parental concerns. Skyrocketing Insurance costs. The drying up of advertising and television commitments. Congressional action.
Last year, a self-described NFL fan wrote to New York Times ethics columnist Chuck Klosterman pondering the morality of supporting a league apparently aware that its sport is detrimental to the health of its participants. Klosterman concluded that, as long as everyone is enlightened about the peril that could visit football players, he “can live with” the public loving something that is dangerous.
Me, too. And, after all, football isn’t boxing or—worse—mixed martial arts, in which the primary purpose is to separate an opponent from his or her senses. But we should persist in furthering our education about the potential hazards, and hope that football authorities do the same. Early-onset dementia among players is real gray matter, something to consider in all its shades and consequences.
A crack neurologist once explained to me the brain’s vulnerabilities, and it goes something like this:
The brain isn’t much more than a blob of Jello, about three pounds net weight, floating in a fluid, held in place by a scaffolding of fibers. It is as well-housed as any other internal human gadget—the skull, after all, doesn’t crack easily. But with a blow to the head, whether encased in a helmet or not, the brain easily can rattle off the inside walls of the skull or, worse, twist violently, causing a tear.
A simple concussion brings temporary alteration of consciousness, often so brief as to go unnoticed, yet short-circuits the part of the brain controlling awareness, alertness and focus of attention. A stronger bop on the head can create a contusion, a bruise caused by the brain ricocheting off the opposite wall of the skull and then back again. Even more damage results if the torque force wrenches the Jello mass.
Later this month, the movie Concussion will be released, and director Peter Landesman has said the film can’t help being “a shot between the eyes of the NFL,” because it portrays how forensic neuropathologist Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith) had to battle NFL efforts to suppress his research on players’ brain damage.
Omalu was the man who, in a 2002 autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Mike Webster, first recognized CTE in a football player. Each of the first nine deceased NFL players’ brains Omalu examined, in fact, had CTE, and he told me during a telephone interview in 2010 that the root cause was not “just concussions. It’s repeated blows to the head. Helmets do not prevent concussions or [undiagnosed] sub-concussions, because they don’t stop the brain from bumping around in the skull.
“We have to take the head out of the game.”
And good luck with that. Though the NFL and other football authorities belatedly are implementing rules and protocols to limit head trauma, there is this Gordian knot: With both Frank Gifford’s conspicuous 1960 concussion, suffered on what often has been described as a “brutal, blindside” tackle by Philadelphia’s Chuck Bednarik, and Case Keenum’s recent injury, the damage in fact was not a result of an opponent’s contact with the head.
The Gifford injury, which precipitated his one-year sabbatical from football, was sustained when the back of Gifford’s head struck the ground as he went down. He had attempted to sidestep the charging Bednarick and the two essentially were facing each other at the instant of the tackle. On impact, Bednarick caught the off-balance Gifford with an arm and shoulder across Gifford’s chest, rocking Gifford backward.
Keenum was tackled waist-high but, like Gifford 55 years earlier, bounced his noggin off the turf as he fell backward. Jello surprise. So how to safeguard against that?
I don’t have a son. So that’s settled. And I will continue to be a football spectator. But I will make sure to check out Concussion as well.
With apologies to Homer…..
Sing, O goddess, the anger of Columbia footballers, like the Wrath of Achilles, that brought ills upon Wagner in fulfillment of the will of the gridiron gods.
Or something heavy like that, as a way to begin the tale of a team that had lost 24 consecutive games before last weekend; the epic struggle for a school that hasn’t experienced a winning record in the sport since 1996—and has enjoyed only two seasons above .500 in the past 42 years. The siege of Columbia football sounds like something out of the Iliad—a book, by the way, that is required reading for all Columbia freshman.
In fact, it was before long-suffering Columbia’s 26-3 victory over Wagner that Columbia’s senior defensive lineman Hunter Little mused to WNYC radio’s Ilya Marritz, “There is something to be said for glory. I don’t know if I can speak so much for Homer as someone like Achilles, or any of the heroes that followed him….
“There’s something to be said,” Little judged, “for being out on a Saturday, and playing a game, and being in the moment, and making a great play.”
Marritz has been narrating a weekly podcast called “The Season,” detailing Columbia’s latest attempt to rise from the gridiron ashes. It is an engaging series, and Marritz declares himself “bizarrely interested” in Columbia football, an enterprise that historically has demonstrated it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the Lions to enter into some grid paradise.
In the last 80 years, since Columbia’s 1934 Rose Bowl victory over Stanford, it has won one league title (in 1961). From 1983 to 1988, Columbia lost a major-college record 44 consecutive games. Its futility was so beyond human understanding that, after it turned a 17-0 lead into a 49-17 loss to Harvard in the first game of the 1985 season, its first-year coach, Jim Garrett, publicly dismissed his players as “drug-addicted losers.”
Garrett had just arrived at Columbia after 20 years working as assistant and head coach in the pros, but immediately demonstrated how overmatched he was in the Columbia job.
“One adversity comes and—bang!—they’re right back in the sewer,” Garrett fumed after a single game. He somehow was allowed to stay the rest of that 0-10 season before being sent on his way. (When he went, he made sure that his three sons on the Columbia team transferred to Princeton. One of them, Jason, is these days coach of the Dallas Cowboys.)
Nineteen additional lost games after Garrett—two full seasons—Columbia was leading Brown, 16-12, with one minute to play. Brown, after advancing to the Columbia 9-yard line, fumbled and Columbia appeared to recover, which would have ended that gruesome losing streak at 40. It was a brutally cold late November afternoon, with a wind chill of 8 degrees in Providence, R.I., the kind of weather legendary sportswriter Red Smith once described as “a perfect day for football—too cold for the fans and too cold for the players.”
Yet Columbia at last was poised to triumph. Over the elements. Over a favored team. Over daunting odds.
Until the officials ruled that Brown had retained possession.
On the next play, a fourth down-and-two, the second-string Brown quarterback squirted through a small hole in the Columbia defense and scored. And Columbia lost yet again: The story of the school’s football Trojan War. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield as prey to dogs and vultures….
Jordan Sprechman was a Columbia student at that time, and threatened to write a book he said he would call, “At Least Soccer Won.” Now a lawyer for J.P. Morgan Chase in Manhattan who moonlights as an official scorer at Major League Baseball games and as statistician with the New York Jets and, of course, Columbia football, Sprechman explained this week that, “My experience as an undergrad and in law school at Columbia was that the football team won five games in seven years. The soccer team won the Ivy League title all seven years.”
Naturally, during last weekend’s surreal turn of events, that rare Columbia victory over Wagner, Sprechman was crunching numbers in the press box. “You can look at it two ways,” he said. “We’ve won one in a row. Or we’ve lost 24 of the last 25.” Against Penn this week, he puts Columbia’s changes as “less than 25 percent.”
It’s not war, or course. Just football. There is every chance that Columbia’s lads, soon to be sent forth with Ivy League degrees, will find fulfilling, financially rewarding work to even the score in another phase of life. But there’s something to be said for a little football glory.
“A Farewell to Arns?”
That nugget, in the grand tradition of wise-acre reporters proposing punny headlines to fit looming storylines, was offered, as I recall, by Bergen (N.J.) Record football sage Vinny DiTrani.
The New York Giants had just lost their first six games of the 1976 NFL season. Their third-year coach—the increasingly dour and insecure Bill Arnsparger—obviously was twisting in the wind. Sure enough, one week and a 27-0 loss to Pittsburgh later, Arnsparger indeed was bid adieu by Giants management, the first (and still only) time in the team’s 90-year history that it dismissed a head coach during the course of a season.
Arns’ departure was not much lamented by disgruntled fans, frustrated players or our small band of beat reporters. During his 2 ½ years at the Giants helm, Arnsparger came across as a fellow lacking in both good humor and flexibility. His single solution to every situation, which didn’t seem to take into account the team’s considerable lack of talent, was simply a call for more effort. “W-O-R-K!” he said.
But now that we have come to his final good-bye—Arnsparger, 88, died Friday at his Alabama home—it must be noted that, during 40 years of coaching football (and another six as the University of Florida athletic director), his only period of professional disappointment was his brief time in New York. (He could not make it here, but he could make it anywhere else…..)
Widely proclaimed a “defensive genius,” Arns coached in five Super Bowls—one with the Baltimore Colts, three with the Miami Dolphins and one with the San Diego Chargers. He was right-hand man to some of the sport’s biggest names, Hall of Famer Don Shula in the pros, Blanton Collier and Woody Hayes on the college level. He was widely considered a tactical wizard whose game preparation was unsurpassed.
With the Giants, though, his teams won only 7 of 35 games. There were endless problems, several major ones not of Arnsparger’s making: His first New York training camp, in 1974, began with a player strike. The linebacker Arns had hoped to be his defensive anchor for the “53 defense” he created in Miami, four-year starter and former No. 1 draft pick Jim Files, retired suddenly, explaining that God no longer wanted him to play football. The start-up World Football League lured another five Giants to jump ship.
All that aside, Arnsparger hardly had inherited a juggernaut. The Giants were 2-11-1 the year before he signed on and, during his tenure, the team was dizzied by a revolving door or quarterbacks: Randy Johnson, Norm Snead, Jim Del Gaizo, Carl Summerell, Craig Morton and Snead again.
To Andy Robustelli, the former all-pro player who was the Giants’ director of operations at the time, hiring a tireless, studious football analyst such as Arnsparger was the perfect choice. “If a guy wants to come to New York to coach the Giants because he feels he can get into television shows and endorsements,” Robustelli said, “then that’s not what we’re looking for.”
And certainly not what they got. Arnsparger was something of a football monk; his passion was relentless, solitary study of film, not only of games but even practice drills, which earned him the handle “One More Reel.”
His bedside manner—detached and critical—was not one that typically gets the best out of well-paid, big-ego players. The one star Arns inherited, running back Ron Johnson, felt under-used and under-appreciated. (“I’m not a rookie. I don’t have to prove myself to a new coach.”) And less-proven players attended the coach’s meetings with dread. (“Arnsparger used to keep stopping the film, turning on the light,” defensive back Jim Stienke related after the coach was fired, “and saying, ‘You know, I can replace you very easily.’”)
Arnsparger once compared training a football player to training “a good mule.” Oddly, he treated his fellow Giants’ coaches as subordinates—there only to carry out his specific orders—in complete contrast to having been given a free rein when he had been an assistant.
“I have a pretty good system,” one member of his staff quoted him in response to a strategic suggestion. “What do you want to go and change it for?”
“It’s my football team,” Arnsparger said when asked about making all the decisions. “You wouldn’t walk out on your store and leave the cash register unattended, would you?”
Of course, it wasn’t his football team for long. But, two days after the Giants sent him packing, Arns returned to Miami to reassume his role as defensive genius. He later took the head coaching job at LSU and promptly won the Southeastern Conference championship and Coach of the Year honors, then went back to the NFL and helped San Diego to the Super Bowl.
I ran into him years later during an assignment related to University of Tennessee football. Tennessee was playing Florida and Arns, then the Florida A.D., approached to chat at halftime. He was personable. A bit chatty. Smiling. Not the fellow I remembered.
So, a possible (bad) headline for his farewell: New York Didn’t End the Arns Race.