Tuesday, September 05, 2006

100 Yards of War and Peace - And a Poem

It seems a little early - no autumn leaves falling yet - but the National Football League kicks off its new season on Thursday night. I love football, what can I say. The Texas thing, perhaps. For some reason, I don't remember why now, I once wrote: Basketball is like a video game, baseball like a Whitman poem on a lazy summer afternoon, and football is Napoleon’s march into Russia. It’s War and Peace over 100 yards. I thought of that line again just a few days ago, as I was reading through various predictions for the upcoming season. Then, this morning, I see New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini refer to Tolstoy’s masterpiece in an article in the New York Times: “The positive thing about game-planning is the playbook goes from War and Peace to something a lot more manageable, because it’s so opponent-specific.”

What’s great about football is how it combines the gracefulness of dance, the intelligence and strategy of chess, and the sweaty, grunting, primordial struggle of one human body against another. It's the beautiful, acrobatic catches of Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann, who “took several years of dance lessons that included ballet, tap and jazz. They helped a great deal with body control, balance, a sense of rhythm, and timing." In 1980, he danced on stage with Gene Kelly and Twyla Tharp. It's Curtis Martin and Shaun Alexander, who have been the leading NFL rushers for the last two years, and who are also avid chess players. Alexander has even set up a chess-in-the schools program. It's the brilliant strategizing of Bill Belichick, head coach of the 3-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. And it's the goal-line stand, a powerful archetype of: “You shall not cross this line and defeat us.” Or: “We will, by whatever means necessary, cross this line.” One of the greatest football games of all time came down to a massive pile of bodies at the goal line - on an icy field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, New Year's Eve, 1967, with the wind chill at -40 degrees. The Ice Bowl. My childhood team, Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys, losing a heartbreaker to the Vince Lombardi-led Packers. (Landry had been the brilliant offensive coordinator and Lombardi the brilliant defensive coordinator for the great New York Giants teams of the 1950s.) With time running out, Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr slammed through a massive defensive wall to barely cross into the end zone.

Bart Starr (#15), barely over the goal line, as time ran out.

I can't go away without mentioning James Wright. One of the greatest American poets of the 20th century wrote what I think is the best poem ever about football:

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

From The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright, published by Wesleyan University Press. Copyright © 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963 James Wright.

Luckily the Academy of American Poets (poets.org) has both the poem and a 1964 recording of Wright reading it at the Guggenheim Museum.

I don't know what will happen this season. Most so-called experts pick the Jets to be one of the worst teams in the league this year, finishing at 4-12 or 5-11. That's okay - I prefer the low expectations. Last year, many people (including yours truly) thought they were legitimate Super Bowl contenders, and they wound up 4-12. In a space of 5 minutes, they lost their #1 and #2 quarterbacks for the season. Future Hall-of-Famer Curtis Martin, who holds an NFL record (with Barry Sanders) for rushing over 1,000 yards for 10 consecutive seasons, and is one of the classiest guys in the sport, as well as one of the toughest, was seriously injured and couldn't finish the season. Kevin Mawae, another classic warrior, who once played for weeks with a broken hand (the guy's a center and had to learn to snap with his left hand, no small feat), tore his pectoral muscle and was out for the year. It all went downhill fast. So, fine, let's say they're going to be 4-12. Then maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised.

But whatever happens, I know that an epic narrative will slowly unfold week after week over the course of the next 5 months. There will be tragedy, comedy, drama, pathos, and euphoria. Like the best of all sports - and literature - there's a great story waiting to be told. And we don't know what will happen next.


Liam said...

The "therefore" in Wright's poem is, I think, the best use of that word in American literature.

Go Jets -- though I have yet to be bitten with the NFL bug. I'm thrilled about the Mets and excited about the Jazz, and damnit, Notre Dame football looks good this year.

Columbia has a new coach. In my fifth year of graduate school, I have yet to see a game. Go Lions.

Liam said...

PS You write beautifully about sports, batman.

Steve Caratzas said...

Too bad ice hockey doesn't have such a storied poetical history.

cowboyangel said...


Thanks for the nice comment. Only, if I'm Batman, who are you? The Joker? The Riddler? Or . . . Catwoman?!?!?


Great to hear from you. Hope all is well. Being from Texas, I know nothing about hockey. There are some teams down there now, I believe, but I think that's just wrong. Hockey in Texas. Like a rattlesnake roundup in Vermont.

Jeff said...


Football at last!!! Finally, a real sport begins this year.

I'm a huge NE Patriots and Notre Dame fan. One of the most enjoyable things about rooting for them is how much other people despise them. :-) I'm enjoying the Pats/Jets divisional rivarly going back to the Parcells thing. Those games are always fun. Good luck.

You mention the Ice Bowl. It was the first game I watched end-to-end when I was a kid (I was rooting for the Pack). How could I help but become fanatical about football?

As for waxing poetical about football, I enjoy George Carlin's routine on the differences between football and baseball.

"In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! - I hope I'll be safe at home!"

cowboyangel said...


I can't believe the Ice Bowl was the first football game you saw as a kid. What luck. I've only read about it.

Thanks for the Carlin link. I remember hearing that many years ago. Great to read it again.

Well, we can root for Notre Dame at least. To be honest, as I'm a recent Jets fan, I don't hate the Patriots as many in NY do. When I was growing up in Texas, I always kind of liked them. Steve Grogan, John Hannah , Sam "Bam" Cunningham. And now Tom Brady. Best QB in the NFL. I don't care what people say about Peyton Manning, I would choose Brady over him 100 times out 100.

Having said that, I hope the Jets kick their ass on Sunday. (They won't, I know.) Should be a good game, though. I know Mangini has to want to do well this week.

The rivalry should only get more interesting now that Mangini will be facing his mentor twice a year.

Jeff said...

Should be an enjoyable game tomorrow. I'd figure the Pats to win easily, but Brady has no deep threat to throw to this year. The Jets always play them tough anyhow. I still love Curtis Martin. It was tough on us, losing him. I'll probably miss it though, as I'll be working the "chain gang" at my son's own football game tomorrow.

Enjoy the game and good luck. :-)