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Monday, September 12, 2011

NY Jets #50 - (Redux II)

This is my exciting night life: I return home from work, walk the dog, wait for my wife to come from work, I make dinner, we trade work stories, then we eat in front of the television, which I think every marriage counselor would advise a couple not to do. TV can always be detrimental human interaction, but I am brain dead anyway after a day where I've had to assign and reassign a place for a 17 year-old to sit in my class (which is insane) and it doesn't really matter what we watch. TV is merely a conversation piece, enabling us to talk with one another when we're dead tired. In Hard Day's Night, George disparages a "trend-setter" to her creator by saying that "the lads frequently sit round the television and watch her for a giggle. We turn the sound down on her and say rude things." Though the real Beatles did not end well, at least Richard Lester's Beatles bonded over watching TV and mocking it.

Anyway, the other night, we came upon North Dallas Forty, the film adaptation of Peter Gent's novel based on his time playing for the 1960's Dallas Cowboys. A really generous critic would suggest that the 1973 novel did for football what Catch-22 did for war, by demythologizing it and painting it as an expression of human avarice. I've yet to read the novel, but the 1979 movie is about the best football film ever made, which may not sound like much considering how many really bad football movies there are. Nick Nolte plays hard-living wide receiver Phil Elliott, the Peter Gent character, while Mac Davis effectively plays the bleakly humorous quarterback Seth Maxwell, a thinly veiled version of Don Meredith. I'll watch anything with Nick Nolte in it because although he's played a wide variety of characters - an oily lawyer, an American Nazi, an obsessed painter, Thomas Jefferson - he's still always Nolte, and like Humphrey Bogart he's a flawed malcontent, a powder keg, which is OK, and you buy into him every time.

A comparable film today would study steroids and head injuries in the NFL. North Dallas Forty is about pain killers. BA Strother (GD Spradlin), the head coach who spouts scripture and consults computers for insight into his players' capacity for output, is the slightly veiled version of Tom Landry. Strother manipulates his players like chess pieces, sometimes turning them against one another in order to get better results. Nolte's Elliott is out of shape, he smokes grass and Tiparillos, he drinks Budweiser while lackadaisically lifting weights, and he has fallen out of Strother's favor. The key to his performance are pain killers that he takes ritually, culminating in massive injections he gets just before a game. In one scene, he stretches his body in agony before going to bed, and we hear all his joints crack, one by one. When Strother needs him for a full game, it means that he needs Elliott numbed up enough to take the pain, and Elliott is only happy to oblige.

The real issue of both the novel and film appears to be about whether or not there is life for a professional football player other than football. When Elliott falls in love with a woman who doesn't understand the game at all (and is portrayed as having no sense of humor, either) it means that he's really struggling to find a way out. What else is there? That's a question that fans wonder about when their devotions leave them numb, but it's also what I've been curious to discover about the infinite Jets. Is that all there is? If the football player in my senior high school English is smart enough to work hard but still wants to waste my time by arguing that he should be able to sit next to the pretty girl that he's just going to distract from classwork, I think it's because he's gotten the message that there is nothing in life more rewarding than the game. If only that were true.

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It took a minute longer than usual to find John Sullivan #50. He's not the John Sullivan who plays for the Minnesota Vikings at center. He is not Vincent John Sullivan who's been robbing banks in Montana wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey. He is John Patrick Sullivan, former linebacker who attended University of Illinois (apparently recruited by alumnus Dick Butkus) was drafted by the Chicago Bears, and then played for the Jets for two seasons. With the Bears he never made it out of preseason. Apparently he got absolutely crushed in a 1979 preseason game against the Jets in which he otherwise played very well. I remember this game, most especially because I got violently ill after a spaghetti meal at the house of a family we were visiting, and I lay down on a couch, watching the game. (Normally I don't have an encyclopedic memory of all my childhood adventures with vomiting, but there are some vivid moments I can still use for effect. I recently had to tell a longtime family friend to stop putting my mother on a Tea Party e-mailing list, and when she refused, I told her that understood why she was doing it. I hurled on her baby blue living room rug when I was about four years old, and I told her that she was probably taking revenge against us for it by vomiting her right-wing propaganda on my Mom. She stopped.)

Sullivan was so badly injured in that Jets-Bears preseason game that he never got to live out the dream of being a new Bears middle linebacker. Instead the Jets, who had seen him play, picked him up and used him in special teams and suicide squads, which the new kickoff rules have recently made somewhat obsolete. Accustomed to being a middle linebacker, the Jets put him on the outside where he could not perform as well. His story is here. You can find out how he was screamed at by Buddy Ryan, how he intercepted Richard Todd and was fired by Walt Michaels.

When football was done with him, he eventually moved to California and turned to yoga. The link above shows a barely aged man with the sinewy build of a yoga master. I'm inclined to an easy cynicism when I see yoga instructors posing on a mountain rock in bare feet, or when they call themselves ministers of something called the "Diamond Approach Community," but John Sullivan seems to have discovered a world for himself after football by making a long journey through the connections between the mind and body. Reading his story made me wonder about Phil Elliott making the break from the game at the end of his season and about his future beyond the world of the game. It took some time, Sullivan says, before he reached a sense of peace of mind. He first had to abandon what he calls the "football mask." Once the Jets let him go, he said:

The phone just stops ringing. I wore the “football mask” for many years after though; I lived with the players, I stayed friends with many of my former teammates, I was part of the fraternity. I felt I was still was part of the team even though I wasn't collecting a check. I was renting a room from one of the guys on the team; I worked at one of his bars for a while as a bartender. I was still running in that circle, so it was very hard to let go.

He also discusses football's compulsion to build only the muscles and strength in players that it needs, leaving other muscles vulnerable to injury, which he feels is ultimately what happened to him. There is a remarkable moment in North Dallas Forty when we see players in the weight room; their repetitions make their bodies seem cruelly melded to the weight machines themselves. They are conditioned and shaped by the industrial power of the team's owner, and they are a part of his chemical company empire. They are not machines; they are only small cogs in a vast machinery, and they are all disposable and replaceable. Sullivan's tale made me envious of what he was able to accomplish by reclaiming his body from the machine.

***

Born in Teaneck, NJ, Dan Murray #50 might, for all we know, have grown up rooting for the New York Jets. After graduating from little East Stroudsburg University in rural Pennsylvania - a college that has seen only five players drafted all-time in the NFL (and all in the 1980's) he began his professional career at linebacker with the Indianapolis Colts and then came to the New York Jets in 1990, where his career ended. There is so much more to be said but so else little to add, and that is the nature of life.

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Final bid at auction: $1,220. Number of bids: 0
Michael Taylor #50 was an All-American out of Michigan, an exceptional college linebacker drafted in the first round by the Jets in 1972. He played two years for the Jets and then jumped to the WFL and the Detroit Wheels, who didn't even finish their only season in 1974. Taylor was one of several Jets who left for the new league, including Gerry Philbin, Bob Parrish, Steve Thompson, and John Elliott. A truly comprehensive WFL site offers a surprisingly detailed discussion of the Wheels, a team described as "the most forgettable of W.F.L. teams," which is sort of like being last in England's Fourth Division in 1974 (Stockport County). It's rough stuff. The above link on the Wheels includes a couple of good pictures of Taylor. He might have briefly entertained the notion of returning to Michigan as a hometown hero, albeit near Ann Arbor, in Ypsilanti, where the Wheels shared a stadium with Eastern Michigan University.

The team was bankrupt even before the midway point of the year. After their loss to the New York Stars at Downing Stadium, the Stars themselves were immediately sold to Charlotte, NC and the Wheels were sold to no one. They landed back home to no one waiting for them at the airport and no one to watch them any longer. According to Jim Cusano's fine write-up, the Wheels were the first of the WFL teams to die. Their final record was 1-13. Michael Taylor went in the subsequent dispersal draft to the Shreveport Steamer. The league itself did not last through the 1975 season. If I'm not mistaken, this was also the end of Mike Taylor's professional career. The game-worn helmet at auction above is a relic of a time when style reigned over substance, a time when, arguably, the very best designed logos and uniforms in football history were wasted on teams with little or nothing else left over in the bank to spend. In our own contemporary society today, where 1% of our people own a quarter of American wealth, we must all sometimes feel like WFL franchises. So let's hear it for the the Stars, the Hawaiians, the Sun, and the Wheels. Let us all carry on the doomed tradition.

2 comments:

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Martin Roche said...

Sorry, what were you saying? I was watching "Say Yes to the Dress."