Monday, May 20, 2013

NY Jets #83 - George Sauer, RIP

George Sauer #83
The poster of George Sauer #83 in my childhood bedroom was one of the first objects over which I can remember ruminating. Mom hung it there to introduce me to football, the sport of boys and men. George Sauer is therefore the first football player I remember, and my first New York Jet. It's a 1969 Sports Illustrated poster, but the picture was taken during the 1968 season, during the Jets' 21-13 loss to Denver.

The picture is a strange amalgam of different aspects of life at Shea Stadium. It's taken from the ground level, and Sauer is catching a Namath pass somewhere in midfield. He's a lone figure on a hazy autumn day, except for Drake Garrett (#23), a rookie Denver defender arriving too late for the catch. In the background, looking off to their left, two Jets cheerleaders sit, waiting for something to cheer for. Bob Cleveland's bandstand directly behind them is adorned with green bunting. Above the band is a framed structure that was used to amplify the sound on the field, and through its rafters one can make out the image of a warehouse near Flushing Bay. The field is brown and green as a leftover from the New York Mets' season. Sauer's eye is on the pass, and he's puffing his cheeks.

Since I had the leisure of time to stare up at the poster from the vantage of either my crib or my first bed, I tried to understand the single moment captured there. How close were the band members to the field? What did they sound like? What were the girls looking at? Maybe I was using it to understand life as I had lived it so far. As a measure of what kind of sense the infant mind makes of things, I looked at George Sauer's outstretched fingers and wondered why he had mashed potatoes on his right hand. Mashed potatoes are exactly the kind of thing that children eat, and so often food ends up on a little child's hand. Mashed potatoes stick rather well to your hands.

Another erroneous
childhood observation
The fingers of Sauer's right hand are splayed out, ready for the pass, and his thumb is pointed upward in front of a flash of his white striped sleeve just behind it. As a little boy, I read the whole arrangement of sights, shapes and colors wrong, in much the way that children see reality all wrong when they first look at it. I swore he had mashed potatoes on that hand, something he had to shake off in order to do something else. I understood that. Rather than be an introduction to the world of men, the image was a way of seeing world as I was trying to understand it, which I suppose is what being a sports fan has always been for me. And I was a fan of George Sauer before I was a fan of anything else. He was on my wall, after all.


George Sauer and Willie Brown
in the 1968 AFL Championship
I'm working on the Infinite Jets book, and my plan was to leave wide receiver George Sauer for last. But George Sauer died of a heart attack last week after struggling with Alzheimer's disease. Suddenly the blog entry I've been planning to write for so long has become more important to write than any other. Sauer is one of the great mysteries of a great game.

Two Texans - Don Maynard and George Sauer - were the primary core of Namath's passing offense. Maynard was fast and sinewy. Sauer was graceful and fluid. The Times' obituary includes a photograph of Sauer (right) looking as if he is bobbling a pass while being covered by the great Willie Brown of Oakland, probably during the 1968 AFL Title Game. Sauer was one of the most feared receivers of his time. He was already well on his way to becoming a legend. But as many people have already pointed out in similar obituaries, George Sauer had a different plan, one over which he had been ruminating for some time before finally making the decision in 1971 to leave the NFL for good, and with it, the violent world of boys and men.


There's a DVD that accompanies the NFL book on Namath's life, which I own of course, and it's filled with the usual highlights of Namath's career - the great, soaring pass to Maynard in the 1968 opener against the Chiefs; the pass to Maynard to set up the winning touchdown against Oakland in the AFL Title Game. There's also his pass to George Sauer over Lenny Lyles' head in Super Bowl III which Sauer catches with a leap in the air to set up the winning field goal. The real find is at the end of the disk, a five-minute feature on Sauer that includes an interview with him. What happened to George Sauer?

The crucial thing is that he was George Sauer, Jr. He was the great son of a great University of Nebraska player from Waco, Texas - George Sauer, Sr. Born into the world of football, Sauer, Jr. felt he had no choice but to meet the expectations of the man who shaped his life. Sauer's story reads like a heavy-handed allegory out of a 1950's movie. He was given a scholarship to the University of Texas from the moment he was born - literally. Andy Barall at Fifth Down discusses this unique story, one that could never happen today:

Sauer was offered a football scholarship to the University of Texas on the day he was born. His father, George Sr., had played for the Longhorns’ coach, Dana X. Bible, at the University of Nebraska in the early ’30s....When Sauer (George, Jr.) finally decided to go to Texas, his mother showed him the letter they received from Bible all those years before. “As for George Jr.,” it read, “don’t worry. I’ve got a uniform reserved for him here (in) 1961.” “It was as though something was driving me from behind to do those things,” Sauer said.  
So he played for Darryl Royal's University of Texas squad, just as he was destined to. He had to have wondered, as many children do, if his own decisions were really just a product of his parent's expectations and designs, or if there was indeed something else inside of him, unformed, longing to come alive? Then, a few years afterwards, his father, a manager of player personnel for the New York Jets, made sure that that George the younger would play for the franchise, and so George, Jr. left Texas before his senior year and he became a Jet. He went on to be named AFL All-Pro four times.

Where does one's sense of obligation to one's parents begin and end? Sauer says that he shook hands with his father in the locker room in Miami after Super Bowl III and knew that he had fulfilled every one of his expectations, and now he hoped free himself from the life of football. It took two more seasons. It's interesting to note that after George Sr. left the Jets front office to briefly become the General Manager of the Boston Patriots, George Sauer, Jr. then left football for good the following year. As he says on the DVD segment, the original letter from Dana Bible about a scholarship at birth had stayed in his mind so long that it was eventually the thing that convinced him to abandon football altogether. From now on, he would be the captain of his own fate.

When he did leave in 1971, he wrote the following in explanation, which resonates now:

"Pro football does not do what it claims to do...It claims to teach self-discipline and responsibility, which is its most obvious contradiction. There is little real freedom. Instead the system – the power structure of the coaches and the people who run the game – works to mold you into something they can manipulate."

Obviously he echoed many of the same ideas of young people the late 60's and early 70's. But every person who trains idealistically for something will ultimately have a realization where he sees how things "really work." The most popular literary theme students always know by the time they reach me is "illusion vs. reality." If you think about it, that motif could apply to any story worth telling.

But very few people leave their work at the peak of their success with such discontent. A former colleague of mine said he left teaching because he hated the "politics" involved, as if education were supposed to be apolitical. I also happened to notice he wasn't particularly good at teaching. George Sauer was a particularly good wide receiver. More than once Don Maynard has said that he believed that George Sauer was a better receiver than he was, and it's not crazy to believe, if his career had lasted into the 70's, that Sauer would have ended up in the Hall of Fame.

But the other thing to remember about George Sauer is that he was a writer and a poet who was expected to play a game that has little use for for truth and beauty. In the DVD segment, Sauer says (in a voice that's feathered with a gentle Texas drawl) that in retirement he was laboring over a novel, one that would convey his sense of the contradictions between the promise and reality of football. I thought about how at first he must have been eager to finally bring into a work of fiction the truth about a game that had shaped his life, but not his soul.

I wonder how he felt when North Dallas Forty was published. If fiction is a retelling of fact - as it apparently was for Peter Gent of the Cowboys - then the author is compelled to relive something true to his life, and that may have been complicated for him. The Times obituary quotes John Dockery as saying that Sauer "walked away from money, from everything, because it was too painful for him." To encapsulate that pain into a work of fiction must have been a great challenge.

The novel never materialized into print that I know of, though according to the Times, Sauer wrote "several novels, plays and literary reviews." I would give anything to find something of his in print. I think how often my wife has nudged me to write what she feels would almost certainly be a bestselling novel about being a public school teacher in a time of enormous flux in the profession, and I dismiss the idea every time. First of all, it wouldn't be a bestseller. Secondly I've actually tried to write it - more times than I'd like to admit - but it never gets done.

The one novel I've ever written - unpublished, naturally - was about the city of St. Louis in 1965. As long as you don't mind the research, it's easy to write about something you've never experienced. But even through the props of fiction, it's particularly painful to bring to the surface words, thoughts and deeds that all are emblematic of your own conflicts between illusion and reality. I always wondered if Sauer felt that way, or whether it was just the vast difficulty of writing a novel that made it (if it was) a struggle for him.

In the wake of it, Sauer's life after football leaves us with lots of questions. The Times mentions that he was married "several times," but he doesn't appear to have had any children. According to Bob Wolfley in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel the Wisconsin-born Sauer became an assistant coach for Oberlin College's football team in 1973 (which is a little like being a Unitarian chaplain at the Air Force Academy, though Oberlin might have just been the right place for his kind of football). He received no pay for this position.

His Wikipedia page mentions that he lived in "St. Paul," by which we assume Minnesota and that he worked as a textbook designer. Yet he died in Westerville, in the center of Ohio. He did actually briefly return to the very same sport he called a "grotesque business" in 1974 when he played for the WFL New York Stars at old Downing Stadium, wearing #9, for whatever reason. Evan Weiner mentions on Dave Pear's Blog that news of Sauer's death and struggles with Alzheimer's comes just as players are returning to training camps, seeking to impress their coaches even at the risk of their own lives. Yet we have no indication that Sauer's disease was brought on by the hits he received in football.


By the time I was five, Sauer was replaced on my wall by a poster of John Riggins, who was then replaced by Wesley Walker in 1980. George Sauer, the poster, was dispensed into the bins of garbage accompanying our transitions from one age to another, from Queens, to the Island, or maybe from the Island to the little town 30 miles north of the city we moved to by the time the Jets finally made it back into the playoffs in 1981.

After I first watched the five minute George Sauer segment on the Namath DVD, I immediately went on eBay and bought another copy of the Sports Illustrated poster that I once kept in my room as a little boy. When the new version of the old poster arrived at my place in Philadelphia, I hung it up on the wall in my classroom, alongside the pictures of famous writers from many ages past. When students ask about him, I tell them that the player in the picture was someone unique, a football player who was also a writer. One student recently said that it wasn't that unique and that Tim Tebow had recently published a book. I just shook my head. I'm more than happy to explain the difference.

But the picture that stays with me is the one to the left, of George Sauer and Willie Brown, the same men in the picture above, bidding farewell and good luck to each other at the end of the AFL Title Game. Sauer believed that the game of football did not engender a sense of comradery or brotherhood but rather demanded a dehumanizing conformity from its players. So this is the image I like to think of when I imagine George Sauer. At the end a bitterly fought AFL Title matchup, he and the man who has been covering him all game now greet each other as colleagues and equals. There still lingers in this picture a sense that the men who play a violent game have more in common with each other than not. According to Wolfley, when Sauer left the Jets in 1971, Weeb Ewbank bemoaned, "He will be missed very much, both as George Sauer the player and George Sauer the person." As an Infinite Jet, we honor him as both, too.


Slimbo said...

That picture is hypnotic - what is that skeletal structure above the action? Is that the part of Shea that'd get exposed when they'd move the seats into a football formation?

The Wound Dresser said...

This is the best tribute to Sauer that I have yet found.literate,smart and well written. I thank yo

Martin Roche said...

Thank you!

Don Yunker said...

What a great tribute. I am 57 years old, but was still playing flag football a few years ago with guys in their 20's and 30's. Our team name? "Gang Green" we wore uniform tops/tee shirts identical to home Jets uniforms. What number did I have? Number 83...for George Sauer (which, in hindsight, he would have lambasted me...). Of course, when I would try to explain who George Sauer was and his receiving skills, no one much cared..just ramblings from an "old-timer"! I also had that Sports Illustrated poster on my bedroom wall. The picture of Sauer and Willie Brown at the end of the '68 AFL Championship game also shows Fred Biletnikoff and Johnny Sample in the background. Thanks again to an excellent tribute.

Martin Roche said...

Thanks very much!

John Franks said...

I played offensive line with George as my coach at Oberlin in 1973 and I also did a private study project with him that centered around Friedrich Nietzche's theories on the Appollonian vs. Dionysian aspects of tragedy and Greek culture. This was under the auspices of Jack Scott, the athletic director who later hid Patty Hearst while she was on the run. George at that time often sported a little Tyrolean leather hat that made him look like some Bavarian vacationer. He was deep and intense and I will always value the chance I had to get to know him as a person. John F.

Martin Roche said...

Thank you for that, John! I had wondered what else he was up to at Oberlin. It's cool to think of him working on the Birth of Tragedy. You were lucky to have worked with him and known him. Again, thank you for the comment!