It's Still Football My Friends
(photo courtesy of CNN.com)
It was 1960, a chilly Sunday afternoon in October—raining. Things we would have been doing on a warmish fall day were unappealing with the steady, cold rain soaking the turf, fencerows and gravel roads. At this point I warn ya, many who might chance a look at this piece are about to read a few names and descriptions that are by now over 50 years old. But persevere, friends, as we tie together some of the pieces that have made the new—or newer—national pastime over these past 5 decades.
There is no way to know how or why it was that I turned on the television after church and Sunday dinner that day, I suppose probably just bored; and of course, through the fogs of time and life’s other experience I can’t begin to get too detailed, but what I found changed me for good.
Lindsey Nelson had the play by play and Red Grange, icon in Chicago football lore, had the color commentary. The foe? The Green Bay Packers, led by Bart Starr and Paul Horning. Now maybe I got some of that wrong, but I’m doing my best here, some 55 years later, so work with me.
The picture was a bit grainy in its black-and-white images, but there they were, 1960’s gladiators, pads and helmets with little insubstantial face masks and high top leather shoes that sported huge cleats capable of decapitating mortal man in a nano-second. Willie Gallimore and Joe Fortunato were in the game for the Monsters of the Midway, as this was just before the advent of Gale Sayers, Dick Butkus, Doug Fensic and Doug Baffone. But the field was full of men. No, I mean men—personalities and characters who, more than anything else, simply loved the game. “Big” salaries at that point mostly consisted of amounts under a hundred grand, and even the most Marquis of players were paid a mere fraction of what the average NFL player makes today. But they loved it, played outside, on natural turf, from August through December. Mud, blood (and yes, I’m sure, beer) were the staples.
Then there were those, just like now, who were not just a cut above, but men who shone as masters of the bloody craft of their various positions. Starr, Tittle, Brodey, Gabriel, quarterbacks who, like Frank Ryan at Cleveland, came from disparate backgrounds. Ryan was the farthest out, an MIT grad in Mathematics. Jim Brown, Jerry Cramer, the fearsome foursome in LA and the giants who made up the line for the Giants, all played together; cold, wet, hot and dry, no matter. Just to play the game. Just to play the damn game. It was quite a time in American Sport, and the fans, from my age in 6th grade, to the folk who could identify players as having played on their respective college teams, began to feel that metaphysical gravitational pull of a sport—not just a pastime—that bore more resemblance to the Roman Coliseum than the baseball diamond and more kinship with battle than basketball.
Now I know my affinity for the NFL is less logic than love, more id than intellect, but it’s there all the same, and what I am about to say here is not so much a defense of football as it is a declaration, reflection, prediction about American society and the game. We just said goodbye to the best of the best of the best; Peyton Manning, retiring just Monday, left the field, the game and the lore in a shambles. Records more numerous than there is time to recount, style, wit and skill out the roof; but most of all, a revolutionizing of the game from the helmet down. Brain power connected to stunning physical abilities and passion-driven desire to excel and to win all have been the hallmark of this “old man” who is just now about to sneak up on the age of my older kids.
There will be a million words written about #18, and mine will be the least of them, but just a couple of thoughts for all as we look, not just at football and his career, but at the American experiment in the broader context of history.
Young Mr. Manning has stood in front of us, worked his center of gravity off, excelled at every facet of a game America loves at all levels, and in the process has been the most retro of heroes in a generation.
Did he misbehave at some point, of course he did. Was he young and silly? Ditto. But as he grew and matured, learned and mastered the gridiron, he also drew upon influences and mores that should be—no, must be—the highest and best of guideposts to lead us out of the abyss of sloth and corruption that stands and thunders at the door of Western Civilization.
In his tribute to his retiring brother, Eli Manning made clear that, although they were a football family, they were family first then a football clan second. And for whatever his years in the league may have entailed earlier on, the birth of those twins so sharpened his bigger vision and completely revamped his priorities that, as with most of us, the kids made the man. Made him better, anyway.
It is my most ardent hope that his influence, far from waning or fading at all, will continue and that his work ethic, devotion to purpose and love for all those around him will invite us all toward such disciplined and steadfast commitment. And for Pete’s sake, he’s not quite 40 so we should have him around for many, many years to come. And each time we see him, hear him or follow his endeavors let’s all be sure we remember what great results can come from men and women who are grounded in family, faith and life’s work.