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Confessions of a Last-String Quarterback
Foreword by Nicholas Dawidoff
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George Plimpton was perhaps best known for Paper Lion, the book that set the bar for participatory sports journalism. With his characteristic wit, Plimpton recounts his experiences in talking his way into training camp with the Detroit Lions, practicing with the team, and taking snaps behind center. His breezy style captures the pressures and tensions rookies confront, the hijinks that pervade when sixty high-strung guys live together in close quarters, and a host of football rites and rituals.
One of the funniest and most insightful books ever written on football, Paper Lion is a classic look at the gridiron game and a book The Wall Street Journal calls “a continuous feast…The best book ever about football — or anything!”
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by Nicholas Dawidoff
The problem with football writing has always been access, the fundamental elusiveness. How to overcome the crowd of armored players, the blur of motion, the anonymous wreckage after the tackle, the coded playbooks, the fenced-off team "facilities," the self-effacing conformity of it all? Secretive by nature, football defies anybody from the outside to get close enough to achieve the clarity and insight excellent writing requires.
In exclusion George Plimpton saw opportunity. Plimpton, the first editor of the Paris Review, was a privileged New Yorker who had spent his life in the most rarefied American communities. The quality that shines through Paper Lion, the greatest of all football books, is Plimpton's absolute conviction that he belongs. As a writer Plimpton was always more Paris than review, more safari-jacketed adventurer than urban belle-lettrist. That is to say, by procedural instinct he first walked among the fauna native to an exotic landscape—boxing rings, baseball diamonds, racetracks—and then returned to far East 72nd Street to convey their essence.
And so it was on fields strewn with (Detroit) Lions. Plimpton's solution to the problem of seeing football clearly was to get in the game. And while his playing pro football was assuredly a stunt, doing the daydream was also a terrific idea—so beautifully direct. Not only would participating in the Lions' training camp as a last-string quarterback help Plimpton to see behind the face mask, but it would also allow him to engage with the vicarious impulse at the heart of sporting spectatorship. Plimpton wrote Paper Lion in what was still a Walter Mitty era of armchair fandom when from the bleachers all reveries were plausible. The peerless baseball writer Roger Angell, who began covering his sport for The New Yorker by attending spring training in 1962, the year before Plimpton joined the Lions, said, "We used to think, with a little luck we could have been doing this. Nobody thinks that anymore. Today he'd get hurt." Angell considers it "amazing the Lions let him do it. They loved it. Could have been the opposite. He must have been extremely charming. George was very enthusiastic."
He was also an unlikely candidate for a mauling. A man about Harvard, the New Journalism cocktail circuit, and Kennedy administration skating parties (Muhammad Ali nicknamed him "Kennedy"), Plimpton's football pedigree was modest. He was built "along the lines of a stick" and had been cut from his high-school junior varsity. But all that was exactly the point here, and besides, Plimpton had other qualities. A youthful thirty-six when he joined the Lions, our man was tall, boyish, nervy, socially at ease in unfamiliar settings, and a person unlikely to allow his sense of self to become contingent on how well he played football. Among the Lions, Plimpton was always the confident, charming writer, glad to wear jersey number zero because he understood that his athletic incompetence was useful to his story.
All the best immersive reporters have a gift for self-fashioning, and Plimpton was a master. By 1963, he'd cultivated a patrician accent so affected even people who'd seen it all, like the writer Roy Blount, shook their heads in admiration. And yet Plimpton was also the sort of man capable of seamlessly dropping his y'alls from the moment he hit the Mason-Dixon Line. When Roger Angell was a boy growing up in New York, he admired the New York Giants' left-handed screwball pitcher Carl Hubbell above all players. Angell heard that the accumulated strains of breaking off his signature pitch meant that Hubbell's left palm faced permanently outward. So Angell began walking around with his arm to port similarly contorted. Angell's mother, alarmed, told him, "Don't do that, Rog." Angell recounted this to Plimpton, and soon enough word filtered to Angell of Plimpton, whose childhood love of Carl Hubbell was such that—get this!—he'd kept his arm bent in salutation until his mother told him to straighten up. Angell didn't hold this against Plimpton; inhabiting other people's lives was simply what Plimpton did.
At the Lions' training camp Plimpton insinuated himself with ease, retailing apocryphal tales of his amateur days as a member of the Newfoundland Newfs. If his throwing arm was weak, come evening the Plimpton leg was stout enough to keep up with the big cats out at the Dearborn, Michigan, watering holes. Most people are susceptible to admiration, and the Lions quickly embraced the sustained attention of such a shimmering, seductive appreciator. They didn't care that he was lousy at football. They admired him for risking it, and for making what they did seem worthy of personal sacrifice, staying with them through the rugged hardships of camp. And Plimpton was sedulous about doing nothing to compromise the mission: "I behaved, of course."
I read Paper Lion first as a boy, and I still have my old childhood copy, a ninety-five-cent Pocket paperback. To look again at those disintegrating pages with their pale pink edges, some of them loosened from the spine and jammed back in haphazardly, is to recall what heady entry into an adult world it provided, a physical world of men. The pros were professionally accomplished at so many masculine arts: banter, beer drinking, vomiting (too much beer), games of chance, pranks, and post-curfew sneak-outs. There were exciting gambits like calling in to a popular restaurant under the name of the team owner to cadge a reservation (only to come upon said owner). There were women to meet out at dance halls, in tight slacks and mohair sweaters the color of pink spun sugar, and women to revel in from afar while watching them play tennis. And there were men playing football, so much football so memorably described.
The campus of the Cranbrook School where the Lions lived and trained was a gift to the writer, the contrast of rough game and sylvan setting one of the many juxtapositions that threads through Paper Lion, enlivening that central juxtaposition of amateur among professionals, elitist intellectual amid hard-hat muscle. Plimpton relates football as a game of intricate physical actions that are also often amusing because the players are so big, the actions so unique to the activity. After Plimpton compares centering a ball to a cow at milking, who could ever consider the hiker without thinking Holstein? Similarly, as soon as we observe massive men attempting to sleep as they overflow dormitory beds designed for teenage schoolboys, the scale of human we are dealing with becomes indelible.
Plimpton is a collector of small interactions in a volatile world. When I reached back into my old Pocket book, treats from the football day-to-day were extracted again in a rush: the account of former Lion coach Buddy Parker responding to losses by disrobing and dispensing with his (unlucky) suits of clothing, sometimes by stuffing costly jackets, ties, and trousers out the windows of speeding trains; the way players thought about the after-practice vats of lemonade awaiting them on those scorching Michigan summer days; the anxiety of the rookies forced to stand during meals and sing their school fight songs for the veterans; the steep alps of food the players put on their plates; the exaggerated reactions of headman George Wilson and the other Lion coaches during their downtime games of liars' poker; the reserve quarterback Earl Morrall generously throwing after-practice passes to a line of children—one of them a swift, sure-handed ball thief.
Football is the national passion, ever changing. Yet fifty years later Paper Lion still feels contemporary. That's because the book is a tour de force of vivid characters who become the Ur–football team. A football roster is scores of men, yet from just the few weeks Plimpton spent with the team, there's the necessary illusion of comprehensiveness; we feel we know them all. Several of the best were absent from Cranbrook that summer. The unruly lineman Big Daddy Lipscomb and the bantam-cock quarterback Bobby Layne had by then retired. Alex Karras, a nearsighted All-Pro defensive tackle, was famed within the team for his impromptu skits and monologues. But Karras had been suspended by the league for his underworld consortings. Plimpton clearly perceived it as an advantage that the trio was offstage; all three became entirely his. The players surrounding him provided as well, none better than Dick "Night Train" Lane, the Hall of Fame cornerback we meet up with in his dorm room dressed in a siren suit of his own design, listening to his wife Dinah Washington's R & B records on a portable stereo. Lane holds forth on the art of defense with a barrage of suffixy linguistic formulations—his "captainship"—that allow Plimpton to forever make him football's Lester Young. From these men we grasp football's strange high-low counterpoint—the big business of roughhousing. And while Plimpton may have behaved, he doesn't duck the trouble he sees, writing well, if without strong judgment, about race, addiction, and the ruthless ways of management. A very clear picture develops of how the day-to-day professional game works.
We get a very clear portrait of Plimpton too. Old Number Zero is a complicated proposition, a football ethnographer, a football interloper, and a football foil. The action in Paper Lion reaches an anticlimax with the five plays Plimpton quarterbacks at the team scrimmage held at Pontiac stadium, a stricken sequence that gives way to Plimpton's gradual realization that the fans didn't understand "the lunacy of my participation" and thought his ineptitude was a gag, a football Al Schacht routine. But Plimpton was a committed competitor. It's just that he saw the playing field delimits a bit more expansively than a hundred yards of gridiron.
For all the world-class athletes at Plimpton's literary disposal, Paper Lion's top-billed performer is always Plimpton. His book is the culmination of a long game in which he is in unstated competition with all those Lion players, out to prove that his literary athleticism is even more entertaining than what they can muster on white-lined grass. He wins because he makes those forgotten practices involving distant players forever alive. Fleet, vain split end Gail Cogdill, lineman John Gordy called "the Bear" for a thick thatch of body hair, lady-killing defensive back Ricky LeBeau, the up-for-it utilityman Jim "Marine" Martin, the gregarious and tragic rookie lineman Lucien Reeberg—we remember them all because of skinny George. Of course Plimpton chose to be a quarterback. The quarterback is the writer, the one who makes it up, makes it happen. It was always going to be about him, and what lends the book its true imaginative distinction is Plimpton's inner life, those meandering within-the-helmet soliloquies, each of them funnier and more weirdly informative than the last.
As Plimpton recounts early on in Paper Lion, finding a football organization that would allow him to suit up was not easy. One team official told Plimpton, "You got to realize professional football is a serious business." Other teams thought the Lions were crazy to put themselves at risk by exposing themselves to a writer, but how provident for the Lions that they did. Such are the joys of the book, every Thanksgiving when the Lions play their traditional holiday game, generations of Paper Lion readers all over America take to their TVs to pull for the blue and silver.
Other writers' debts are on paper. By inventing an immersive genre, Plimpton gave otherwise obstructed observers the means for seeing distant subjects up close. As a young writer at Sports Illustrated, I traveled to Boston to talk hitting with Red Sox batting coach Walter Hriniak, an impresario of his time. It was challenging to understand the subtleties of Hriniak's methods, so at a certain point I asked if the coach might watch me hit a few and evaluate my swing. A look of dismay crossed his face. But fortunately for me there was a bystander who cried, "A Plimpton!" Just like that, Hriniak understood, and my encounter with the professional was assured.
I decided finally to pack the football. It was a slightly used Spalding ball, an expensive one, with the information printed on it that it was "triple-lined and lock-stitched." Its sponsoring signature was that of Norman Van Brocklin, the ex–Philadelphia Eagle quarterback. It seemed a little deflated. I pressed it down hard against the shirts and was able to get the canvas suitcase cover zipped up around it. It was the bulkiest item in the suitcase, and the bulge of it was noticeable. I had two sweat suits in there, a pair of football shoes, some socks, a book on football formations written by a high-school coach, a sports coat and some trousers, and a few other things.
I was not sure what I was going to need at the training camp. The Detroit Lion officials had not sent me the sort of list one remembered from boys' camp—that one should bring a pillowcase, a mattress cover, a flashlight, a laundry bag, etc. I assumed I could buy what I was lacking at the nearest town. I carried the suitcase down to the street and went out to Kennedy airport to catch an airplane to Detroit. From there I would go by car an hour north to Cranbrook, a boys' private school near Bloomfield Hills, whose athletic facilities were being used by the Detroit Lions for their preseason training. I was going there as the Lions' "last-string quarterback"—as my friends referred to it—to join the team as an amateur to undergo firsthand the life of the professional and, hopefully, to describe the experience in a book.
I had written one such book—a recounting of my turbulent experiences pitching in Yankee Stadium in a postseason major-league All-Star game. Out of My League the book was called, and it described what happened to someone with the temerity to climb the field-box railings to try the sport oneself, just to see how one got along and what happened. The notion behind the book was to play out the fantasies, the daydreams that so many people have—seeing themselves on the center court at Wimbledon, or sinking long putts in the U.S. Open, or ripping through the Green Bay secondary. I had been able to arrange with the baseball game's promoters to play. Ernest Hemingway had thought it an odd if interesting experiment and he described the difficulties of my participation as "the dark side of the moon of Walter Mitty." Other friends were more critical. "Why do you want to embarrass yourself like that?" they asked. "It's terrible. Either you're the most frustrated athlete there ever was, or you're nuts."
"Well, the idea is also to get a firsthand knowledge of the professional athlete," I said. "By being one of them, in a sense—being a teammate."
"Sure," they said. "Some teammate. Well, all right, what are you going to do next?"
"The Detroit Lions are allowing me to go through training with them," I was able to say after I had worked it out with them. "They're going to let me play in a few games."
My friends were skeptical. "Sure, sure," they said.
During the earlier part of that July month I had been practicing strenuously with the Spalding ball. On New York City weekdays, with friends working in their offices, it was difficult finding someone with whom to throw; but I would take the ball out to Central Park, trotting along the paths in a sweat suit, bringing the knees up high, then launching into an occasional sprint, with the arm held out straight to ward off an imaginary tackler, and then in the open stretches, out in the meadows where two elderly men were helping some children fly a box kite, I would rear back and throw the ball. It would arch through the air, bounce down the field, and rock abruptly to a stop in the grass. I would fetch it. Then I would throw it again. Without someone to throw to, it was a melancholy practice—to throw a ball in a park meadow and then walk to it, and throw it again—and I did it in a sort of dull, bored way so that if anyone caught me at it, if one of the elderly men looked away from his box kite, it would appear that I had nothing better to do while awaiting the arrival of friends, obviously delayed in traffic, for a touch football game. Sometimes, I punted the ball. Once I kicked it off the side of my foot into the infield of a baseball game, and the black-shirted players began shouting, "Arriba! Arriba!" and waving their arms as if what had dropped down among them was a large buzzard. July was not the seasonal month to be carrying a football around in Central Park, and I didn't go out too often. I threw the ball around in my apartment, which is a sort of studio, long enough to allow a throw into an armchair from twenty or twenty-five feet away—keeping at it when I had the chance, if only to get used to the feel of the ball.
It was hot when I landed in Detroit. Many of those on hand to meet incoming planes were wearing shorts and dark sunglasses, some sporting cowboy hats with the Ford insignia. They meandered through the terminal, which was new and spacious, past glass cases which displayed machine parts revolving on small velvet-covered stands. Down on the lower level I rented a car, a red convertible, and I set out north along the main pike, called Telegraph Road, following directions for Bloomfield Hills. It is hard to go wrong. The country is flat, with the cranes standing in the fields amid the housing developments going up, and the bisecting roads are named for the number of miles out from the city limits—Seven-Mile Road, Eight-Mile Road, Fifteen-Mile Road—until about an hour out, when the country road names begin to appear on the turnpike signs, and the country itself begins to roll under big shade trees. I turned off for Bloomfield Hills, and the macadam road ran down through thick, tall woods, with an occasional glimpse of pond through the foliage.
I drove into the school parking lot, and carried my suitcase up through the school grounds toward a building which was indicated by an occasional directional arrow as the administration building. It was quiet and peaceful walking the brick-lined paths. The school buildings were ivy-covered, and everywhere sprinklers ticked back and forth on the lawns and flower beds.
In the administration building there was no sign of anyone around. I could hear a typewriter going somewhere, down a cloister, so I took my bag and followed along to the school office. Someone was typing in a cubicle there, and when I knocked and went in a woman spun around from her machine, blinking violently to dislodge a pair of pince-nez spectacles, which came off finally, and fell, suspended by a velvet ribbon around her neck.
She looked at me sharply.
"You are from… what country?" she asked.
I set my bag down. On the table beside her stood a row of badges of the type pinned on at conventions. One of them, turned slightly, had a name at the top which I could see and under it, in block letters, GHANA. Another card read IRAQ, and a third IVORY COAST.
"Yes?" she kept at me.
"Well, I'm from New York," I said hopelessly, turning my palms over.
She looked at me quizzically, and she said, "You are with the convention… with the bishops?"
She colored slightly. "Oh dear," she said. "I am in error. We have sixty Episcopalian bishops and other church people coming in for a convention… from all over the world. You are with…?"
"… the football people," I said.
"Yes," she said primly, recovering quickly. "The football people are in Page Hall." She gave me directions to the Lion public-relations office, where she thought someone might be able to take me in hand, squinting forward as she spoke, reaching finally for her pince-nez to give me a closer look through them.
I thanked her, took up my bag, and hurried from her scrutiny, finding Page Hall after a short walk through the school grounds, and then the public-relations office. Bud Erickson, the assistant general manager of the Lions, was in—personable, slow-talking, his hair cropped like an oarsman's, which gave him the appearance of being not long out of college—and with him was Friday Macklem, the team's equipment manager. He was older, thin, sand-blond, with amused eyes, and he wore pants as baggy as a comedian's. He had been the "man Friday" to his predecessor with the Lions, which is what they called him then, and the nickname had stuck. As he introduced us Erickson referred to him as the "guy who was the… ah… team humorist, in charge not only of equipment and uniforms and… ah… helmets, but also team morale."
"Naturally," Friday said. His manner was caustic. "Your morale may give me some trouble," he went on, grinning suddenly. "Bud's been telling me about you. I heard you're a writer turned footballer. You're going to play for us—making some sort of big comeback."
"That's right," I said.
He shook his head. "Well, I've been with Detroit for twenty-seven years, dishing out uniforms all those years, and I know if I'd ever been tempted into one, I wouldn't be around to tell of it, for sure."
"Did you get your insurance?" Erickson wanted to know. We had talked about that over the phone the week before.
"I got some sort of protection," I said. "It wasn't easy. The company tried to get Lloyd's of London to do it, but they backed off, not quite sure what it was all about."
"What sort of policy is it?" Erickson asked.
"It's a twenty-five-thousand coverage against death, dismemberment, or loss of sight," I said. "It cost me seventy-five dollars and the policy's only good for thirty days—which shows you what the insurance people think of my chances for the weeks ahead."
"Seems those people were trying to tell you something," said Friday.
The two of them laughed.
"Don't give me away to the players," I said. "I'd like to be thought of as just another rookie, an odd one maybe, but no special favors or anything because I'm a writer. The point is to write about it firsthand."
Erickson asked if I'd had an easy trip out from New York.
"Until I got here," I said. "Up in the school office they took me for an Episcopalian bishop. Not too auspicious a start."
"Let's hope that's the worst thing that happens to you," said Friday.
After a while Erickson got my assigned room number out, and Friday said that he'd go along and show me the way. We went down the dormitory corridors, which were long and dark, with clocks up on the wall at the end, and bulletin boards, and past the rows of numbered doors, most of them ajar. We could glance in and see the small cubicle-sized rooms, each with its narrow bed with a kelly-green spread that looked as rough as cowhide, the cheap teak bureau, round wooden pegs on the drawers, the mirror on top, and then the varnished desk, which would have a round hole to set an ink bottle in, and alongside, on the floor, the big green metal wastepaper basket. The dormitory smell was familiar—faintly antiseptic, perhaps of laundry bags full of bed linen, or of damp linoleum, which lined the corridor floors and squeaked underfoot. The rooms all seemed empty. Quite a few veterans had arrived—Friday said—but they'd be off playing golf probably, the coaches for sure, and as for the rookies, they were all in, about fifteen of them, most of them bunked down up on the second floor.
My room was 122, on the ground floor. I hoisted my bag up on the bed, which was hard, with enough spring to bounce the bag back up. Friday cranked open the latticed window and the afternoon breeze began to come in past the tendrils of ivy. Some mourning doves were humming in the eaves. It was pleasant enough.
"At least you got a single room," Friday said. "Most everyone's in doubles. This being a boys' school, and everything sort of undersized, you get a three-hundred-pounder for a roommate and he's not far from overflowing a room."
It was true about everything being undersized. The hydraulic door jacks up in the corners of the doors had thick guards of wadding attached so the ballplayers wouldn't crack their heads. They had to bend down to reach the doorknobs. The chairs were small and creaked under their weight. The washroom sinks were two or three inches lower than usual; the mirrors were also set lower, so that the sight of a row of players hunched over those sinks, almost bent double to peer at their beards while they shaved, made them appear even more gargantuan than they were.
Friday said he'd come by at dinnertime, which was six-thirty, a few hours away, and take me along to the dining hall. He closed the door after him. I turned to my suitcase and unpacked it. I took out the football. At the end of the bed I set up the pillow, dropped back to the closed door, and whipped the ball into it. But the distance was too short to be of any value for practicing—just barely six feet.
I unpacked the rest of the bag. At the bottom were the football shoes I had bought in an army-navy store in Times Square. I took off my street shoes, and after kneading the football shoes back and forth in my hands I tugged them on. They were stiff when I bought them, and wearing them in Central Park had raised a number of painful blisters. I kept wearing them to soften the leather, and also to harden my feet. When I stood up and walked around, the round cleats left marks in the brown linoleum floor, so I flopped back on the rough bedspread.
I was going to look into the high-school coach's book on basic formations. But I was tired after the trip, and I fell asleep.
My arrival at Cranbrook brought me closer to active participation with a professional football team than I had been in four years of intermittent trying. It had been relatively easy to arrange to play in the baseball game that resulted in Out of My League. But it had been difficult with football—possibly, I supposed, because I could not approach the owners with quite the confidence I was able to muster when I asked to pitch. I had played a lot of baseball, but my football experience was limited. The school I went to in New York was English in character, and in the autumn, we played soccer rather than football. The "football song," which we sang lustily in school assembly, went as follows:
- "A continuous feast...The best book ever about football--or anything!"—Wall Street Journal
- "A great book that makes football absolutely fascinating to fan and non-fan alike...a tale to gladden the envious heart of every weekend athlete.... Plimpton has endless curiosity, unshakable enthusiasm and nerve, and a deep respect for the world he enters."—New York Times
- "The agility and imaginativeness of his prose transforms his account of this daydream into a classic of sports reporting."—The New Yorker
- "Possibly the most arresting and delightful narrative in all of sports literature."—Book Week
- "A delight--more entertaining, if possible, than I remembered... the reader leaves George Plimpton's wide world of sports with deep reluctance.... His prose is as elegant and seemingly effortless as Ted Williams's swing or an Arnold Palmer iron shot.... His teammates recede--like the old baseball players vanishing into the cornfield in Field of Dreams, taking their magical world with them but living on in fond memory."—Edward Kosner, Wall Street Journal
- "Sports memoirs, like humor collections, rarely outlive their authors, but Plimpton's books have aged gracefully and even matured. Today they have the additional (and unintended) appeal of vivid history, bearing witness to a mythical era."—Nathaniel Rich, New York Review of Books
- On Sale
- Apr 26, 2016
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Little, Brown and Company