The Stacks: George Plimptons Gridiron Nightmare

In book after book, he was the everyman who donned a uniform and played against the pros, never more appallingly or hilariously then when he quarterbacked the Detroit Lions. “>

By the time George Plimpton starting writing for Sports Illustrated in the late 50s, hed already made a name for himself running The Paris Review, where The Art of Fiction interviews with famous writers redefined examinations of the creative process. Those interviewsthat publicationalone makes for a considerable legacy, but it wasnt until Plimpton began what he called participatory journalism for SI that he found wider fame. First, he wrote about pitching an inning of a post-season All Star Game of major leaguers, which was soon expanded into a book, Out of My League. But it was Plimptons second foray as an amateur into the world of professional sports that made him a star.

He played third-string quarterback for the Detroit Lions, wrote about it for SI, and the ensuing book, Paper Lion, became a best-seller and made Plimpton famous. Hed continue this routine for yearsboxing 3 rounds against Archie Moore, playing goalie for the Boston Bruins, even playing the triangle for the New York Symphonyand, in true Warholian fashion, became famous for being famous. While all of his adventures are drolltold in his charming, unpretentious prosenothing measures up to Paper Lion.

Fortunate for us, Little Brown is reprinting all seven of Plimptons participatory journalism books, and there is no better place to start than Paper Lion, reprinted with permission from Plimptons estate. Please enjoy a piece of sports writingand New Journalismhistory.

Alex Belth

Jack Benny used to say that when he stood on the stage in white tie and tails for his violin concerts and raised his bow to begin his routinescraping through Love in Bloomhe felt like a great violinist. He reasoned that, if he wasnt a great violinist, what was he doing dressed in tails, and about to play before a large audience?

At Pontiac I felt myself a football quarterback, not an interloper. My game plan was organized, and I knew what I was supposed to do. My nerves seemed steady, much steadier than they had been as I waited on the bench. I trotted along easily. I was keenly aware of what was going on around me.

I could hear Bud Ericksons voice over the loudspeaker system, a dim murmur, telling the crowd what was going on. He was telling them that number zero, coming out across the sidelines, was not actually a rookie, but an amateur, a writer, who had been training with the team for three weeks and had learned five plays, which he was now going to run against the first-string Detroit defense. It was like a nightmare come true, he told them, as if one of them, rocking a beer around in a paper cup, with a pretty girl leaning past him to ask the hot-dog vendor in the aisle for mustard, were suddenly carried down underneath the stands by a sinister clutch of ushers. He would protest, but he would be encased in the accoutrements, the silver helmet, with the two protruding bars of the cage, jammed down over his ears, and sent out to take over the teamthat was the substance of Ericksons words, drifting across the field, swayed and shredded by the steady breeze coming up across the open end of Wisner Stadium from the vanished sunset. The crowd was interested, and I was conscious, just vaguely, of a steady roar of encouragement.

The team was waiting for me, grouped in the huddle watching me come. I went in among them. Their heads came down for the signal. I called out, Twenty-six! forcefully, to inspire them, and a voice from one of the helmets said, Down, down, the whole stadium can hear you.

Twenty-six, I hissed at them. Twenty-six near oh pinch; on three. Break! Their hands cracked as one, and I wheeled and started for the line behind them.

My confidence was extreme. I ambled slowly behind Whitlow, poised down over the ball, and I had sufficient presence to pause, resting a hand at the base of his spine, as if on a windowsilla nonchalant gesture I had admired in certain quarterbacksand I looked out over the length of his back to fix in my mind what I saw.

Everything fine about being a quarterbackthe embodiment of his powerwas encompassed in those dozen seconds or so: giving the instructions to ten attentive men, breaking out of the huddle, walking for the line, and then pausing behind the center, dawdling amidst men poised and waiting under the trigger of his voice, cataleptic, until the deliverance of himself and them to the future. The pleasure of sport was so often the chance to indulge the cessation of time itselfthe pitcher dawdling on the mound, the skier poised at the top of a mountain trail, the basketball player with the rough skin of the ball against his palm preparing for a foul shot, the tennis player at set point over his opponentall of them savoring a moment before committing themselves to action.

I had the sense of a portcullis down. On the other side of the imaginary bars the linemen were poised, the lights glistening off their helmets, and close in behind them were the linebackers, with Joe Schmidt just opposite me, the big number 56 shining on his white jersey, jump-jacking back and forth with quick choppy steps, his hands poised in front of him, and he was calling out defensive code words in a stream. I could sense the rage in his voice, and the tension in those rows of bodies waiting, as if coils had been wound overtight, which my voice, calling a signal, like a lever would trip to spring them all loose. Blue! Blue! Blue! I heard Schmidt shout.

Within my helmet, the schoolmasters voice murmured at me: Son, nothing to it, nothing at all

I bent over the center. Quickly, I went over what was supposed to happenI would receive the snap and take two steps straight back, and hand the ball to the number two back coming laterally across from right to left, who would then cut into the number six hole. at was what was designated by 26the two back into the six hole. The mysterious code words near oh pinch referred to blocking assignments in the line, and I was never sure exactly what was meant by them. The important thing was to hang on to the ball, turn, and get the ball into the grasp of the back coming across laterally.

I cleared my throat. Set! I called outmy voice loud and astonishing to hear, as if it belonged to someone shouting into the ear holes of my helmet. Sixteen, sixty-five, forty-four, hut-one, hut-two, hut-three, and at three the ball slapped back into my palm, and Whitlows rump bucked up hard as he went for the defenseman opposite.

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The lines cracked together with a yawp and smack of pads and gear. I had the sense of quick, heavy movement, and as I turned for the backfield, not a second having passed, I was hit hard from the side, and as I gasped the ball was jarred loose. It sailed away, and bounced once, and I stumbled after it, hauling it under me five yards back, hearing the rush of feet, and the heavy jarring and wheezing of the blockers fending off the defense, a great roar up from the crowd, and above it, a relief to hear, the shrilling of the referees whistle. My first thought was that at the snap of the ball the right side of the line had collapsed just at the second of the handoff, and one of the tacklers, Brown or Floyd Peters, had cracked through to make me fumble. Someone, I assumed, had messed up on the assignments designated by the mysterious code words near oh pinch. In fact, as I discovered later, my own man bowled me overJohn Gordy, whose assignment as offensive guard was to pull from his position and join the interference on the far side of the center. He was required to pull back and travel at a great clip parallel to the line of scrimmage to get out in front of the runner, his route theoretically passing between me and the center. But the extra second it took me to control the ball, and the creaking execution of my turn, put me in his path, a rare sight for Gordy to see, his own quarterback blocking the way, like coming around a corner in a high-speed car to find a moose ambling across the centerline, and he caromed off me, jarring the ball loose.

It was not new for me to be hit down by my own people. At Cranbrook I was knocked down all the time by players on the offensethe play patterns run with such speed along routes so carefully defined that if everything wasnt done right and at the proper speed, the play would break down in its making. I was often reminded of film clips in which the process of a porcelain pitcher, say, being dropped by a butler and smashed, is shown in reverse, so that the pieces pick up off the floor and soar up to the butlers hand, each piece on a predestined route, sudden perfection out of chaos. Often, it did not take more than an inch or so off line to throw a play out of kilter. On one occasion at the training camp, practicing handoff plays to the fullback, I had my chin hanging out just a bit too far, something wrong with my posture, and Pietrosantes shoulder pad caught it like a punch as he went by, and I spun slowly to the ground, grabbing at my jaw. Brettschneider had said that afternoon: The defense is going to rack you up one of these days, if your own teamd let you stand long enough for us defense guys to get at you. Its aggravating to bust through and find that youve already been laid at by your own offense guys.

My confidence had not gone. I stood up. The referee took the ball from me. He had to tug to get it away, a faint look of surprise on his face. My inner voice was assuring me that the fault in the tumble had not been mine. They let you down, it was saying. The blocking failed. But the main reason for my confidence was the next play on my listthe 93 pass, a play which I had worked successfully in the Cranbrook scrimmages. I walked into the huddle and I said with considerable enthusiasm, All right! All right! Here we go!

Keep the voice down, said a voice. Youll be tipping them the play.

I leaned in on them and said: Green right (Green designated a pass play, right put the flanker to the right side), three right (which put the three back to the right), ninety-three (indicating the two primary receivers; nine, the right end, and three, the three back) on three Break!the clap of the hands again in unison, the team streamed past me up to the line, and I walked briskly up behind Whitlow.

Again, I knew exactly how the play was going to developback those seven yards into the defensive pocket for the three to four seconds it was supposed to hold, and Pietrosante, the three back, would go down in his pattern, ten yards straight, then cut over the middle, and I would hit him.

Set! Sixteen! eighty-eight fifty-five hut-one hut-two hut-three

The ball slapped into my palm at three. I turned and started back. I could feel my balance going, and two yards behind the line of scrimmage I fell downabsolutely at, as if my feet had been pinned under a trip wire stretched across the field, not a hand laid on me. I heard a great roar go up from the crowd. Suffused as I had been with confidence, I could scarcely believe what had happened. Mud cleats catching in the grass? Slipped in the dew? I felt my jaw go ajar in my helmet. Wha? Wha?the mortification beginning to come fast. I rose hurriedly to my knees at the referees whistle, and I could see my teammates big silver helmets with the blue Lion decals turn toward me, some of the players rising from blocks theyd thrown to protect me, their faces masked, automaton, prognathous with the helmet bars protruding toward me, characterless, yet the dismay was in the set of their bodies as they loped back for the huddle. The schoolmasters voice ailed at me inside my helmet. Ox! it cried. Clumsy oaf.

I joined the huddle. Sorry, sorry, I said.

Call the play, man, came a voice from one of the helmets.

I dont know what happened, I said.

Call it, man.

The third play on my list was the 42, another running play, one of the simplest in football, in which the quarterback receives the snap, makes a full spin, and shoves the ball into the four backs stomachthe fullbacks. He has come straight forward from his position as if off starting blocks, his knees high, and he disappears with the ball into the number two hole just to the left of the centera straight power play, and one which seen from the stands seems to offer no difficulty.

I got into an awful jam with it. Once again, the jackrabbit speed of the professional backfield was too much for me. The fullbackDanny Lewiswas past me and into the line before I could complete my spin and set the ball in his belly. And so I did what was required: I tucked the ball into my own belly and followed Lewis into the line, hoping that he might have budged open a small hole.

I tried, grimacing, my eyes squinted almost shut, and waiting for the impact, which came before Id taken two stepsI was grabbed up by Roger Brown.

He tackled me high, and straightened me with his power, so that I churned against his three-hundred-pound girth like a comic bicyclist. He began to shake me. I remained upright to my surprise, flailed back and forth, and I realized that he was struggling for the ball. His arms were around it, trying to tug it free. The bars of our helmets were nearly locked, and I could look through and see him insidethe first helmeted face I recognized that eveningthe small, brown eyes surprisingly peaceful, but he was grunting hard, the sweat shining, and I had time to think, Its Brown, its Brown! before I lost the ball to him, and flung to one knee on the ground I watched him lumber ten yards into the end zone behind us for a touchdown.

The referee wouldnt allow it. He said hed blown the ball dead while we were struggling for it. Brown was furious. You taking that away from me? he said, his voice high and squeaky. Man, I took that ball in there good.

The referee turned and put the ball on the ten-yard line. I had lost twenty yards in three attempts, and I had yet, in fact, to run off a complete play. The veterans walked back very slowly to the next huddle.

I stood off to one side, listening to Brown rail at the referee. I never scored like that befo. You takin that away from me? His voice was peeved. He looked off toward the stands, into the heavy tumult of sound, spreading the big palms of his hands in grief.

I watched him, detached, not even moved by his insistence that I suffer the humiliation of having the ball stolen for a touchdown. If the referee had allowed him his score, I would not have protested. The shock of having the three plays go as badly as they had left me dispirited and numb, the purpose of the exercise forgotten. Even the schoolmasters voice seemed to have gonea bleak despair having set in so that as I stood shifting uneasily, watching Brown jawing at the referee, I was perfectly willing to trot in to the bench at that point and be done with it.

Then, by chance, I happened to see Brettschneider standing at his corner linebacker position, watching me, and beyond the bars of his cage I could see a grin working. That set my energies ticking over once againthe notion that some small measure of recompense would be mine if I could complete a pass in the Badgers territory and embarrass him. I had such a play in my seriesa slant pass to the strong-side end, Jim Gibbons.

I walked back to the huddle. It was slow in forming. I said, The Badgers asleep. Hes fat and hes asleep.

No one said anything. Everyone stared down. In the silence I became suddenly aware of the feet. There are twenty-two of them in the huddle, after all, most of them very large, in a small area, and while the quarterback ruminates and the others await his instruction, theres nothing else to catch the attention. The sight pricked at my mind, the oval of twenty-two football shoes, and it may have been responsible for my error in announcing the play. I forgot to give the signal on which the ball was to be snapped back by the center. I said: Green right nine slant break! One or two of the players clapped their hands, and as the huddle broke, some of them automatically heading for the line of scrimmage, someone hissed: Well, the signal, whats the signal, for Chrissake.

I had forgotten to say on two.

I should have kept my head and formed the huddle again. Instead, I called out Two! in a loud stage whisper, directing my call first to one side, then the other, Two! Two! as we walked up to the line. For those that might have been beyond earshot, who might have missed the signal, I held out two fingers spread like a V, which I showed around furtively, trying to hide it from the defense, and hoping that my people would see.

The pass was incomplete. I took two steps back (the play was a quick pass, thrown without a protective pocket) and I saw Gibbons break from his position, then stop, buttonhooking, his hand, which I used as a target, came up, but I threw the ball over him. A yell came up from the crowd seeing the ball in the air (it was the first play of the evening which hadnt been blownto use the players expression for a missed play), but then a groan went up when the ball was overshot and bounced across the sidelines.

Last play, George Wilson was calling. He had walked over with a clipboard in his hand and was standing by the referee. The balls on the ten. Lets see you take it all the way, he called out cheerfully.

One of the players asked: Which end zone is he talking about?

The last play of the series was a pitchoutcalled a flip on some teamsa long lateral to the number four back running parallel to the line and cutting for the eight hole at left end. The lateral, though long, was easy for me to do. What I had to remember was to keep on running out after the flight of the ball. The hole behind me as I lateraled was left unguarded by an offensive lineman pulling out from his position and the defensive tackle could bull through and take me from behind in his rush, not knowing Id got rid of the ball, if I didnt clear out of the area.

I was able to get the lateral off and avoid the tackler behind me, but unfortunately the defense was keyed for the play. They knew my repertoire, which was only five plays or so, and they doubted Id call the same play twice. One of my linemen told me later that the defensive man opposite him in the line, Floyd Peters, had said, Well, here comes the forty-eight pitchout, and it had come, and they were able to throw the number four back, Pietrosante, who had received the lateral, back on the one-yard linejust a yard away from the mortification of having moved a team backward from the thirty-yard line into ones own end zone for a safety.

As soon as I saw Pietrosante go down, I left for the bench on the sidelines at midfield, a long run from where Id brought my team, and I felt utterly weary, shuffling along through the grass.

Applause began to sound from the stands, and I looked up, startled, and saw people standing, and the hands going. It made no sense at the time. It was not derisive; it seemed solid and respectful. Wha? Wha? I thought, and I wondered if the applause wasnt meant for someone elseif the mayor had come into the stadium behind me and was waving from an open-topped car. But as I came up to the bench I could see the people in the stands looking at me, and the hands going.

I thought about the applause afterward. Some of it was, perhaps, in appreciation of the lunacy of my participation, and for the fortitude it took to do it; but most of it, even if subconscious, I decided was in relief that I had done as badly as I had: it verified the assumption that the average fan would have about an amateur blundering into the brutal world of professional football. He would get slaughtered. If by some chance I had uncorked a touchdown pass, there would have been wild acknowledgmentbecause I heard the groans go up at each successive disasterbut afterward the spectators would have felt uncomfortable. Their concept of things would have been upset. The outsider did not belong, and there was comfort in that being proved.

Some of the applause, as it turned out, came from people who had enjoyed the comic aspects of my stint. More than a few thought that they were being entertained by a professional comic in the tradition of baseballs Al Schacht, or the Charlie Chaplins, the clowns, of the bullfights. Bud Erickson told me that a friend of his had come up to him later. Bud, thats one of the funniest goddamn I mean that guys got it, this man said, barely able to control himself.

I did not take my helmet off when I reached the bench. It was tiring to do and there was security in having it on. I was conscious of the big zero on my back facing the crowd when I sat down. Some players came by and tapped me on the top of the helmet. Brettschneider leaned down and said, Well, you stuck it thats the big thing.

The scrimmage began. I watched it for a while, but my mind returned to my own performance. The pawky inner voice was at hand again. You didnt stick it, it said testily. You funked it.

At halftime Wilson took the players down to the band shell at one end of the stadium. I stayed on the bench. He had his clipboards with him, and I could see him pointing and explaining, a big semicircle of players around him, sitting on the band chairs. Fireworks soared up into the sky from the other end of the field, the shells puffing out clusters of light that lit the upturned faces of the crowd in silver, then red, and then the reports would go off, reverberating sharply, and in the stands across the field I could see the childrens hands flap up over their ears. Through the noise I heard someone yelling my name. I turned and saw a girl leaning over the rail of the grandstand behind me. I recognized her from the Gay Haven in Dearborn. She was wearing an Italian mohair sweater, the color of pink spun sugar, and tight pants, and she was holding a thick folding wallet in one hand along with a pair of dark glasses, and in the other a Lion banner, which she waved, her face alive with excitement, very pretty in a perishable, childlike way, and she was calling, Beautiful; it was beautiful.

The fireworks lit her, and she looked up, her face chalk white in the swift aluminum glare.

I looked at her out of my helmet. Then I lifted a hand, just tentatively.

Read more: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/05/01/the-stacks-george-plimpton-s-gridiron-nightmare.html