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Forward Progress
Leigh Montville
September 05, 1994
A modest collection of teams in the heartland has grown in 75 years into a colossus—and America's favorite game
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September 05, 1994

Forward Progress

A modest collection of teams in the heartland has grown in 75 years into a colossus—and America's favorite game

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How could they have known?

The 75th NFL season dawns on Sunday, 13 games stretched across the coaxial cable, one more to follow on Monday night, and if Jim Thorpe wanted to play or coach or be the president, he would have to do a lot of hurried homework. True, the basic elements of the game might be familiar—man throws, catches and runs with football; man knocks other man's lard butt to the ground—but the rest would be a science-fiction buzz. The "highest level" that the game has reached is far beyond any 75-year-old levels of imagination.

The price for the last franchise sold on the open market, the New England Patriots, was $160 million. The admission fee for two expansion franchises, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Carolina Panthers, who will begin play next year, was $140 million, an amount that does have to be paid, unlike the original $100. The salary cap for each team this year, instituted under a contract that runs until the year 2000 and gives the NFL the only settled labor situation in sports, is $34.6 million. The highest-paid player is quarterback Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys, whose contract provides for an average of $6.25 million per year. A recent Harris Poll lists pro football as the nation's favorite sport, 24% of Americans saying they like it better than all other sports, 61% saying they follow it. The 1993 season had the highest total (13,966,843) and per-game (62,352) attendance in history. The Super Bowl of Jan. 30, 1994, was the most-watched television program in U.S. history.

On and on it goes. The game from the Hupmobile showroom—"All right, Columbus will play Rock Island on October 7"—has become America's every-week athletic adventure story for half of the calendar year. "America's Passion" is one of the NFL's advertising slogans, a play on baseball's longtime self-proclaimed status as America's Pastime. O.K., America's Passion. A visual game for a visual time. A visceral game for a visceral time. The players have become the stuntmen of sports, hurtling into one another, landing in the nation's living rooms. Every Sunday has become an extravaganza, a spectacle. Networks seem to rise or fall on whether they televise the games. Sums of money equal to the gross national product of some emerging countries are bet on the outcomes. On Super Sunday the entire country seems to stand still, the closest thing to an unofficial national holiday. Papa Bear has met Roone Arledge, who must have met...Steven Spielberg? George Lucas? Who?

"Pro football might be mankind's most highly publicized human endeavor," David Hill, the Australian-born president of the sports division of Fox Broadcasting, says as he discusses his network's plans for its high-priced acquisition.

Mankind's most highly publicized endeavor! How could anyone have known? What other human activities are routinely recorded from dozens of angles, the best pictures slowed down, frozen, then analyzed with a big X scrawled by an unseen hand over a particular movement only moments after it has occurred? What other events are analyzed for three days before they happen, then for three days after they happen, words flowing in a torrent about the ability of one big man to push another big man two feet to one side to allow yet another big man to pass? What other event has a man riding from city to city in his own personal bus to make $7.5 million shouting the word "Whoa!" for three hours a week loud enough for the entire country to hear?

The simple game at the core of the production has been dressed in these flashy, showbiz clothes. A separate techno-speak has been invented for basic functions, offenses and defenses changed into high-tech dance routines, computers sorting out mannerisms and tendencies, new personnel shuttling on and off the field with each change in down and distance. The equipment has become synthetic muscle, each innovation making players bolder and bolder. "I was around when the real face mask, the bird cage, came into being," Frank (Bucko) Kilroy, a guard from the 1940s and '50s, says. "The Chicago Bears had it. A lot of guys suddenly became very brave." The players have become bigger and faster, if not necessarily better. The collisions have become louder and—with a 16-game schedule, plus four or five exhibitions, plus playoffs—much more frequent.

"As a player, by the end of the season it is not a question of whether or not you're hurt, because everybody's hurt," Dr. Robert Huizenga, an internist for the Los Angeles Raiders for seven years, says. "It's a question of how hurt you are, where you are in the spectrum. I don't know how many players I'd see on an average game day, except that it was a lot. There always were a lot of people needing treatment."

How do these guys do what they do? That has become the basic attraction. Aren't they afraid? To stand on a sideline is to experience a foreign, elemental environment that is both scary and violent, even in scary and violent times. How do these guys do what they do? Trouble comes from all directions. A man could be laid flat, knocked cold in a moment. Or worse. This is not part of any usual job description, not part of any other normal game.

"Most people have never really played football, not full football in pads, not this kind of football," ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman says. "That gives it a larger-than-life aspect. In basketball, everybody's hit a 25-foot jump shot and knows what it feels like. Maybe you didn't have to shoot over Patrick Ewing, but you know what it feels like to make the shot. In baseball, maybe you didn't hit against Nolan Ryan, but you've probably stood at the plate and swung at a fastball. How many people have ever tried to keep a 285-pound defensive lineman from smothering the quarterback? You put on a helmet and you feel as if you're in a different world. How do guys even run with that helmet on, not to mention all the other equipment? That's your first thought. It's a foreign sensation just to have the helmet on your head."

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