You heard me right: Come in. No, you won't disturb a soul in this locker room. They're all lost in that place most folks go maybe once or twice in a lifetime, when their mamas or daddies die or their children are born, a place they don't go nearly as often as they should. Trust me, these boys will never know you're here. All right, maybe that fellow in white will notice, the one looking your way, but Willard McClung would be the last to make a peep.
See, that's one reason we picked this, out of all the crackerjack sports pictures we might've chosen, as our favorite of the century. Not claiming it's better than that famous one of Muhammad Ali standing and snarling over Sonny Liston laid out like a cockroach the morning after the bug man comes. Or that picture of Willie Mays catching the ball over his shoulder in the '54 World Series, or any number of others. But you can walk around inside this picture in a way you can't in those others, peer right inside the tunnel these boys have entered. Their boxer shorts are hanging right there, on the hooks behind their heads, but their faces are showing something even more personal than that. Almost reminds you of a painting by Norman Rockwell.
Can you smell it? No, not the jockstrap sweat, or the cigar reek wafting off the coach, Orthol Martin—better known as Abe, or Honest Abe—in the brown hat. It's the smell of men about to go to war. What I'm inviting you into is 12:50 p.m. at the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1,1957, just a few minutes after the boys have returned from pregame warmups, just a quarter of an hour before a legend is born. A roomful of young men from Texas Christian University are about to try and stop the best football player in history, a fellow from Syracuse by the name of Jim Brown, in his last college game—but only his second in front of the entire nation, thanks to the NBC cameras waiting outside.
No denying it, a lot of folks might whip right past this in a collection of sports pictures, rushing to get to those slam-bang plays at home plate or those high-flying Michael Jordan circus shots. But it's funny. The older you get, the more you realize that this is what sports are most about: the moments before, the times when a person takes a flashlight to his soul and inspects himself for will and courage and spirit, the stuff that separates men such as Jordan and Ali from the rest more than anything in their forearms or their fingers or their feet. Who am I? And, Is that going to be enough? That's what you're peeking at through the door, and believe me, those are two big and scary questions, the two best reasons for all of god's children to play sports, so they can start chewing on them early. Because once the whistle blows and a game begins, everything's just a blur, a crazy ricochet of ball and bodies that springs—inevitably, you might say—from whatever it is that these boys are discovering right here, right now.
But you're still hesitating, a little intimidated by all those cleats and helmets and knees. Come on, there are things I want to show you. See? Told you nobody would bat an eye. You're in.
Maybe it was like this for you, too, back when you played. All the posturing and bluffing and the silly airs that human beings put on get demolished in a moment like this. A team is never more a team than it is now, yet look at the looks on the Horned Frogs! Ever see so many guys look so alone?
Look at Buddy Dike, number 38, just behind old Abe. He's the Frogs' starting fullback and inside linebacker, and he's just gotten a good look at Jim Brown's 46-inch chest and 32-inch waist in warmups. Doctors advised Buddy never to play football again after he ruptured a kidney tackling another phenom of the era, Penn State's Lenny Moore, two years earlier. The kidney healed and hemorrhaged four more times, doubling Buddy over with pain, making blood gush out his urethra, bringing him within a whisker of bleeding to death, yet here he is, with a look on his face that might not be seen again until the day he loses his 18-year-old son in a car wreck.
There are 32 more young men suited up in this room, besides the 17 you're looking at. Almost every one's a kid from a small town or ranch or farm in west or south Texas, where all his life he's watched everyone drop everything, climb into automobiles and form caravans for only two occasions: funerals and football games. Nine of the 11 TCU starters—remember, they have to play both ways—are seniors, most of them staring into the biggest and last football game of their lives. Eleven wars are about to burst out on every play, because that's what football is, and what those wars hinge on, more than most folks realize, is the question lurking in the shadows of this room: Who has the most tolerance for pain?
That's a loaded question about manhood, and a matter of geography too. Jim Brown be damned, the Southwest Conference team that loses to an Eastern school in the Cotton Bowl in the 1950s might as well run right past the locker room door at the end of the game, exit the stadium and just keep going, till it's lost in the prairie.