Rex was less philosophical. Thirty-eight years earlier, he had been cut by the New York Yanks of the old NFL. It had been up to Mark to prove that the seed was not impoverished. That Mark had proved nothing of the kind was the Lions' fault, Rex concluded. They had placed too heavy an emphasis on such tired, predictable criteria as size, speed and strength, while remaining willfully blind to Mark's other qualities: firm grip; sound training-table manners; a flair for impersonations.
Memo to all NFL long snappers: Though you have done nothing to deserve it, you have at least one implacable enemy on this earth. To watch an NFL game with Rex is to endure his malicious tirades whenever you, the NFL long snapper, take the field. "Watch this!" Rex commands as you finger the football's seams and peer backward at your upside-down world. Whether your snap whistles back on a rope or rainbows lazily to the punter, my father's response is uniform: "Did you see that? Christ! Ethel could do better than that."
We have counseled Rex, my siblings and I. In soothing tones, we have explained that there are few purer meritocracies than the NFL. That Mark was cut early and not picked up by any other team indicates that he probably wasn't good enough for the NFL. Better that he find this out early and get on with his life, right, Dad? Rex nods in agreement, appearing to see the sense in these words. Mere minutes later he is saying, "Any day now, one of these guys could break a hand or something, and your brother might get The Call."
Mark has no such delusions. He's now back at Boston College, completing his master's in human development, marshaling his creative-writing skills to attempt to compose an impressive résumé. He is writing for BC's sports information office, playing a lot of hockey and, as he says, "explaining to six to 10 people a day why I am still in Chestnut Hill." I saw him a couple of weeks ago; he's down to 245 pounds. For the first time in five years, actual facial features are discernible on him. He's still pumping iron, but not as much. "You only go around once in life," he says. "You might as well have big arms."
From the start, uncommon grace marked Mark's transition to ex-jock. In the opening act of Macbeth, Malcolm describes the calm with which an enemy went to his death: "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it." Likewise, nothing in Mark's fleeting pro career became him like the leaving it. Flash back, if you will, to Bushofsky, ruining Mark's dinner on Aug. 18. Once the Turk had uttered "...and bring your playbook," an uncomfortable silence fell on the table. Suddenly Mark was a ghost. His immediate response to his life's most major disappointment was this: "Bring my playbook? I guess he needs help with some of those illustrations, ehh Joe?"
Mark remembers only a couple of the guys who were at the table with him at the time: Keith Karpinski, a linebacker out of Penn State, who made the squad; Chris Parker, a fellow defensive tackle out of West Virginia, who didn't. Mark doesn't recall whether or not they laughed at his little jest. I wouldn't have, if I had been a rookie, sitting there, watching Mark bear up so splendidly. I would have been wondering, Will I be that calm when the Turk comes for me? Will I be able to crack a joke and keep on eating? I would have thought, Geez, this Murphy guy probably doesn't even need football.