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ZERO OF THE LIONS
George Plimpton
September 07, 1964
As a football player, the zero wedged unheroically at left between the broad backs of Nick Pietrosante (33) and Jim Gibbons (80) of the Detroit Lions is a nothing who even keeps his helmet on because it hurts his ears to pull it off. He is the author, and he is about to take the field for the climax of what began as no more than a Walter Mitty daydream. He had long wondered—as has every follower of the sport—what it would feel like to quarterback a professional football team. Sports Illustrated approached the Detroit Lions, who were willing to oblige him before several thousand fans in their big preseason scrimmage. What follows is his account of the smashing career of the most naive, inept, befuddled, tolerated and unnerved quarterback that pro football has ever known
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September 07, 1964

Zero Of The Lions

As a football player, the zero wedged unheroically at left between the broad backs of Nick Pietrosante (33) and Jim Gibbons (80) of the Detroit Lions is a nothing who even keeps his helmet on because it hurts his ears to pull it off. He is the author, and he is about to take the field for the climax of what began as no more than a Walter Mitty daydream. He had long wondered—as has every follower of the sport—what it would feel like to quarterback a professional football team. Sports Illustrated approached the Detroit Lions, who were willing to oblige him before several thousand fans in their big preseason scrimmage. What follows is his account of the smashing career of the most naive, inept, befuddled, tolerated and unnerved quarterback that pro football has ever known

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Friday Macklem, the equipment manager of the Detroit Lions, was waiting by my locker. "Two hours to go," he said. I was about to find out what it felt like to quarterback a professional football team in an actual game. I was going to do it without much confidence, not being a football player but a writer, a weekend athlete who had been a lanky and ineffective end 15 years before, playing haphazardly and never proficiently enough to make a first team. But it was worth recording, perhaps, what would happen to the amateur inserted in the world of the professional. My participation had been arranged with the Detroit Lions. In late July last year, I arrived along with the new crop of rookies for three weeks of preseason workouts at the Lion training camp at Cranbrook, a Michigan boys' school. I had hoped to preserve the fiction that I had enjoyed experience as a quarterback—on a semipro team known as the Newfoundland Newfs—but a few clumsy maneuvers on the practice field had given me away. Yet I had tried, never treating the opportunity flippantly, and I had prepared intently, learning a series of plays that I would call in the big intrasquad scrimmage in Pontiac, Mich. A large crowd would be on hand, Friday told me, overflowing the stadium to get a first look of the year at the Lions, particularly the new rookies.

"They're going to see some strange ones out there," Friday said, looking at me. He handed me my game jersey of tearaway material, in the deep blue of Detroit—Honolulu blue, it was called—with my number in silver, which was 0, on both the back and front and on the sleeves.

"You feel all right?" he asked.

"Oh sure," I said. I sat down on the bench and took off my street shoes, setting them carefully in the locker. The plan was to dress at the training camp and ride in game uniform to Pontiac, a half-hour trip by bus, rather than change in the stadium there.

"You better jump to it," Friday said. "Most everyone's dressed."

Sam Williams, who was a first-string defensive end, came by, and looked down my aisle of lockers. "Nerves?" he asked. "How are the nerves?"

"Well, I've got them, Sam," I said. "I feel them in the stomach."

He was in his fifth year of professional football, and I asked him if nerves still affected him.

"Sure," he said. "In the feet and hands—heavy feet, heavy hands, so's I can barely move around."

"Heavy feet!" I said. "Think of that." I took a breath, a deep one, to relieve the tension, and went back to dressing, putting on the paraphernalia of the uniform slowly, item by item, overfastidious to get them set right. Williams' locker was in the next aisle, and when I was ready I went around and he pulled the blue jersey down over my shoulder pads, something difficult to do alone, and he cuffed the pads into place.

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