SI Vault
George Plimpton
September 14, 1964
In which the venturous author, the rawest rookie pro football has ever known, recounts all the excruciating details of what happened when he called five plays as quarterback for the Detroit Lions, of how he was cheered by a sellout crowd, and of how the twist and a kindly guard eased his retirement pain
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September 14, 1964


In which the venturous author, the rawest rookie pro football has ever known, recounts all the excruciating details of what happened when he called five plays as quarterback for the Detroit Lions, of how he was cheered by a sellout crowd, and of how the twist and a kindly guard eased his retirement pain

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The referee turned and put the ball on the 10-yard line. I had lost 10 yards in three attempts, and I had yet, in fact, to run off a complete play. Preliminaries had undone me—handling the ball from center, the spin, then being frustrated by being knocked over by my own men or missing the hand-off, or taking a pratfall, so that the play had yet to be developed fully. It was vaguely like turning the ignition key without the dignity of hearing the motor turn over, perhaps having it fall out of the bottom of the car instead.

The veterans walked back very slowly to the next huddle. They had wanted me to succeed. The first time George Wilson had sent me in to run a play in the training camp at Cranbrook the rookies happened to be in the offensive lineup, and the veterans, in a block, came hurrying after me onto the field of their own volition, wanting to see that I got the best protection, and there were quickly 20 men in the huddle, a lot of pushing and murmuring as the rookies were replaced, and I could hear George Wilson calling out: "What's going on there?"

But now they were dispirited, and when I called my fourth play—a slant pass to the 9 man, the strong-side end, Jim Gibbons—that crack of the hands as we left the huddle was missing, possibly because I had forgotten to give them the signal on which the ball was to be snapped. "Two!" I called in a stage whisper as we headed for the line, holding my fingers spread in a V and showing it around furtively, trying to hide it from the defense and hoping my people would see.

The pass was incomplete. I took two steps back (the play was a quick pass), and I saw Gibbons, who is tall, break, then stop, buttonhooking. His hand came up, but I threw the ball over his head. It was my first play of the evening, however, which functioned as a play should, and so did the next one, a pitch-out play to Pietrosante, the last of my series. But the defense was keyed for it. One of my linemen told me later that the defensive man opposite him in the line, Floyd Peters, had said, "Well, here comes the 48 Pitchout" (they knew my repertoire), and it had come, and they were able to throw Pietrosante on the one-yard line, just a yard away from the complete humiliation of having moved a team backward from the 20-yard line to a safety.

I left quickly, as soon as I saw Pietrosante go down, heading for the bench on the sidelines at midfield. It was a long run, and I felt utterly weary, shuffling along through the grass. I heard applause, and I looked up and saw some people standing, and the hands going. I thought about the applause afterward—some of it, perhaps, in appreciation of the lunacy of my participation, but it occurred to me that most of it, even subconsciously, was in relief that I had done as badly as I had. It verified the assumption that the ordinary citizen could not survive in the brutal world of professional football. If by some chance I had uncorked a touchdown pass, there would have been wild acknowledgment—because I heard the groans go up at each successive disaster—but afterward the spectators would have felt uncomfortable. The proper order of things would have been upset. The outsider did not belong, and there was satisfaction in that being proved.

Some of the applause, as it turned out, came from people who had enjoyed the humorous aspects of my stint, and more than a few thought they were being entertained by a professional comic in the tradition of baseball's Al Schacht or bullfight clowns. Bud Erickson, who had been announcing on the public address system, told me that a friend of his had come up to him later. "Bud, that's one of the funniest damn—I mean that guy's got it," this man had said, barely able to control himself.

I did not take my helmet off when I reached the bench. It was painful to do—wrenching it past my ears—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. I heard someone yelling my name. I turned around and saw a girl leaning over the rail of the grandstand. I recognized her from a dance place in Dearborn where I'd gone with some of the team. She was wearing an Italian mohair sweater, the color of pink spun sugar, 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!"

I looked at her out of my helmet, lifting a hand just tentatively to acknowledge her enthusiasm, and I turned back to watch the field, where the true scrimmage was getting under way.

After the scrimmage the disappointment stuck, and it was hard to ease. It was quiet in the bus going back, everyone tired, thinking back on the game. We were a long time blocked in traffic outside Pontiac, but no one complained. It was dark inside. I was sitting alone. George Wilson came down the aisle. I was feeling low, and he knew it. He sat down, and looked, and began talking easily—not a word about the scrimmage but about football in general. He talked about the character of the football player—Bobby Layne, the Detroit quarterback, whose teams would take anything from him because he performed, and at the base of it was the urge, if you wanted to play football, to knock someone down; that was what the sport was all about, the will to win closely linked with contact. He talked about coaching, too, about its complexities, speaking almost with regret, as if the pleasures of the game, with its fundamental simplicity of physical contact, were unavailable if you were watching from the sidelines, as if it were a frustration and a nuisance to find self-expression in the action of others. No matter, he said. It was a tough and absorbing job, marshaling a host of minutiae within seconds and applying knowledge or intuition to make a decision whose circumstances—since only 14 games were played a season—could cost him his job, even though often something would happen, like a fumble, a penalty or an injury, that removed the reins and made the coach as much of a bystander as the fellow ripping tickets in half at the gate or the hot-dog vendor in the aisles. And yet the disaster on the field was his doing and his responsibility.

All of this made my own disaster seem far less important—which Wilson had calculated, I'm sure, and it was easy to sense why his men had such respect for him. "He's a players' coach," they said of him, as opposed to such Procrustean coaches as Tom Landry at Dallas, who, or so players' gossip had it, pulled the main switch at 10:30 to darken the training-camp dormitories—the big deer-hunting lamps came out, the beams crisscrossing the walls—or Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, the archrivals, who thought of players as "kids" and whom the Lions referred to as the Jap.

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