Even after television took pro football players out of the Pleistocene Epoch, it remained a recurrent croak that only insensitive louts would earn their daily bread engaging in violent assaults with similar boorish morons who walked on their knuckles, ate anvils for breakfast and had negative numbers where IQ should be. The pro football player was easy to spot out of uniform. At a cocktail party bubbling with sophisticated babble, that slightly desperate, giant-sized garden slug in the background trying to score a few suave points by lifting a Volkswagen onto the coffee table—that was the pro.
That blatant distortion began to wane as the game evolved into the national psychosis it is today. Naturally, for so long as the football Establishment forces the game on us as a quasi-science—with enough mysterious jargon to overwhelm every durable clich�—football will always provide a home for the witless. The main difference nowadays is that while a few dummies remain on the field (there also appears to be quite a few in the front office, in the stands and behind the microphones), most players have achieved the status of astute artisans.
No team provides a better casein point than the first-place Cincinnati Bengals, who can boast of having two of the most articulate young athletes in the country: Virgil Carter, a 26-year-old quarterback from Brigham Young, and Mike Reid, a 25-year-old defensive tackle from Penn State. They are no more typical of the player population than are, say, Duane Thomas or Tim Rossovich, but the continuing accumulation of bright examples like Carter and Reid does suggest that modern football demands enough in the way of intelligence to have pretty much eliminated those blighted souls, who must, out of necessity, carry their change in a handkerchief knot.
Carter has set a literal new standard for the shopworn phrase "student of the game," for he is a computer analyst whose diligent research into football has led to findings that dispute some of the most sacrosanct coaching theories. He has taught at Xavier University and has given seminars for the Data Systems Division of the A.O. Smith Corp. of Milwaukee. Unfortunately for his athletic ambition, which is considerable, Carter barely measures out at six feet, and his talent for throwing the long pass is suspect. As a consequence, and despite all his intellectual prowess, Carter has been relegated to second string with the Bengals, even though he had the highest completion average (62.2%) of any NFL quarterback last season, when he was also voted Cincinnati's most valuable player.
But since quarterbacks are supposed to be brainy, Carter is less an affront to the old stereotype than the 6'3�", 255-pound Reid, for whom Beethoven, Brahms and Berlioz are no less important than the blitz. Reid, of course, has long been recognized as a football player who could sit down at the piano and play serious music, the NFL's answer to Schroeder. But Reid is more than a performer; he also is a composer whose varied work has been heard both in the concert hall of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and on the dining room jukebox reposing in the Bengal training camp.
Coach Paul Brown has been more than a little vexed that Reid's concert performances sometimes have been followed by waspish reviews in the Cincinnati press. "He sounded good to me," Brown says. "Of course, the reviewers say that he sounds like a football player playing the piano, but I've always wondered what kind of notice Liberace would get playing defensive tackle." Reid undoubtedly appreciates the loyal if somewhat illogical defense by his coach, but it is no less probable that he has agreed with his critics. Like Carter, Reid holds honesty in high esteem, so that a failure in music can be no more denied than a missed tackle—even though he suffers more from a bad concert than a bad football game.
"In pro football," he explained one night last week, "it's easy to be intimidated by the situation. Football players won't say it, but it's fear, and fear drains that natural energy you have to have. That game and the situation—say 80,000 at Cleveland Stadium—are far greater than you are. It's a tough thing to overcome. You have to react as you would in any situation, and that requires knowing yourself. Let's face it, pro football has progressed from a national pastime to a definite part of the American culture. Dealing with that experience, being part of something that 97% of the American public can't do, is different.
"In a concert the real fear is not of making a mistake, but of not being accepted. Essentially you put your head in a guillotine and the public decides whether you keep it or not. When you run the risk of rejection, you run the risk of an emotional experience that's tough to deal with. There's a certain anonymity at defensive tackle, and if you play a bad game you have to face the coaching staff, but facing yourself is tougher. Admitting that you played lousy and then deciding to do something about it is easier than a concert, where you're one-on-one with the audience. If a concert turns out to be a disaster, it is also to yourself. It's very hard to accept if you have an involvement in music—and my involvement is so strong it is almost possession. I will always write music. Music makes more sense to me than anything else. Music is something that gives my life order."
In that quest Reid shares a perspective with Carter, the analytical Mormon mathematician who started offering up football plays to a computer's peristalsis while he was working on his master's degree at Northwestern in 1970. Carter's wife Judy helped him by coding 8,373 plays from 56 games played during the first half of the 1969 season. On all 8,373 Carter kept track of 53 variables—time, down and distance, weather, playing surface, score and almost every other critical factor save which team puts its pants on two legs at a time. It added up to over 440,000 information tidbits that Carter then fed into the computer. The ensuing print-out, in so many numbers, said that a lot of football's sacred coaching bylaws were really so much bunk.
Among other things, the study showed that in some cases field position was more important than ball possession, and that the laws of probability could determine an offensive team's scoring chance from any spot on the field. Moreover, probability could dictate an expected value to the offensive team's field position, which could be expressed in points.