SI Vault
George Plimpton
November 13, 1972
The fierce mutterings on the field and along the sidelines are lost in the wind and the crescendo of crowds. But tapes of players in combat reveal the harsh violence of football
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November 13, 1972

Wiretap On The Pros

The fierce mutterings on the field and along the sidelines are lost in the wind and the crescendo of crowds. But tapes of players in combat reveal the harsh violence of football

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I confess to being an eavesdropper at heart. I despair not knowing what is being said just beyond my hearing—what it is that has produced a roar of laughter in the far corner of a cocktail party. At sports events I find myself feeling the same way—in baseball wondering what is being said in the conference on the pitcher's mound, or in football what the coach is whispering to the quarterback on the sidelines. Football is a particular frustration, since so much of the game is verbal—voice signals, both offense and defense huddling to talk things over, spotters and assistants outfitted in the paraphernalia of communication, microphones and headsets, hurried conferences at critical moments, and then, finally, the exchanges that must erupt between men in close quarters under violent stress—all of which, to the despair of the football fan, goes on out of earshot.

In the hope of providing this sort of intimacy for the viewers of the film Paper Lion, the producers tried to see what they could get by wiring up some of the players. For one game—a bleak mid-December meeting between the Detroit Lions and the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium—microphones were attached to John Gordy and Alex Karras, and from time to time the tape machines were turned on to eavesdrop on them. The tapes were later transcribed by a pair of embarrassed secretaries—the language (edited here) is constantly blue and violent—and turned out to be useless for the film, but interesting nonetheless. The film producers were kind enough to send the material around for me to look at and listen to.

The fidelity of the tapes is extraordinary—recording not only the immediate sounds of the two players' voices, but also the quarterback's commands, the defensive signals, the constant warnings from the officials ("Linemen, keep your hands in!"), smatterings of conversation on the bench, and then the thumping sounds of the plays themselves—the grunts, the crash of padding, the sharp, near-expiring gasps of players smacked hard to the ground, along with an occasional word of comment between the combatants.

In the background the roar of the crowd, varying in its intensity, provides a strong clue to what is happening on the field, further illuminated by the public-address system over which the Stadium announcer's voice, shredded slightly by the wind, intones, " Tarkenton's pass...complete to Crespino...brought LeBeau...first and 10...on the 43." It is easy, listening to the tapes, to conjure up a picture of the proceedings.

Also in the background, providing a wrench of authenticity, are the occasional jangled and tinny strains of a banjo-dominated musical group known as "Your Father's Mustache." The Christmas season was almost at hand, so that on the tapes one hears the startling contrast of Jingle Bells and other such carols plinking over the brutal yawp and heave of the action on the field. By some mysterious and perverse edict, Your Father's Mustache—a small collection of portly musicians housed in a little green shelter down at the bleacher end of the field—has been playing at the Stadium for years. I suspect that if a change were made, if their plinkety-plinks were supplanted by more traditional band music—trumpets, trombones and a bass drum—a great outcry from the traditionalists would go up and they would come to the support of Your Father's Mustache with all the zeal of a dowager dog owner defending the character of her ancient mongrel.

That is an odd corner of Yankee Stadium down there—the bleachers with their raucous citizenry (invariably fist-fights break out), the Mustache group playing in front of the bleacher wall, and then, in front of them, down on the field, long lines of patients in wheelchairs, who are trundled in by attendants at the beginning of the game to watch from beyond one corner of the end zone, the worst vantage point in the Stadium, and then, invariably, just at the beginning of the fourth quarter, whatever the situation in the game, are wheeled out. They seem to go without complaining, with rarely a head turned to watch as they are wheeled away, or a cane raised in protest. Perhaps they consider it a relief to get away from the loud sounds of bleacher strife and Your Father's Mustache ragtime assaulting them from across the backs of their wheelchairs.

When I told Karras I had the tapes, he said that he doubted they'd be of very much use. He said that he rarely talked to the linemen opposite him. He remembers his private wars with Jerry Kramer, the offensive guard of the Green Bay Packers, as being absolutely silent struggles. He recalls only one instance when they had words—an odd occasion when the left side of Karras' helmet nose guard, or "cage," as the players refer to it, came loose and somehow, as the two of them bulled at each other, hooked into Kramer's cage, so that the two helmets were stuck fast, the players jammed up against each other, their faces inches apart, with neither able to pull himself loose.

"It was weird," Karras told me. "Connected the way we were, we must have looked like a terrible snakelike animal, two-footed at each end, a sort of big inchworm writhing about."

"And you had words during this?" I asked.

"Damn right," he said. " Kramer kept shouting, 'What the hell are you doing?' I guess he thought I'd hooked up to him on purpose. He looked a little scared. I mean we were really stuck." Finally, Karras was able to disengage himself by skinning out of his helmet, and he backed off, leaving it hanging on Kramer's guard like a huge morsel dangling from his jaws.

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