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I naturally had my little inside jokes. The guys play for the New York Giants, who haven't won a championship since coffee was a nickel. The Giants meet the Jets in the Super Bowl. Pete Rozelle is no longer the NFL commissioner. He's a senator. The Giants are owned by an ad agency. The Jets are owned by two brothers from Newark who have occasionally been indicted. None of this has much to do with what happens in the bedrooms, which was another concession to the truth, as I know it, where athletes are concerned. A lot of bedrooms.
So, anyhow, somebody decides to give me $37.85 to publish the book. I expect to sell three copies, provided my wife buys one. But all of a sudden it gets embraced by the choreographers of the best-seller lists, who are evidently charmed by all those Texas expressions I did not invent, and all of a sudden William Styron is saying hello to me. And just as suddenly I am on Carson, Cavett and Griffin, being introduced as a sportswriter who will say anything. So I have a few cocktails before "air," and I leave the audiences in confused silence with my views on sport—i.e., ice hockey needs a 500-pound puck, baseball could use more third basemen getting hit in the face with line drives, tennis not only shows us which player's shirt fits the worst but who has the dirtiest hair, automobile racing is four huge tires with a little guy in a helmet trying to climb out before he burns to death, you have to feel sorry for thoroughbred owners because they can't take their pets indoors, the only thing worse than track is field, and the main thing an Olympics proves is which teen-age Communist does the best handspring. At one point, a man connected with The Tonight Show said, "Next time, let Johnny do the lines."
Fans of the novel, who are known to outnumber the population of Wink, Texas, keep asking who all of the characters really are. At first I would say, "Well, Jake Barnes is Mickey Rooney, and Daisy Buchanan is Martha Nell Burch, who got kicked out of Tri Delt." I was never any good at literary chitchat, primarily, I suspect, because I don't have a beard and don't know who Carlos Castaneda is.
The characters were generally composites—when they weren't either me or my closest friend, Bud Shrake, who is also a writer and a rogue. I would never deny to Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, Sonny Jurgensen, Tucker Frederickson and Doug Atkins that they were in and out of the book at times; but then so were the thoughts behind many of Kristofferson's songs and the style with which Reynolds deals with film-type women and talk-show duties. I always felt that if Billy Clyde ever grew up, he would be Burt Reynolds. During the shooting, Burt said, "I'm getting very possessive of Billy Clyde but I probably won't win an Academy Award. I haven't had a tracheotomy."
At any rate, in the midst of all the commotion about the novel, and just as I was getting ready to buy a smoking jacket and invite Alexander Solzhenitsyn over for chess, I got a telephone call from David Merrick. Which brings up...
I have a confession. I did not think David Merrick's idea—to make Semi-Tough into a musical comedy for Broadway—was absurd. Somehow, I thought, it had a chance to be the Damn Yankees of professional football. So when David Merrick went ahead and bought the stage and screen rights to the novel, I started working on my acceptance speech for the Tony award.
But several problems soon developed with the Broadway idea. One was Merrick's giving me the opportunity to write the libretto, even though I had said, "I can't sing." Another was me suggesting constantly that it ought to be the first country and Western musical. Merrick would look at me as if I had said Cole Porter couldn't write a limerick. Friends kept telling us that we ought to forget about the musical and do it as a movie, ostensibly because it seemed to them impossible to envision a performer standing on the stage at the Winter Garden and singing a ballad taken from a line in the novel, one of the team's favorite pass plays, "Niggers Go Long."
This prompts an aside. One of the nicest things that happened to me in connection with the book is a letter I received one day from Alex Haley, who was then pretty busy himself working on Roots. Haley understood, as did every black I ever met who read Semi-Tough, that such seemingly scurrilous material was in fact anti-racist, if it was anything other than a true reflection of the unphony way that athletes live, laugh and love together.
But back to Broadway. I remember the day in Merrick's office when the musical idea came down with multiple sclerosis. For me, anyhow. It was the day we were to hear the first four songs that were produced by this moderately successful song-writing team, two guys whose names I will not use as a favor to their close friends and kin. I had begun to worry when one of them, several weeks earlier, handed me a newspaper clipping about Evel Knievel, saying he thought it would be valuable to me in trying to write the libretto, which is the "book" for a musical, I had found out. But now here they are at the piano in Merrick's office. Frankly, all I remember about one of the songs is that it had something to do with either apples or acorns, and being homesick. And I never really listened to one other song after the lyricist introduced it with the explanation that Billy Jack Puckett and the leading lady were going to be singing it to each other while they roller-skated through Bloomingdale's.