SEPTEMBER 14, 2014
MY FIRST JOB out of college, I covered high school football for what was then a mid-sized newspaper in Northeast Ohio. This was in the mid-1990s, before the death spiral of printed media, back when newspapers were still expanding outward rather than collapsing inward on themselves, and I was hired to cover sports in two adjacent territories outside of the paper’s home base in Akron. One was Wayne County, a rural swatch of land populated by farmers and Amish horse-and-buggies; the other was Stark County, which was one of the most deadly serious high school football territories in the country. Stark was home to both Canton McKinley High School (which plays its home games in a 22,000-seat stadium adjacent to the Professional Football Hall of Fame) and rival Massillon, a once-proud steel town with a 16,000-seat stadium roughly 10 miles to the west, as well as a number of smaller high schools in-between who regularly turned out major-college-worthy talent.
It wasn’t like I was a stranger to serious football. I had grown up four hours to the east along Interstate 80, in State College, Pennsylvania, a place that would eventually become infamous for its tangled relationship with football in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. But the football I knew back home at Penn State felt like something entirely different than the high school football in Northeast Ohio; this was a place that had suffered through an industrial decline, and so football in a place like Stark County felt more fundamentally tied to the morale of the community than anything I had witnessed before. Football still mattered more in Massillon than pretty much anything else, even if the memories were mostly Rockwellian: the Tigers hadn’t won a state championship since the 1960s, and nearly all of their glory had been achieved in the era before high school football players were established. Football mattered at Canton McKinley, too, given its proximity to the Hall of Fame, so much so that I once interviewed a star running back who had been allowed back on the team after being acquitted of murder. Football, it often seemed, was the only consistent source of confidence in a county that had absorbed some of the harshest blows of the rust belt’s steady decline.
I thought about Massillon and McKinley quite often as I read Football: Great Writing About the National Sport, the Library of America anthology edited by legendary sportswriter-turned-television writer John Schulian. I thought about it, of course, when I read the obligatory excerpt from H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, still one of the best sports books ever written. But I also thought, in particular, about one piece that didn’t make the book, which was Leigh Montville’s empathic Sports Illustrated portrayal of the 100th Massillon-McKinley game, back in 1994. I thought about the Massillon man who told Montville he cried when the president of the Massillon football booster club, as is tradition, placed a small white football in the crib of his son shortly after he was born; I thought about how that man told Montville that he still had his own football from the day he was born, and someday wanted to be buried with it. (In 2001, a well-made documentary about Massillon, Go Tigers!, captured much of the same spirit.) I thought about what football meant in the mid-1990s when I covered it in Stark County, and I thought about what it means today, and I thought about what it might mean 20 years from now, if it still exists. I thought about all the children in Massillon whose parents played football in the past, and I contemplated the not-unfathomable idea that, someday, many of them — even in a place like Massillon — might not permit their children to play football at all.
If there’s a common thread to Schulian’s choices, it’s the notion that football is a crushingly violent sport. Maybe that seems patently obvious, and presumably it was an unavoidable theme when choosing the best writing about a sport whose core is so ferocious. But even so, when you see the way that ferocity is portrayed through the years, when you see the slow evolution of how that violence is viewed and described by the writers who cover the sport, it starts to weigh on you in a fresh way. In the first paragraph of the very first story, Grantland Rice makes reference to Knute Rockne’s broken nose during Notre Dame’s shocking 1913 victory over Army. In the second story, Red Grange tells sportswriter W.C. Heinz about how he pledged a fraternity at Illinois, and the brothers told him to try out football; when Grange showed up at football practice, he saw 300 freshman candidates lined up and returned to the fraternity house and told one of the seniors, “I can’t go out for football. I’ll never make that team.” And the senior paddled Grange so hard that his head made a dent in the wall. So he went back to the football team, and the rest is history.
So it goes: In nearly every story in Football, there is a moment like this, a confrontation, a catalyzing moment of violence, an instant where the almost dreamlike beauty of the sport collides with its harsh underlying reality. In the early pages, it takes on the patina of myth: There’s the Grange piece, and there’s the story of an early professional football player nicknamed “Johnny Blood” recalling how his father used to club him with a shillelagh, which led Johnny to run away from home and eventually play football. And then we arrive at the story that I think serves as the centerpiece of the book, its hinge point, a profile by Schulian himself of Chuck Bednarik, the two-way player for the Philadelphia Eagles. “No way in hell any of them can go both ways,” Bednarik says, when asked about the modern football player. “They don’t want to. They’re afraid they’ll get hurt.”
I was in college the first time I read Schulian’s Bednarik profile, back in 1993. It begins with an Eagles’ linebacker named Bob Pellegrini receiving a crackback block in 1960, and while I’d always understood that football was a terrifying sport, that clause in Schulian’s first sentence — “left in a heap by a crackback block as naked as it was vicious” — remains one of the most chilling 14-word descriptions of football’s violent core that I’ve ever read. Throughout the piece, Bednarik’s stubborn attitude, his insistence on adhering to a code of manhood, is by turns both admirable and disturbing. It captures the paradoxical weirdness of so enjoying a sport that destroys men’s abilities to think and walk straight.
There are some weird and wonderful digressions in the second half of Football, most notably gritty urban author Richard Price’s visit with the (literally) inscrutable Bear Bryant for Playboy; and Jeanne Marie Laskas’s sad/funny GQ profile of a bevy of Cincinnati Bengals cheerleaders. But many of the stories that fill out the tail end of Schulian’s compilation — an excerpt from former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson’s memoir Slow Getting Up, Paul Solotaroff’s Men’s Journal feature on the suicide of Bears’ star Dave Duerson, and Mark Kram’s seminal Esquire piece about the toll football takes on the body — seem deliberately designed to contrast with the mythical qualities of the book’s early pieces. Football has always been terrifying, but now that we know what we know, there’s no turning away from the darker aspects, even if we haven’t quite figured out what to do about it.
Things are changing rapidly, even in Ohio, where football enrollment dropped by more than 10,000 kids between 2008 and 2013. (“It’s just a different society we’re in now,” one high school coach told the Columbus Dispatch, who, in blaming kids for preferring to sit in air-conditioned rooms and play video games instead of conditioning during the summer, sounded an awful lot like Chuck Bednarik.) Even in Massillon, where it felt as if the dream of football had been preserved in amber, things are no longer the same: In 2013, faced with dwindling enrollment numbers, the most football-centric high school in the state — if not in the entire country — dropped down to a smaller division.
Honestly, I have no idea if there will ever be another edition of Football. I have no idea where the sport will be in 20 years, and Schulian admits the same in his introduction. All I can tell you is that I still love watching it, even as some rational voice inside me insists that I shouldn’t; all I can tell you is that, as Schulian writes, there is something quintessentially American about football’s brutality, just as there is something quintessentially American about our ability to cling to our own wistful nostalgia in the face of that brutality. If nothing else, Football stands as a snapshot of the sport in 2014: Beautiful and blighted and inherently paradoxical, often on the same page.