It is a game of blood and muscle and fresh air. It renders distasteful the trivial dissipations that sap the energies of the youth of the wealthier classes. It is all very well for old grandmothers at their tea to sigh at the cruelties of the game. But it doesn't do Cholly or Fweddie any harm to have his collarbone smashed occasionally.
— Willa Cather, 1894
Does anyone have a problem with that? Not Jack Kerouac, whose last novel Vanity of Dulouz renders a Columbia football practice like a chapter of the Iliad. Not Jack’s buddy Neal Cassady, star quarterback for the New Mexico Boys Reformatory. Those guys could write, as well as punt, pass, and kick. But for the best literary appreciation of the game with the funny ball, nothing is in a league with Don DeLillo’s End Zone, first published in 1972.
There’s a Ludwig Wittgensteinian, Roland Barthian, post-structuralist, semiotic aspect of the book, so let’s deal with that real quick. DeLillo’s concept of “end zone” refers to the outer limits of language where words struggle to express ultimate phenomena such as hydrogen bomb explosions and perfectly run football plays. DeLillo ponders racial or racist aspects of football as they appeared in 1972. He also introduces a character who says he’s trying to “un-Jew” himself by playing football, although there have been plenty of great Jewish football players from Marshall Goldberg at the University of West Virginia to Mitchell Schwartz, late of the Kansas City Chiefs.
What’s terrific about End Zone, however, is DeLillo’s success in getting the experience of football onto the page. True, it might not be for everyone. Willa Cather’s old grannies might find DeLillo’s portrayal of football players to be overdrawn. But those grannies wouldn’t know Steve Largent from Ernesto Laclau — and who was Ernesto Laclau, anyway?
Certainly there are colorful names for the ballplayers in End Zone, but what’s really celebrated are the names of the football plays. They’re poems in a crazy shorthand. They’re prayers for salvation and victory.
All teams run the same plays. But each team uses an entirely different system of naming. Coaches stay up well into the night in order to name plays. They heat and reheat coffee on an old burner. No play begins until its name is called. Out-23, near-in belly toss. Counter-freeze, blue-2 wide, swing inside delay. Middle sift-W, alph-set, lemmy-2.
The names of the plays are what make them unique, since the plays themselves are pretty much the same. This was made clear in an episode of Jon Gruden’s “QB Camp” TV show. Gruden — an NFL coach, television commentator, and football fanatic — was interviewing Carson Wentz, a pro quarterback. “What did you call this play in college?” Gruden asked, referring to a rather conventional passing formation. But his eyes were bright with expectation. “All right,” Wentz replied, “you would probably call it one strike slot, but we called it gun rocker pro, pass ten, superman, z-steal.” Gruden heard this and giggled like a child. It took his breath away.
A long section of End Zone is devoted to a play-by-play description of an entire football game. Two obscure college teams are battling it out in the middle of nowhere. This is the book’s most radical departure from conventional narrative and it’s entirely successful. Echoing Willa Cather, DeLillo starts by dismissing any “grandmothers, sissies, and lepidopterists.” Then we’re on the field with the boys:
“Footbawl,” George Owen shouted. “This is footbawl. You thow it, you ketch it, you kick it. Footbawl. Footbawl. Footbawl.”
“I guarantee you I’ll mash his little mimmy. I’m serious, man. I’ll waste that diddly before this thing’s over.”
“I’m feeling happy,” I said. “Look at the arc lights, the crowd. Listen to those noises out there. Pop, pop, pop. Ving, ving. Existence without anxiety. Happiness. Knowing your body. Understanding the real needs of man.”
“Let’s ching those nancies! Monsoon sweep, string-in left, ready right!”
Fifty years after it was written, I find this wonderful and completely convincing. Still, it’s worth noting some of the changes that have taken place in football since 1972. In football’s first years, from early games in the 1860’s until World War I, football was largely played by “the youth of the wealthier classes,” as Cather says. Baseball was the plebeians’ game. The football powers were Harvard, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania. Professional football really got started only in the 1920’s, when Red Grange — the Galloping Ghost — played on several teams under more than one name. Well into the 1950’s NFL players had offseason jobs: farmers, gym teachers, insurance salesmen.
Today football, at least NFL football, is again played by a wealthier class, albeit not from Harvard or Yale. Every player on every team is now signed to a million-dollar contract at least, and most players earn much more. Nor is modern football a matter of Cholly and Fweddie getting a collar bone smashed. The game is a lot faster, more violent, and much more dangerous. The players know that. But, oh, what the hell.
So now it’s Super Bowl time. Download your copy of End Zone from Amazon and start reading. Do it now, before the game, and be in front of your television at least ten minutes before kickoff. As the coach says in the Don DeLillo’s book, “Do not drag-ass. Anything I have no use for, it’s a football player who consistently drag-asses. Move swiftly from place to place, both on the field and in the corridors of buildings.”
Mitch Sisskind is the author of Visitations (1984), Dog Man Stories (1993), and Collected Poems 2005-2020. His poems have appeared in the anthologies Best American Poetry 2009 and Best American Poetry 2013.