Of fate and football

Is football more than a game? Two of the best gridiron movies ever made take very different routes to arrive at the same answer.

Published January 26, 2003 1:05AM (EST)

During this Sunday's Super Bowl, as close-ups of intense, sweat-streaked faces fill TV screens around the world, stirring music swells, and announcers intone about guts, glory and greatness, a few people may ask themselves: Is all this mythmaking justified, or is it just hot air? Is football more than a game?

Two of the best football movies ever made take very different routes to arrive at the same answer.

In the 1979 film "North Dallas Forty," there's a scene in which the team owner makes a locker room speech to the players before the championship game. The owner is a fatuous, self-aggrandizing jerk in a ten-gallon hat; his speech is arrogant and smarmy. After him the team chaplain steps up and delivers a dithering, near-ludicrous benediction. The unmoved players sit like cattle, waiting for it to stop. When the chaplain finishes, an enormous lineman stands up and hollers, "Let's go kill those cocksuckers!" The team explodes in yells and screams as it runs out onto the field.

The film's hero is a weary, beat-up, pain-pill-popping wide receiver named Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte). Elliott can barely walk; he takes a pain-killing injection in his knee before every game that allows him to play. One of his teammates injures his hamstring, but despite pressure from the team doctor and the coaches, he refuses to take a shot because he doesn't want to risk making the injury worse. But after watching Nolte take the shot before the championship game, he yields and takes the shot. At the end of the game he blows out his leg, possibly ending his career.

After the game -- the team loses on a botched extra point -- the owners summon Elliott to their corporate offices in Dallas. After ominously asking him where he was one night the previous week, they bring in the private investigator they hired, who took photos of Elliott smoking a joint at a party with the team's star quarterback (whom the investigator somehow fails to identify). The owners tell Elliott they're going to suspend him without pay for violating the league's morals clause. Elliott turns to his strict, pious coach "B.A." (whose character is obviously based on the late Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry) and asks him to stand up for him. B.A. mournfully says he can't, because Elliott wasn't a team player: "You have to give something back to the game." An incredulous Elliott responds that he can barely walk, that he's left pieces of himself all over America. Isn't that giving something back?

The coach shakes his head. "You hurt the team," he says.

"Oh, for chrissakes, B.A.," Elliott says, "we're not the team." Pointing to the venal executives on the other side of the big desk, he says, "They're the team."

B.A. tells Elliott that he had "the best hands in football," but he never learned that the game was more than that. Elliott shakes his head. "It is what I can do with these hands," he says. "That's why I play the game. I was good when I played. Because the only thing that's real in this game is me, and that's enough." He quits and walks out the door. The last shot of the movie is a freeze-frame of Elliott opening his arms, refusing to catch a final football thrown by his QB friend.

There's a very different locker room speech in Oliver Stone's 1999 film "Any Given Sunday." The team's gaunt, aging coach Tony D'Amato, played by Al Pacino, stands up to address his fractured, demoralized team before a playoff game. Wearily, he tells his players what they already know: that they're "in hell." They're in hell because they aren't a team, because they aren't playing together, because they don't care about each other, because they don't care. Slowly, without any bluster or exhortation, the coach tells them they're going to have to fight their way out of that hell an inch at a time. "I can't do it for you," he says. "I'm too old." It isn't just his body he's talking about, the players -- and we -- understand: It's his spirit. On the far shore of loss, speaking as if alone or in church, he tells his team he's made just about every mistake a middle-aged man could make -- he's pissed away all his money, driven away everyone who loved him. The players begin to stir: You can feel something waking in the room, something unfurling above them. D'Amato tells them that those inches fill every yard on the field, every break in the game, and if they fight and claw for every one of them, they can climb their way out together.

A soft, powerful chorus of "yes" and "that's right" begins to be heard, the big men leaning forward, hardly seeming aware of the words coming out of their throats. Look at the man next to you, the coach says; you'll see someone who's willing to lay it all on the line for you. Something changes, opens, in the face of the brilliant young black quarterback, who replaced the aging white starter, won games, but tore the team apart with his selfishness and immaturity. He begins to edge closer to his coach, as if drawn to a light. "Either we heal as a team or we will die as individuals," the coach says. The team rises up as one with a great cry and takes the field. The inspired young quarterback leads his team to a last-second victory, hurling his body into the air and absorbing a crushing hit to score the winning touchdown.

To some degree, the different perspectives of these two films simply reflect their eras. "North Dallas Forty" is very much a product of its day. Made just four years after the end of the Vietnam War, Ted Kotcheff's film, based on former Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent's novel, oozes suspicion of authority and a countercultural celebration of nonconformity. (Ironically, the "maverick" Phil Elliott seems like a choirboy compared to today's NFL players.) Moreover, pro football was a different -- and, for the players, much worse -- game in those days: Real free agency didn't exist, meaning most players were stuck with their team for most or all of their careers; salaries were far lower, coaches more authoritarian, team doctors more unscrupulous. It's hard not to feel that anyone with a modicum of sensitivity, intelligence or just plain orneriness would have rebelled against the likes of Landry.

By contrast, "Any Given Sunday" was made in the current NFL era, when pro football players have far more control over their fate and make far more money. Their bosses -- owners and coaches -- have been forced to lighten up on the hard-line, company-man, Vince Lombardi style. Nor is there anything even remotely resembling a counterculture in America today, much less an appreciation of nonconformity. Trying to sell an audience in the new millennium a tale about poor, victimized NFL players -- who risk serious injury and suffer short careers, true, but make much more money in two years than the average American worker makes in his or her lifetime -- is a losing proposition.

But the difference between the two films goes deeper than the merely historical. Indeed, at first glance their visions of football -- and of life -- seem utterly incompatible. One exalts the team, the other the individual. One trumpets the power of sports to inspire, and of athletes to be inspired; the other has an evil eye for bullshit and sees "inspiration" as a Big Word we cling to out of sentimentality. One sees sports, and by extension life, as full of meaning; the other sees sports, and life, as meaningless. One speaks for Shakespeare's Prince Hal, the noble leader whose lofty words inspired his men to risk their lives; the other for Falstaff, the Everyman who runs away and likes ale and women and refuses to sacrifice himself for "a word." The dyads are endless: idealism and cynicism, Plato and Aristotle, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom...

When you look closer, however, you realize that both films -- and this is what makes them memorable -- are really saying the same thing. Each of them has a message that's deep enough to also acknowledge the truth of its opposite -- indeed, to acknowledge that without that opposite, its message would be superficial.

Yes, Stone's film is sentimental (or, if you prefer, idealistic); it posits a world where epiphanies strike like lightning and an open-field run in a football game is a sacred act. But it is also a surprisingly dark film, and its vision of glory is problematic.

The odd and moving thing about "Any Given Sunday" is the peculiar exhaustion of its hero. Pacino's character seems to be already on the far side of the grave: He does not hope to turn again. He has the deep satisfaction of the teacher, but that is a secondary joy. (D'Amato's start-anew announcement at the end that he is leaving to coach another team feels false, as though it had been added to provide a conventional Hollywood-happy ending.) "Any Given Sunday" is a film about triumph, but Coach D'Amato can only observe that triumph, not completely embrace it. And those who fully live it because they have earned the right to do so -- the players -- will never understand its meaning the way D'Amato does. D'Amato sums up this paradox of youth and age, achievement and glory, when he tells his team that you realize the things you've lost only when they're gone.

It's D'Amato's world-weariness, his disillusionment, that gives his locker room speech its heft. He doesn't speak of glory but of work. His speech, which recalls a 12-step confession, inspires the team to attempt deeds that, like Browning's heaven, are just beyond their grasp, but not too far: It evokes that moment just before the mask of greatness hardens, once memorably described in a Leonard Cohen song as a hero "turning into gold." And in the end, it reveals the paradox of glory: that the banners and blazoned days, the self-transformation, the famous victory, are real, but that they are only the vapor trail left by something more mundane. Life doesn't have a soundtrack. D'Amato's message is that the ideal is utterly and completely made out of the real -- yet it is still always ahead of us. The secret of sports, like the secret of art, is that it allows us to put an artificial stop to an endless process. We erect monuments and elect Hall of Famers because without them we would despair of the tick-tock and the endless inches, but the tick-tock and the inches are our home.

If "Any Given Sunday" highlights the glory of sports but reveals its shadow, "North Dallas Forty" highlights the mundane but illuminates the transcendent. The film's profound pessimism contains a quiet affirmation. Nolte's Elliott, like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, is a man who clings to his own code of honor in a fallen world. (With its shambling, broken-down grace, Nolte's performance recalls Elliott Gould's in Robert Altman's great revisionist version of "The Long Goodbye.") For Nolte's Elliott, that code means breaking the whole world down to one thing: catching a football. He rejects abstract concepts and Big Words like "team" and "sacrifice" and "courage" and "maturity"; they ring hollow because they are mouthed by frauds and have nothing to do with what drives him.

But the fact is that Elliott is a team man, and he is courageous -- he just rejects the words, as devalued. "North Dallas Forty" shows us the reality of an athlete's life without the pom-poms and marching band. But the more the film strips away the glory-conferring trappings, the clearer it becomes that Elliott, by remaining true to himself and pushing himself to his own limits, has earned them.

So -- to paraphrase Freud -- is a flat pass sometimes just a flat pass? Absolutely. In fact, athletes know better than anyone else that a flat pass should always just be a flat pass. The music does not swell, the lightning does not strike, Jerry Rice does not dream of his bust in Canton when he runs that out pattern for the 500th time in practice or runs up steep mountains in the offseason so hard and fast that teammates 10 years younger pull up and vomit. But he became the greatest wide receiver in history because he made the most of his talent by doing those things again and again. They are simple things, more measurable, and more physically painful, than the things that non-athletes do. That is the curse and blessing of being an athlete: Willpower can be focused on one goal. Get to the top of that mountain. Come out of that post-corner move faster.

It seems easy, except for the pain part. But it isn't any easier (or harder, for that matter) than anything else human beings try to excel at. And pushing yourself to be better than you were yesterday is hard, whether you're running patterns or teaching school. So a slant pattern is just a slant pattern. But behind that pattern is a story. It's an ordinary one, like all stories. But look hard enough, somewhere between the line of scrimmage and the end zone, and you just might find glory.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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