By Tim Whyte
“Oh Christ,” he said. “The best thing in football was to really pop someone. One of the great joys of my life was to get a bead on a guy and really put him out. Absolutely! To lift him up right under his chin, or under his throat with the top of your helmet and put him on his back on the grass. You’ve done your job, you’ve gotten your good grade. The movie’s going to show it. That’s it.”
— John Gordy,
in George Plimpton’s
“Mad Ducks and Bears,” 1973
You’d never hear a football player speaking so bluntly about taking joy in the game’s violence today.
John Gordy was an offensive lineman for the Detroit Lions in the ’60s. He was one of the two main characters in Plimpton’s nonfiction “Mad Ducks and Bears,” which chronicled the exploits and chicanery of Gordy and his pal, defensive tackle Alex Karras, whom you may better remember as the actor who played Mongo in “Blazing Saddles” and, later, as the dad on the TV series, “Webster.”
Plimpton was probably best known for “Paper Lion” and several of his other books in which he participated as a bumbling amateur among professional athletes. “Mad Ducks and Bears” was different, as it took an unblinking look at both the humor and the horrors of professional football.
Gordy was known as the Bear, because he was one hairy beast of a man. Karras was known as the Mad Duck, because that’s what he looked like when he was chasing quarterbacks.
Later in the book, Gordy lamented how the rules of football — at the time — were stacked in favor of defensive players like Karras, and against offensive players like Gordy.
I felt the same way when I played football in high school: The rules were slanted heavily toward defensive players, particularly on the line. I remember being taught how to block as an offensive lineman, and we pretty much had to pretend, on every play, that we were merely standing in front of the defensive players like gentlemen with our elbows thrust out to the side, when in fact we were trying to clutch, grab, claw, chop… you name it, anything to keep those guys from getting to our quarterback or the ball carrier.
We learned how to act as if we were falling down, when what we were really doing was landing on the backside of an opponent’s knee to take him down.
We even had a blocking scheme that involved concealed punches, so the referees couldn’t see what we were doing. It was called “Balls Blocking.” Yes, it was what you think it was. It was designed to keep the defensive players from raising their arms to block a pass. It was effective, as you might imagine.
I’m pretty sure it was illegal. Never asked.
From the outside looking in, there was almost an expectation of nobility from the offensive line, like we were the ones who were supposed to be civilized, and the defensive linemen basically had a license to destroy all of that, no holds barred.
The defensive guys could do just about anything. Head slaps. Clutching and grabbing. Punches to just about anywhere. They were borderline homicidal.
With apologies to Plimpton (may he, Gordy and Karras all rest in peace), my recollection of football rules back then is reminiscent of an accounting provided to Plimpton by John Gordy:
Me: C’mon, ref. He pulled an ax out of his jockstrap and started swinging around with it like he was chopping lumber.
Referee (cleaning his glasses, squinting): I don’t know, man… I didn’t actually SEE any ax…
Me: But my quarterback’s head is literally severed!
Referee (stepping over the QB’s severed head): Unfortunate, yes, I see that. (Then, sounding oddly British.) Quite a mess, that. You do need a quarterback with a head on his shoulders. But it looked like a clean hit to me… You know, I think you were holding on the play. I saw the defensive tackle’s jersey get slightly wrinkled. (Tossing his flag, just a little late.) Offense, No. 54, holding, 10 yards…
Me: What the…?
Ref (now, throwing another flag on the quarterback’s lifeless body): Delay of game, No. 8, offense…
OK, so it didn’t QUITE happen that way. I never did have a quarterback’s head chopped clean off. But sometimes it seemed like the rules were THAT stacked against the offense. You wouldn’t believe the awful things they were allowed to do to us on their way to mauling our quarterbacks. And then, once they got there, they teed off on the QB with nary a worry about being penalized.
It made the Balls Blocks seem… well, justified.
Now, as we’ve seen in recent weeks of NFL action, the pendulum has swung in an entirely different direction.
Football, in a generation, has gotten wiser, sure. Too many retired players have suffered long-term, sometimes fatal, cognitive impacts from the repeated blows to the head — not to mention the crippling impacts the game has on knees, ankles, hands, shoulders and sundry other body parts.
In fact, Karras was among those players who suffered long-term health impacts from his football career, and before his death in 2012 was among several thousand former NFL players who filed a lawsuit against the league over the health impacts of head contact.
To its credit, the NFL has enacted new rules designed to reduce head contact, and to protect vulnerable players from the damage that can be inflicted by players who are bigger, stronger and faster than ever. Head injuries are not to be taken lightly.
But sometimes, it seems like, in the rush to improve safety, the NFL rules gurus have gone… how shall we say it, in the nicest possible way?
As in, Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man soft.
Take, for example, the latest spate of penalties on defensive players for seemingly innocuous quarterback sacks.
Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers (if we actually had him mic’d up we might hear this, but that’s not in our budget so I am surmising that it went SOMETHING like this): C’mon, ref! That was a textbook sack! Just like they taught us in Pop Warner!
Ref: I don’t know… Did you see what you did to him? Like, you actually BREATHED on him. What did you EAT last night? Garlic? That’s gotta be 15 yards. Personal foul! Wait. Can we go more than 15? I need to check my rule book… (Pulls out rule book, cleans glasses, squinting…)
Matthews: But all I did was wrap him up. No helmet-to-helmet, grabbed him by the torso, just a textbook arm-and-shoulder tackle.
Ref: Yes, but he’s a quarterback. Don’t you understand what that means? He’s got a line of cologne to promote. Plus (pointing to the stands) you made his wife sad, and she’s REALLY pretty. Can’t have that. We don’t need hairy brutes with bad breath like you getting in the way of these things. (Tosses flag.) Personal foul! 15 yards. AND, unsportsmanlike conduct for giving me sass. No. 52 is disqualified!
I’m hoping there’s a happy medium somewhere for football. These days, a lot of parents — and with good reason — think twice about letting their kids play tackle football, fearing the long-term damage of repeated head contact.
But at its highest level, football can be a joy to watch — for its athleticism, the incredible amount of teamwork and complex strategy it requires, and, yes, for the collisions. OK, maybe it’s a sign of the sickness in all of us football fans, but the big hits — delivered and received by people paid large sums of money to do so — are part of the excitement.
Adult football players know what they are signing on for. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enact reasonable rules to protect them from themselves, but the pendulum also needs to stop swinging further and further away from reason.
And we all know this: When they take away the collisions and turn tackle football into touch football, that will be the end of the game as we know it — and we will have seen the last of the mad ducks and bears.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @TimWhyte.