This one’s for Charlie Stella, crime-writer extraordinaire, who suffers in the purgatory of Buffalo Bills fandom. Here’s my shout out, on the eve of the NFL Draft. (Yeah, yeah, it’s a guy thing. So sue me.)
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The reason so many women, smart women in particular, have such lousy taste in men is because they fundamentally don’t get football.
I don’t mean they should watch it more, pretend to like it more than they do, or tune in to NFL Playbook and bone up on the trapping game or the two-deep zone. (Though, on reflection: Could it hurt?)
I mean women don’t actually get why teenage boys want to play the game, and what lessons it can teach you if you’re open to them.
Admittedly, sometimes the lessons don’t sink in. Men are wildly imperfect. Sadly, that may be the most interesting thing about us.
This all came to me when a woman friend, who’s a huge New York Giants fan, told me she’d caught some serious grief from other women for being into football.
“It’s so violent,” they complained.
My friend replied, “Well, yeah, but it’s also really graceful at times—you know, like ballet.”
When she told me this, I stared at her like she’d sprouted a second head.
“No,” I told her, “football’s really violent. That’s what makes it fun.”
Then it was her turn to stare at me like I’d sprouted a second head.
Violence is one of the great riddles of the male sphinx. And football, for a lot of teenage guys, is how they learn to solve it. (In other parts of the world, it’s rugby. Or armed robbery.)
Blame testosterone—that strange ineluctable whatzit that rises up inside you (if you’re male) during puberty, insinuates itself into your psyche like a menacing twin, tries to take you over or at least wrestle you down into the blood and muck.
Call it: The zombie in the pudding. Out of the sweetness of youth it comes. And just keeps coming. And it wants to eat your brain.
The author (right) with his older brother John: the Pre-Zombie years.
About the time you begin having those urges, you also find you have a predatory instinct. And before too long you learn there’s a food chain, and every guy you know is trying to figure out where every other guy fits in. And you’re all hoping—secretly, if the guys are your friends—that they’re lower down than you are.
I was a pudgy kid who began dropping the baby fat around age twelve. For a couple years I pretty much had to fight my way home from school every day. I got my ass kicked good once—this guy named Chappy, flunked his way out of high school into the marines. And I kicked some other kid’s butt once, some greasy loudmouth whose name I no longer remember. The other dust-ups were basically a draw.
There is a profound lack of satisfaction to the average fight, a sense that the real point, which is almost mystically nebulous, remains unsettled—even with the aforementioned ass-kickings. Maybe especially then.
But with its rituals, its discipline, its strategy—they don’t call it violent chess for nothing—plus the fact it’s played before all the people who might feel inclined to mock you, football offers a way to scatter the ghosts from all those unsettled fights.
There’s one major caveat. It only works if you have a coach you respect and trust. I was lucky. I did.
His name was John Dorrian—sometimes known as “Bud” (he taught biology) or “Shag” (he also coached baseball). I count him among the three most influential men in my life.
Mr. Dorrian had all the visual appeal of Ichabod Crane (not the Johnny Depp version). He was tall and reedy, prune-faced, pucker-mouthed, weak-chinned—but he also possessed an undeniable dignity and strength.
An aging jock with an intellectual’s sense of the absurd, he read parodies of the Iliad at pep rallies, with the star players’ names inserted where the Greek heroes’ would have been: fleet-footed Mollica, fire-eyed Molloy. (He killed with Sister Canisia, who taught Latin and Greek.)
He’d been an All-American in baseball at Notre Dame for three seasons before being beaten out his senior year by a freshman phenom, some hump named Carl Yastrzemski:
This mysterious, quiet, intense, intelligent man, this man who knew what it meant to have his dream snatched away but who’d found a way to soldier on—this man took notice of me, and praised my effort.
Not because I was gifted. The reason I played football and not baseball or basketball was simple: I lacked any conceivable athletic talent. The only thing slower than me on the football field were the goal posts.
I played center because it limited the ways I could screw up—all I had to do was remember the snap count, hike the ball, and hit the fat guy. (A lot of fat guys are incredibly strong, by the way. And unpleasant.)
Oh, and I was secure enough in my manhood I could deal with the razzing I got for having the prima donna quarterback plant his hands up my ass every sixty seconds.
But I digress.
The beauty of football, at the high school level anyway, is that it’s the one sport where even a lead-footed no-talent like me could take his shot, because what it actually requires, at least for linemen, lies more in strength and attitude than speed or hand-eye coordination.
What it requires is a taste for violence.
One of the seminal moments in my life was my first tackling drill in full pads. Coach Dorrian taught us the proper technique: Get low, face mask between the numbers, lock him up, put him down.
Full go. Whole squad watching.
I was terrified, and fear makes you too stupid to do anything except what you’re told. (I’m sure there’s a history lesson in there somewhere.)
Two tackling dummies on the ground formed a lane, down which the ball carrier barreled toward me. I lowered myself, aimed my facemask at his chest and launched myself at him.
The thundercrack of that collision was absolutely one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. As I would learn to say later: I almost came.
Oh, and I locked him up. And I put him down. And Coach Dorrian blew his whistle and shouted, “Solid hit! Pay attention, gentlemen. Next!”
As I got back in line, one of my teammates muttered, “Man, I’d never hit anybody that hard.” It wasn’t a compliment. He meant that I was too dense to get that this was just practice.
Part of me thought, somewhat dimly: I didn’t realize I had a choice. But the other part of me was still glowing. I knew I’d crossed some threshold. I was a smart, lonely, scared kid who’d learned how to deliver a blow. And a man I respected had taken notice.
As for the guy who’d muttered his critique? He got stuck on hamburger squad.
Later that day, Coach Dorrian huddled us up to make sure we knew that hurting someone was never the point, and anyone who deliberately tried to injure another player would be off the team. No exceptions.
“But,” he added, “when you play with discipline and focus, at full speed and within the rules, this game can be a lot of fun.”
Which was exactly what I’d tried to tell my woman friend, the New York Giants fan, and what I wanted her friends to get. But to do that, you have to really unpack what Mister Dorrian was trying to say.
He was telling us: I know you’re violent, and I know you like asserting your will. I’m going to teach you skills to do that. But the other guy likes asserting his will too. And in this context, asserting your will involves inflicting pain. That’s where the rules comes in. That’s where the discipline comes in. They’re there to teach you the difference between being aggressive and being a punk.
Not that the lessons are unambiguous. Of the many things that get shouted at you—and you get shouted at a lot in sports, that way the lessons sink in deep, become a part of muscle memory—but one of the most insidious things that gets bellowed at you in football, the thing that plays on your deepest insecurities and haunts you, comes during blocking drills.
You line up in your stance, face the man across from you. You wait for the coach to blow his whistle, and when he does you fire out, lock up, drive, and as you do he’s caterwauling at you so loud the words echo through your brain, your blood stream, every fiber in your body.
What he says is: Punish that man!
Now, you may ask yourself: Punish him? For what? What did he do?
But I got it. On some level, I understood that that man bore the Mark of Cain. He was violent. Just like me. My job was to subdue him, control him, defeat him. My manhood depended on it. Because he was me.
I realize not all guys come away from football having imbibed that lesson. And it’s no doubt glib to blame their coaches.
Admittedly, it was nothing Coach Dorrian explicitly said that made me self-direct this notion of punishment. It was his example: his decency, his integrity, his commitment both to aggression and to playing by the rules. The phrase “tough but fair” gets thrown around so much it’s virtually meaningless. Unless you’ve had a Coach Dorrian in your life. Then, as I suggested, it becomes part of your muscle memory.
As for the guys who didn’t get the message, in my experience they fall into two distinct camps: Those who want to be pitied for their failures, and those who expect far more praise than they deserve for their success. The brooding Byronic losers, and the Apollonian golden boys.
The psychoanalyst Karen Horney defined masculinity as “an anxiety-tinged narcissism.” The anxiety comes from the guilt of violence — and the shame of being its target. The narcissism is a disguise, a way to pretend the shame and guilt are somebody else’s problem.
And all too often that’s what they become. They become a woman’s problem, in particular.
And sadly, all too often, women jump on board, perpetually nursing Mr. Pitiful out of his bottomless funk, or latching on to Golden Boy with his blowfish ego and riding him as far as he’ll take her, even if she knows it will never be all the way. (Sometimes, of course, they’re the same guy.)
And smart women are particularly prone to this mistake because they more than anyone are repulsed by violence. They get fooled by the mask in masculinity. Like the men they fall for, they want to pretend the zombie in the pudding is a myth. Or if he’s real, he’s out there somewhere, wandering around inside other men.
“My man is smart, he’s sensitive, he abhors violence.” To which I can only respond: Run!
Maybe it’s because I was an offensive lineman — the patrol cop of football — and never got pampered like a star.
But what football taught me was how to recognize within myself the things I hated in the other guy and use them to my advantage, while never losing track of the simple humbling fact that he was just like me. I learned to be proud but never to gloat, because as soon as the whistle blows my golden moment—or my moment of shame—is over, and I’ve got to get ready for the next play.
Football didn’t teach me squat about masculinity. It did, however, teach me at least a little about manhood.
Mister Dorrian retired after my sophomore year and was replaced by a man I’ll call Joe Bonaparte. The only thing big about him was the chip on his shoulder. He had the cocky swagger of a star jock whose heyday was long gone. And so he took out his frustrations on people he deemed lesser than him. Like his players.
I became a starter junior year but lost interest. I had nothing to prove to a man like Joe Bonaparte. And I was getting a little cocky myself, a little mouthy; coaches hate that, especially from a player they know is smarter than they are. I lost my starting job. Curiously, I cared a great deal less than I thought I would.
Then, in the last game of the year, the guy in front of me got hurt. Coach Bonaparte looked around the sideline, spotted me, pointed and said, “Corbett, you ready to go in?” I couldn’t help myself, the inner smart-ass just took over. I said, with mock wistfulness, “You remember my name . . .”
And that, as they say, was the end of that.
A few years after I graduated I ran into Mister Dorrian at a local mall. He looked rested and healthy (we’d heard rumors he’d been ill). He asked me how I was doing, and I wanted to tell him how much he’d meant to me, how much I’d learned from him. I wanted to say, in whatever mangled fashion I might manage to get it out, that he’d taught me a lot more than how to block down on trap plays, neutralize a nose tackle, or dig a linebacker out of the hole. He taught me what it meant to grow up. That I had to control my aggression, I had to deal with my guilt and overcome my shame. Women, in my future life, would thank him. Maybe even the smart ones.
But I said none of these things. It would have seemed gushy, and that was most definitely not Shag Dorrian’s style. We kept it simple, exchanged pleasantries, shook hands and said goodnight.
But as I walked away, I felt a small swell of pride.
He’d remembered my name.
The author, circa his playing days. (Note hair. Please.)
I realize this post has little to do with crime or writing, but violence lies at the heart of what we do.
Do these reflections resonate with your understanding of men and women and violence, or do you find them wildly off the mark?
How have you had to come to grips with the real (as opposed to fictional) violence in your life?
Does your real-life experience with violence find its way into your writing — if so, how?
What say you, Murderateros?