A fan's sour notes

Were yesterday's heroes better than today's?

When I was a kid, about 10, my mother was an extra in Semi-Tough, the film based on Dan Jenkins' novel about Billy Clyde Puckett, Snake Tiller, and how football could turn grown men into morally corrupt cretins. Mom and Aunt Marilyn, my mother's twin sister, were cast as sideline reporters who were supposed to interview players as they left the field and headed for the Cotton Bowl locker room after a "game." I don't recall how my mother landed the gig, and neither does she. In fact, I don't recall a heck of a lot about that day, except that it was cloudy and brutally cold...or maybe sunny and warm; I can't be sure.

But I do remember getting to meet the real-life football players cast as their cinematic counterparts after filming wrapped for the day. Many of them were, of course, Dallas Cowboys (among then, Herb Scott and Tom Rafferty), ex-Cowboys (Steve Kiner--I know, who?), and other ballers from around the league (including Billy Kramer and Alvin White). Somewhere, there is a picture of my little brother Michael and me standing next to Ed "Too Tall" Jones, his enormous arms draped around our narrow shoulders. We are smiling in the photo, as only children can when they get to touch their heroes. And somewhere is a piece of paper Too Tall signed for me, Too Small. Unfortunately, the picture and the autograph are lost somewhere, having been framed and forgotten, so all that remains are pictures of Michael with Tom Rafferty and the both of us with a rather disheveled Herb Scott. That is some bad hair, even by 1978 standards.

Growing up in Dallas, we used to get to see our heroes all over town; back then, in the late 1970s, Cowboys were not so shielded from the public, usually because most weren't under restraining orders. They shopped in the same stores as we did, ate at the same restaurants, went to the same movie theaters, lived in the same neighborhoods. We used to see Harvey Martin all the time at the tall-men's shop in Preston Forest where my father bought his clothes, and Michael and I always remarked how much Harvey and Dad looked so much alike, except Dad didn't have as good of a tan. I remember once sitting at a restaurant next to Roger Staubach, who graciously gave me his autograph while in the middle of a meal. I think he also gave me some fries and a Bible.

When I was a child, football players were like gods, bronzed heroes who walked among us in the grocery stores. Sunday afternoons were spent in front of the Zenith at our old house, where Mom, Dad, Michael, my aunt, our cousins, and so many other family members and friends sat in the den at our house and held our breath during Cowboys games. No one said a word; we just cheered, booed, and screamed, except for my grandfather, who snored, and my grandmother, who only seemed to come alive whenever Robert Newhouse got to carry the ball. I went to bed at night and wrapped myself in sheets covered with the names and logos of every team in the National Football League. Just last week, I found all that remains of those sheets, a lone pillow case, which still smells like braces and drool.

But I wonder now if kids still adore football players as we did decades ago. Do they get excited when they see Michael Irvin, or do they know he's only out there doing community service because a judge told him to? Do they even recognize Erik "Crash" Williams or Kevin "Oops" Smith or Nate "Fuck All Y'All" Newton? And what about Larry Allen, who has the absolute worst taste in topless bars? I know the children like Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman and Deion Sanders, but 20 years from now, will they get excited when they see them in a grocery store or at a bar, pounding back the whiskey-and-cocaine cocktails? Will they think of them as heroes, as I still do when I talk to Drew Pearson on the phone for a story about his old buddy Harvey Martin's rehab days, or will they just keep on walking, saying nothing, thinking even less? How can anyone revere The Right Reverend Deion, who adores himself more than a million fans ever could? He's a good player, but a lousy representative of the Lord, who would never suffer such arrogance from one of His (or Her, OK?) servants. Or such lousy fashion choices: The man dresses like a blind pimp.

I often wonder why I still regard the players of my youth as heroes; it's not as if they did anything meaningful with their lives. They didn't find a cure for disease, didn't end world hunger, didn't bring about world peace. They simply played a violent sport, and their contributions have disappeared into the history books--most, to the footnotes. Maybe I admire them a little more than today's Sunday-afternoon warriors because they didn't get paid so much to play a child's game. Most suffer aches and pains even today without much money to tend to their ancient wounds. They weren't millionaires many times over; they were just guys who got bloody, broke a few bones, and played with painkillers as a replacement for inspiration. They would retire with lousy pensions to their modest--if that--homes in the suburbs, then spend the rest of their lives remembering every single down they ever spent in the NFL, hoping they didn't go broke paying the doctors' bills.

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