Thursday, June 01, 2006

Those That Vanish Before Our Eyes

A simple question to ask yourself:

When you think of football, what comes to mind?

For myself, such a simple inquiry inspired more questions than answers. Do you think of the game or do you think of the players? How much of your memory is comprised of individual achievements and how much of it is simply memories of a sport in motion? Are your memories comprised of triumphs or disappointments? The reason I ask these questions is to gage in some small way our collective perception of football. Do we perceive the game solely as an instrument of conquest, or do we allow for the inclusion of the tragic in our responses.

The reason for these questions is Johnny's recent piece on Tony Boles. It made me wonder aloud why his story took so long to be told. Boles was a standout Michigan running back. A dervish with legs and a helmet. The grace and speed of a puma mixed with the elusiveness of a mouse in a room full of knotholes. He was Next. Long runs. Cuts in midair. Then, cruelly, it was all over. A knee injury that today would cost him six games, cost him a career. Decades later, it turns out it cost him so much more.

Boles quickly faded from the public consciousness after his injury. He dropped out of Michigan. He disappeared into a world many of us know nothing about. Petty theft. Drug abuse. Burglary. Prison. Today, twenty years after he dazzled the Big House, he stands in front of a halfway house. A place he will most likely be in and out of for the rest of his life.

Like so many former football players, Boles vanished. For a shining moment he stood at the acme of athletic and personal achievement. Then we blinked and he was gone. "What happened to him?" was a question that wasn't asked for twenty years. It puzzled me as to why.

In reading Johnny's piece, it occurred to me that tragedy and failure are not things we are accustomed to in football. While everyone knows the "pain" of a losing season, we focus on the little victories. Our memories of football center mostly around victory, conquest, and triumph over adversity. The catches. The runs. The blind heaves that somehow found fingertips in the back of the endzone. We tend to quickly forget the injuries, the suffering and the pain. They are warriors to us. They do not feel such things. There is no room for them in football.

But there is in real life.

Football is a brutally short game for those who play it. The average career in professional football, according to the NFLPA, is three active seasons. And this only counts the lucky few who make it to the pro ranks. How many faceless young men have suffered debilitating injuries in practice or during a college game? I'm sure the number is too high to count.

At a certain level, players exist only as auto parts exist in a Pep Boys. An injured player is quickly replaced. If a part is worn down, bring in a new one. The next young man who can pass, run, block, catch or hit takes his place. It is not that the players don't want to hang around for another year. They can't. If they are not at their best, the game has the potential to debilitate them. Unless you are in your prime, the game does not allow you to play.

In some way that is why football players vanish rather than fade away. The second their skills deteriorate past a certain point, their services become more of a liability than an asset for their teams. How many running backs has your favorite pro team gone through? How many receivers, corners, linebackers? They are not around long enough for us to get to know them. To grow with them. To attach to them. To watch them fade away.

These are luxuries a sport like baseball affords us. Players come onto the scene, mature, reach their primes, and slowly fade away. If you can hit you can play. No matter your other flaws. In some way their careers mimic our own lives. They miss more than hit, they rise quickly and fall slowly back to earth. We get to know them. They're in the papers daily. We're constantly reminded how good they used to be. The longevity of baseball allows us tell the proud stories of a player's prime, but also the sad tale of their decline. Stories like Ted Williams, Ricky Henderson, Joe Jackson, and Mickey Mantle all illustrate this point.

However, these long careers also allow us to know them on a personal level. And that relationship can be far more tragic than watching their skills evaporate. We know about their gambling, womanizing, drugs, alcohol, steroids, and other addictions. Stories like Rose, Bonds, and Cobb exist in baseball because we've had so long to know them. Because a single skill never left them, a roster spot and the public eye was always theirs for the taking. Baseball is a tragedy in motion at times, and perhaps that is why we accept the failures of the people that play it.

It may be there is no tragedy to behold in football simply because the players are not around quite as long. While we know they party and get themselves into trouble, it takes something truly special for us to do more than shrug and chalk it up to a generalization about the sport and players. We don't know these players that well. Their season is short. Their exposure is limited. There are so many of them. We can't quite as readily attach to these players because of this. When they are injured, we don't suffer with them after the initial hit. If you're hurt and can't run, you don't play. If your ribs are cracked, you're out. We're not going to watch him hobble out to rightfield. We're not going to watch him grimace everytime he throws to first. We're not going to see the wincing with every swing.

Maybe we are not accustomed to seeing the tragic in football because the men on the field are so healthy, strong, and capable. At least that is the image that is painted for us by the teams, players and media. They are not hurt, they are courageous. His joints aren't jell-o, he's a warrior. He didn't play shot full of pain killers, he triumphed over adversity. These men are painted as invincible.

This could be a reason we cling to this game so readily. The ideal of performing at your absolute best every time you take the field. These young athletes, in the primes of their lives, dazzling us with long runs and bone crunching hits. When down, they get up. They swat a helmet and run back to the huddle. What would have crippled the fan is shrugged off with a head shake and some trash talk. A quick squirt of gatorade and all is right again. Back to the line they go. As if nothing happened. They are immortal.

They are Achilles without the heel.

They seem that way. The game is always played by the eternally young. The players are always just old enough to drink, but never old enough to think the music you listen to was ever cool. The game is always vibrant and alive. Perhaps, in some small way, we cling to the game as a means of escaping our own mortality. Perhaps the blackboard of our memories is wiped a little cleaner when players go down so that we may remember the game as a vibrant endeavor rather than one of pain and suffering.

We don't see these things because football isn't as up-close and personal as other sports. The body armour. The helmets that cover their heads and faces. The tape and pads. If its bad enough, they won't even suit up. They'll be gone.

Injuries are in some way a finality. We don't see the comeback. We don't see them struggle to find their way again. There is no minor league to re-hone their skills. They can't come back at half speed in football. Unless they can return to their previous form they are released. Your starting nose guard one day, a longshoreman with a bum knee the next. No ceremony. Just a locker to clean out. And maybe it is because we so readily replace these parts in football that we allow players to so quickly vanish into oblivion. Those tragic memories don't really fill our minds because they were never really a part of our consciousness. They were behind the scenes. We knew what was going on, but we never saw it with our own eyes.

Players don't fade away in football. They vanish. An injury on the field and that player is replaced by the next man. The game goes on. Perhaps that is why Tony Boles disappeared from our thoughts so quickly.

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