All of this had already occurred by the time two diametrically opposed football teams arrived in the Arizona desert for the annual Fiesta Bowl steak fry, an occasion marked in the past by pomp and ceremony and general malaise. But this year, something was different. This year, one team wore suits and and ties to the steak fry, and the other team wore black sweatsuits. This year, one team, Penn State, was coached by an Ivy League graduate who preached academic integrity and cited the Aeneid as his favorite book; this year, the other team, the University of Miami, was coached by an ambitious man with an elegant coiffure who had sarcastically dubbed his counterpart as “St. Joe.” The theme was country western, and the mood was High Noon tense, and then the dinner theater portion of the evening began, and that’s where things suddenly and inexplicably went wrong.
It began with a punter making jokes.
The punter’s name was John Bruno, and in my hometown of State College, Pennsylvania, he is regarded as one of the last heroes of a bygone era. That night at the steak fry, as per the instructions of the Fiesta Bowl organizers, John Bruno performed a skit. In fact, Bruno took so much pride in his duties as the skit’s emcee that he wrote out extensive notes beforehand; when the moment arrived, the punter stood up and made like Don Rickles. He ridiculed the opposing coach, Jimmy Johnson, for his ridiculous coiffure, dragging out a garbage can labeled with masking tape as Jimmy Johnson’s Hair Spray. Then, facing a University of Miami team that had been basking in immodesty and self-regard all week long, a team that had endeavored to display its solidarity by dressing in camoflauge combat fatigues, Bruno said this: “We’re (also) close at Penn State. We even let the black guys eat with us at the training table once a week.”
Now it was Miami’s turn. All week long—hell, all year long--they had been portrayed as the villains, as rampant egotists, as insolent upstarts, while Paterno and his Penn State players, dressed in suits and ties, were portrayed as less talented yet unconceited, as the last great hope for the withering notion that success and arrogance need exist in tandem. And this was partially a media creation, for Penn State’s players were not immune to fights and bluster, and Miami’s players were not entirely immune to introspection; but in this moment, in an age of American myth, in the era of the movie cowboy-turned-president, the dichotomy had become entirely real. When Bruno stepped down, Miami’s 290-pound defensive tackle, Jerome Brown—agitated by what he perceived to be an obvious racist remark--took to the stage, unzipped his black sweatsuit to reveal the combat fatigues he and his teammates had been sporting all week.
“Did the Japanese sit down and eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?” he said. “No. We're outta here.”
Out toward their buses went the men in the fatigues, cementing a reputation for bad behavior and rebelliousness that their school still cannot shake, more than fifteen years after Brown's death in a car accident. Then Bruno stood up again, made an extemperaneous crack about Miami having to leave so the players could begin filming “Rambo III,” and delivered a quote that Penn State football fans still evoke, more than fifteen years after their noble punter’s death from melanoma.
“Excuse me,” replied the punter. “But didn't the Japanese lose the war?”
---True, this was just a football game, but already, it was the most-hyped college football game in history (The Game of the Century, the organizers were calling it, embracing their inner Barnums), and the subtext had an epic feel to it, even if quite a bit of that was a hyperbolic set-up, for this game was being sold as a confrontation between Good and Evil. At this time, at this moment in American history, the power of mythology was as strong as it had ever been: Our president, after all, had once been a celluloid cowboy, and once referred to our Russian enemies as the “Evil Empire.” And so: The Suits versus the Sweatsuits. Why not? As a teenager living in central Pennsylvania, as an unabashed fan of the Suits, I bought into all of it.
Of course, I realize now that this steak fry, and the truly epic football game that followed a few days later, was not a battle of Good vs. Evil, for such a definition is far too simplistic. This was a confrontation between the Past and the Future. It was not about two teams, but about the perceptions of these two teams, and what they represented to sports fans. This confrontation was a symptom of the ongoing battles within the cultural Zeitgeist, about the virtues and vices of objectivism and welfare and racial identity and television and money, money, money. And it wasn’t just exploding like this in the desert: It was happening in Chicago, where a young quarterback was stubbornly determined to simultaneously defy the establishment and make a profit; it was happening in Washington, D.C., where a young basketball star seemed so caught up in stardom that he appeared to have lost sight of his own mortality; and it was happening in Alabama, where the greatest athlete to emerge in a generation embraced his own mythology on the way to becoming a cultural catchphrase. It was, in turn, about the dawn of a new age—a modern age--in American sports, and the repercussions and influences of that age have long since overwhelmed every aspect of the games we watch. For better or worse, we are living it.