Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Bigger Than the Game: The First 759 Words

I've shown you the first draft of the introduction to Bigger Than the Game. So here, without further ado, is the final draft (with perhaps a few last-minute edits excluded) of the first five paragraphs. It goes on from there for a little while longer. And there are pictures (like the one below, courtesy of my old school newspaper, The Daily Collegian) in the middle!

And on a side note, the timing of this list seems fitting.

He came screaming into the picture from some faraway place, helmet in hand, a mongrel’s mane of spikes and curlicues and rattails glistening in the artificial lights of an aged football stadium. He may have been barking; on television, it was difficult to tell. And while it is true that he did not actually belong on this field at that particular moment, it is also true that he did not abide by traditional rules or social mores. His heroes had never been football players: He saw himself more as a modern-day version of Randle McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as an insurrectionist amid the asylum of organized sports. He drove a white Corvette, he wore an extremely large earring, and he had a standing appointment with a hairstylist. He had taken to calling himself The Boz.

New Year’s night, 1986: I was thirteen years old, watching the moment unfold on a nineteen-inch RCA television in a family room in State College, Pennsylvania. It was the second quarter of the Orange Bowl, and the winner between Penn State (my hometown team) and Oklahoma would take home the national championship; there was little understanding or concordance between the sides. And here was The Boz, the most dynamic linebacker in college football, looming and smirking on our screen, celebrating a University of Oklahoma touchdown pass (one that would ultimately win them the game) by smothering his quarterback in a bear hug, thereby guaranteeing himself a few extra seconds of screen time while his teammates boogied in the end zone. He was an inscrutable and terrifying figure dressed up in a crimson jersey, the manifestation of a flamboyant and calculating new-age dogma which I did not yet comprehend.

A few years earlier, Penn State’s coach, a Brown graduate named Joseph Vincent Paterno, had classified Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer, the son of an Arkansas bootlegger, as among the least honorable men in his profession. Paterno had since apologized and walked back from his remarks, but the contrast between their programs remained obvious: Oklahoma’s quarterback, a freshman named Jamelle Holieway, carried a Louis Vuitton purse (“my little clutch bag,” he called it) and wore a diamond stud and a gold watch and a gold chain, and had a tattoo on his arm that read JAMMIN’. John Shaffer, Penn State’s tin-can quarterback, possessed no such adornments; he was so slow and unremarkable that he had once managed to dislodge his shoulder from its socket while leaping up for a high-five. A few days before the game, The New York Times reported, The Boz—proper name: Brian Kenneth Bosworth—had passed by Shaffer underneath the Orange Bowl stands, wearing a pair of gold chains over his jersey, wearing sunglasses in a steady drizzle. And Shaffer eyed him from head to toe without moving his head, “not unlike the way hard hats once sized up hippies.”

All of this raised questions about whether a college football game could somehow mirror a social divide in the 1980s, about whether we were bearing witness, in the Orange Bowl, to a generational schism, about whether The Boz and his embrace of glamour and status on a football field was a sign of the impending breakdown of modern society, about whether Penn State and their prison-issue uniforms and their square quarterback and their seriousness were the last embodiment of a bygone era. “The Penn State players,” wrote John Ed Bradley in The Washington Post, “carry on as if on some dire, portentous mission of the soul.”

This book was born of the curious contrast displayed on my television screen that evening; the stories contained within are no doubt shaped by the visceral experiences of a teenaged boy coming of age in central Pennsylvania in 1986. But I would like to think that this is actually a story about how sports shaped and defined the cultural perceptions of a generation of American youth—of all those kids like me who grew up largely within the mythological confines of our own television screens, gawking at strange creatures like The Boz. It is a story that culminates precisely one year and one day later, on January 2, 1987, when Penn State again played for the national championship against a group of rogues and miscreants from the University of Miami. Each of these games was marketed and packaged as a morality play, and yet, as with most morality plays of the era, the personalities I grew up watching on that nineteen-inch RCA were not as nakedly uncomplicated as the imagery often made them out to be.

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