Okay, I know most of you couldn’t care less about American football. But hear me out on this.
George Plimpton was a pioneer of participatory journalism—that is, journalism in which the writer actually participates in what he’s writing about, as opposed to simply describing it as a bystander. His many exploits included playing in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, boxing with Archie Moore, and pitching in an MLB game.
But arguably his most famous act of participatory journalism was his time as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. Plimpton joined their camp during the 1963 season, and participated for five plays in an inter-squad scrimmage. Here’s how he introduces the fateful moment:
“The offensive team in their blue jerseys, about ten yards back, on their own twenty yard line, moved and collected in the huddle formation as I came up, and I slowed, and walked toward them, trying to be calm about it, almost lazying up to them to see what could be done.”
After his five plays were run, the Lions had lost 29 yards. Certainly an inauspicious playing career, although as time has gone on, it’s proven to be far from the most embarrassing thing to happen to a Lions quarterback.
How interesting could a book about a man being terrible at football be, you ask? Well, that’s just it. Plimpton may have been a bad quarterback, but he was a magnificent writer. He could make anything sound interesting. Something as boring as lining up under center, he makes memorable:
“I took a few tentative steps toward Bob Whitlow, the center, waiting patiently over the ball. I suddenly blurted out: ‘Well, damn it, coach, I don’t know where to put my… I just don’t know…’
The coaches all crowded around to advise, and together we moved up on Whitlow, who was now peering nervously over his shoulder like a cow about to be milked.”
What makes Paper Lion great isn’t Plimpton’s scrimmage performance by itself. That just serves to give the book a structure and a dramatic climax. But the real meat of the book is in Plimpton’s descriptions of what goes on behind the scenes of an NFL team, like the annual revue they put on after the final roster cutdowns, in which the rookies mock coaches, veterans and league officials. Plimpton describes himself performing in the role of then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle:
“I wore a Napoleon hat, a cloak, a wooden sword, three cap pistols and a rubber dirk; and I carried a pair of handcuffs, a tack hammer, and a frying pan. These artifacts… were supposed to suggest the inquisitorial aspects of Rozelle’s office.
…and when I clanked toward the footlights, and said ‘Howdy, I’m Petesy Rozelle,’ the audience delivered a stiff barrage of invective.”
Or, during a hazing session where rookies are made to sing their college fight songs before the entire team, Plimpton struggles to recall his alma mater:
Crimson in triumph flashing
‘Til that last white line is past.
er… We’ll fight for the name of Harvard
‘Til… that last white line is past….
There are his depictions of all the Lions players, like Earl Morrall, the journeyman quarterback who would later go on to join the legendary 1972 Miami Dolphins, and of George Wilson, the Lions’ firm but good-natured coach. Dick “Night Train” Lane, whose record for interceptions in a season still stands to this day. Dick LeBeau, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career as a defensive coach, was a member of the team, whom Plimpton recalls the players likening to a pop star.
Above all, there are the antics of lineman Alex Karras. Karras was suspended for the 1963 season for gambling, but he still makes his presence felt as Plimpton recounts stories of him. Karras was a hambone, a performer by nature, always improvising skits and stories to amuse his teammates waiting in the hotel before a game, as in his recollections of an imagined “former life” in World War II:
“I knew all those cats, Runstedt, Goering–Bavaria Fats we called him–and Rommel. He had a terrible weak stomach, Rommel did. He used to get sick all the time. I’d come rushing up to him in the morning to fling the salute at him, and say, ‘Hello, hello, heil, heil, good mornin’ gener’l,’ and he’d get sick.”
It’s no surprise Karras went on to a career in acting after his football days ended. He had a natural gift for entertaining—but then, as Plimpton describes, as game time drew near, he would grow serious, and sick to his stomach. Karras’ queasiness and unpredictable temper actually reassured his teammates: “Alex is ready,” they murmur when his mood turns sour, “In five minutes he’ll be out there on the field making the poor fellow from Philadelphia opposite him pay for it.” Plimpton concludes the chapter, “We crowded into the elevator. No one said anything going down. Karras would sit alone on the bus.”
Plimpton had an incredible talent for knowing just how to end a chapter. I’m not sure I’ve ever read anyone else who could do it as well as he could. Here’s his conclusion of the chapter about his ill-fated scrimmage, when he hears a woman in the stands call out to him:
“She was wearing a mohair Italian sweater, the color of spun pink sugar, and tight pants, and she was holding a thick folding wallet in one hand along with a pair of dark glasses, and in the other a Lions banner, which she waved, her face alive with excitement, very pretty in a perishable, childlike way, and she was calling, “Beautiful; it was beautiful.”
The fireworks lit her, and she looked up, her face chalk white in the swift aluminum glare.
I looked at her out of my helmet. Then I lifted a hand, just tentatively.”
Plimpton’s time with the Lions occurred in the shadow of departed star quarterback Bobby Layne, who had led the team to multiple NFL championships in the ’50s. Legend has it, Layne cursed the team when they traded him, saying they would not win another title for 50 years. And as of this writing, they still have not, being one of the worst franchises in the NFL over the last half-century.
I wonder if the book would have been the same if Plimpton had chosen some other team for his experiment. He had tried to go to the New York Giants, the New York Titans (now Jets) and the Baltimore Colts. But somehow, it seems right that it was the Lions who had this awkward, lanky quarterback who wore number 0 and who stumbled on his first play from scrimmage. There is a poetic quality to it—someone who knows he hasn’t got a chance, but is trying anyway, because, well, how else to know what it’s like?
The Lions play on national TV every Thanksgiving. Generally, they lose. Even if they don’t, the game is usually meaningless, as they have almost always been eliminated from playoff contention by that time. But I love this tradition, because there’s a kind of melancholic beauty to it, just as there was to Plimpton’s venture. Sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner on a dreary day—as midwestern November days always are, somehow even when they are sunny—and watching the Honolulu blue and silver appear on the screen as the Lions go into another ill-starred competition makes me think of old Plimpton and his wonderfully nerdy courage.
It’s said that the owners of baseball’s Chicago Cubs believed that fans didn’t care about winning as much as they did entertainment. They were probably wrong, but I still see where they got that idea. Anyone can cheer for a winner; but it takes something special to cheer on a perennial loser, year after year. Don’t we teach kids it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game?
And in a way, Plimpton did win. He wrote one of the greatest sports books ever—a book that captures both the details of the game and the poetry of it. Football is a late autumn sport, and is tightly connected with the mood of the season. As John Facenda said in the intro to an NFL films production I once saw, there is “something somber in the eyes of the men, something of winter in their faces…” Paper Lion depicts football’s essence, in all its violent, weird, funny, fading autumnal glory.
I’ve loved football since I was a kid—I first read Paper Lion when I was 13 years old—so I’m probably biased. But I do believe it’s possible to enjoy the book even without being a football fan, because Plimpton was such a fantastic writer. In the introduction to the 1993 edition, Plimpton described an encounter with a rustic fellow who came up to him and said that he had only ever read one book—Paper Lion. Flattered but nonplused, Plimpton asked if he’d ever considered reading another one. The man replied with the greatest compliment a writer can receive: “Have you written another one?”
Indeed, he had, and this is why I think even a non-football fan may enjoy Paper Lion. I’ve read lots of other things he wrote, on subjects which normally hold no interest for me, but which I enjoyed anyway because of his masterful storytelling and wit.
In 2003, less than a week before he died, Plimpton went to Detroit for a ceremony at halftime of a Lions’ game to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the book and reunite with some old Lions’ stars. I remember watching the game on TV, and thinking how weird it was to see number 0 on a football jersey.