Thursday, December 02, 2010

Sports Old-Fogeyism, Part II

My God it takes me a long time to write even a single little post on nothing.

The 1977 NFC Divisional Playoffs. Minnesota Vikings vs. the Los Angeles Rams at the L.A. Coliseum. Rain and mud. The underdog Vikings, being in a state of general decline from their mid-70s peak, and playing without Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton, who had broken his leg a few weeks earlier, won 14-7. I remember watching this game live. I was seven years old, about a week shy of eight. It was the Saturday between Christmas and New Year's. My grandparents were having a cocktail party which in my memory was quite well attended, at least 15 people or so. Even if one had that many friends nowadays, he would be hard-pressed to get such a turnout on that weekend. The guests were almost all old full-blooded ethnic Lithuanians, and such they were not particularly riotous, though they all drank and smoked at least. An old great-uncle who had palled around with Babe Ruth in a former life was there, though he was on his last legs at that party, and was hooked up to an oxygen tank; I'm sure it was the last time I ever saw him. The game was on in the background--sporting events were always on in the background at such functions in my youth. I was excited because I was rarely allowed to watch the 4pm game at home. At age seven, I regarded this as something cool people who lived in more laid-back households got to do, even if I would not have been able to express it in this precise terminology.

Rewatching some of this game 33 years later, along with some other vintage footage that is up on Youtube, I cannot but say that I miss these old days of football, especially the media coverage of it--doubtless if I could remember 1961 or 1950 I would lament them even more, but '77 has become, in relation to the present, quaint enough to be lamented too. Yes, the players are inferior, extremely so in certain notable instances, but the atmosphere surrounding the '77 game looks a lot more fun. Though complained about at the time too, everything--the tickets, the stadiums, the salaries, the groundskeeping, the television contracts, the joie de vivre of the fans--has only become ever more expensive, more extravagant, more contrived and more deadly serious with the passing of time. In 1977 the players' bodies, the hype, the luxury, even the personality of the fans, were still somewhat in line with the scale of what I would regard as normal life. But I have written about all of this before...

The abysmal quality of the field in this game is unbelievable. It goes without saying that nobody involved with even serious high school football would submit to playing in this kind of muck nowadays--maybe some Class C schools in Maine wouldn't be able to see any other solution and just deal with it. Otherwise all the good coaches and players would be indignant, and the wannabes would feign it, hapless lower-level employees responsible for the upkeep of the field would be publicly berated or even fired. For a while there were still a few old-timer broadcasters still around--even John Madden to a certain extent made one of this group--who would have downplayed the complaints about playing on a muddy field with poor footing, but adherents of this attitude are almost all gone now.

The quarterback play in this game is atrocious by current standards. The Vikings backup QB, Bob Lee, who mercifully only had to throw about ten passes the entire game, literally does not look like he has a skill set much broader than mine when he tries to run around and throw the ball more than five yards downfield. The Rams QB, Pat Haden, who was a Rhodes Scholar and college standout at USC, was supposed to be better, a rising star even, but he stunk the joint out in this game too. Mentally soft, as legend has it, he would go on the next year to choke in an even more humiliating fashion in a 28-0 loss to the Cowboys in the NFC championship game in the southern California sunshine which effectively ended his career. While the field conditions made passing perhaps especially difficult in this game, watching footage from other games of the same period played in decent weather is to be no less struck by how amateurish the passing game is vis-a-vis today. In some ways it makes for a more exciting game, as the risk of an interception is considerably higher than it is now, and a successful long pass play takes on the character of something of a minor miracle.

The commentators on this broadcast are the legendary Vin Scully and some guy who sounds like he broke into the business on Hee Haw and whom I have no memory of ever hearing again after this game. I must confess that for most of my life I detested Vin Scully, though he is practically sainted nowadays as one of the two or three most intelligent and greatest sportscasters of all time. My youthful animosity towards him came about mainly due to his association with and clear favoritism for the Dodgers, who I hated, and, like many people on the east coast at that time, I loathed and feared everything that was too blatantly and proudly from California generally, the Golden State then being perceived to be the ascendant, dynamic place, while we, who had formerly been the center of American life, were in terminal decline. (I realize that many people of a certain age now regard New York in the 70s to have been culturally in a golden age as well, though as I was under the influence in those days of people who had partied there during the Gatsby era and not spent any significant time there at all since the 50s, my impression was that the age of Studio 54 and the burned out Bronx represented a significant comedown from that city's former grandeur). My opinion of Scully is coming around, mainly as the result of much thoughtful and heartfelt writing extolling him that I have read in the last few years, his marvelous poetic powers of description, the classical smoothness and fluency of his American English speech that elevates the experience of the game, his nightly providing the Los Angeles metropolitan area with not merely the binding quality of a shared experience, but something almost resembling a soul, which latter would be a most impressive accomplishment indeed. Also he is in his 80s now, the Dodgers have been a mediocre and insignificant team for the last 20 years, I have become something of an adult; all of which has tempered my erstwhile visceral dislike of the him, though I don't think I will ever become one of his more fervent admirers.

On the other hand, this game also features my all-time favorite football coach, and maybe my favorite coach in any sport, Bud Grant. There hasn't been anybody remotely as cool as this guy in football in decades. In a playoff game, on the road in a monsoon with an undermanned team, an ulcer-inducing scenario for the typical coach, Bud Grant is not yelling, pacing, scowling, stalking, looking worried, looking confused or otherwise making a spectacle of himself. With only the hood of his windbreaker being pulled up acknowledging the downpour he is standing in, his expression and body language convey both intelligence and unflappability, the sense being, 'I know what I'm doing and I very well may win this game; if I do lose this particular game however, the overall quality of my life, with which I am genuinely at peace (and within which I have developed certain important mental faculties to a degree sufficient to make an informed determination), will not be significantly affected'. Unlike say, Phil Jackson, who states all this more or less directly and therefore convinces one it is actually insincere, Bud Grant never expressed his philosophy, or much of anything else, directly. I am projecting based upon what I detect.

Another odd thing about watching game footage from the 70s is that the gap in 'athleticism' between black and white players appears smaller than in any other era--that is to say, the white players generally look like they belong on the field, and many of the clearly better players even on defense are white, and no one seems to consider this unusual yet. In the 60s, there were often only two or three black players on the field at any given time who, usually being elite talents, really stood out athletically (think Jim Brown or Gale Sayers running on the nearly all-white defenses of their era). In recent years the reverse has become true, especially on defense, where white players stand out noticeably, and are frequently perceived as doing so in a negative sense with regard to speed, strength, etc, even when this is not necessarily the case. But in the 70s there was almost a kind of equilibrium reached, where many white non-quarterbacks were athletically competitive with the top black players. This was also true, albeit to a lesser extent, in basketball.

I had wanted to do even more stuff but this post has to go to press. Ridiculous.

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