Life of a Paper Lion

Thursday May 15th, 2014

The legend of George Plimpton goes like this: He entered the ring with light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore, and exited with a bloody nose; he pitched at Yankee Stadium, inducing Willie Mays to pop up; he hit the links with Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, losing with a handicap of 18; he goaltended for the Boston Bruins, auditioned for the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus.

These endeavors might sound like a sports-centric Walter Mitty spinoff, except that Plimpton actually lived out these fantasies. A longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated, where many of these tales were recounted, Plimpton was one of the most compelling, and adventurous, literary figures of the 20th century, personally elevating the genre of participatory journalism. (He also conceived and wrote “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” possibly the most famous story in SI's history.)  A documentary on the man, Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, premieres nationally Friday at 9 p.m ET on PBS.

Below is a sneak peek detailing one of Plimpton’s most daring adventures, a punishing preseason stint with the Detroit Lions. In 1963, Plimpton, a diplomat’s son with zero football credentials, infiltrated a Lions locker room full of big personalities: Alax Karras, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Joe Schmidt, Wayne Walker. His pursuit of the third-string quarterback job was chronicled in a two-part series for SI, which he subsequently expanded into a bestselling book, Paper Lion. Detroit coach George Wilson was in on the deception, the players were not—until they saw Plimpton play. The result is a funny, honest and revealing snapshot of life inside the NFL, and in vintage Plimpton fashion, perhaps even wilder than fiction.

[si_video id="video_0AB8AA57-3F2F-613E-2FE6-FBF0C32515C8"]

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