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"Hut-Two-Three . . Ugh" A writer proves to be a Paper Lion at QB

Writer George Plimpton embraced the dream of millions of Americans when he played quarterback for the Detroit Lions.

In which the venturous author, the rawest rookie pro football has ever known, recounts all the excruciating details of what happened when he called five plays as quarterback for the Detroit Lions, of how he was cheered by a sellout crowd, and of how the twist and a kindly guard eased his retirement pain.

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In honor of Sports Illustrated's 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories ever to appear in the magazine. Today's selection is "Hut-Two-Three . . . Ugh", which ran in the Sept. 14, 1964 issue. It was second and final part of legendary writer George Plimpton's Zero Of The Lions series that detailed his brief but unforgettable career as the Detroit Lions quarterback. Plimpton later wrote a book account, Paper Lion, that became a movie starring Alan Alda.

The Detroit Lion players were all interested in what my first reactions would be quarterbacking in the intra-squad scrimmage in Pontiac, Mich.—how my amateur's eyes would take in the world they knew so well. Wayne Walker, the big linebacker, thinking back on his first days as a professional, had an idea that the light seems to dim, that on the first two or three plays one's concentration is such that general observation is difficult.

"Everything gets dark," he had told me, "like seeing everything from a dark tunnel."

"You mean that the peripheral vision goes?" I had asked mournfully. "That's about the only physical attribute that...well, that I might possess."

The night before the game I had dropped in on Milt Plum and Earl Morrall, the Detroit quarterbacks, in their dormitory rooms at the Cranbrook training camp, hoping they might have some advice to offer.

"Wayne Walker tells me everything's going to go black," I said.

They grinned and looked at each other. "Well, he's blunt enough about it," Morrall said.

"He didn't mean I was going to get hit," I said hastily. I explained what he had said about the field of vision seeming to diminish. The two quarterbacks said that was new to them, but they both spoke of the advantages of peripheral vision—"a type of split vision," was how Morrall described it. "Tomorrow night," he said to me, "suppose you run your pass play 93 [one of the five plays I was going to call]. Once you're back in the pocket here's what you should see: you spot your short receiver, the No. 3 man, and you see how he is going. Then you pick up the long man, the No. 9, to see if the defensive safety's got him covered, then back to the 3 man, and you throw to him"—Morrall slapped his fist into his palm—"unless the linebackers are in his zone, in which case you throw out into the right flat to your swing man, the safety valve. Then you have, in addition, the 8 man going down 10 yards on the left and button-hooking, so that actually you have four possible receivers in an arc of 180°—and since you've only got two or three seconds, once you're in the pocket, to pick one of those people out, you can see how helpful a wide angle of vision can be."

"Of course, the angle seems to widen with experience," Plum said. "When you start out and don't know quite where to look, it's as thin as a flashlight beam, which is what Walker is saying."

"Pass patterns are set up to help you see your receivers fast," said Morrall. "Both your primary receivers are usually on a direct line of sight from you. For example, tomorrow night"—every time he said "tomorrow" I could feel my stomach tighten—"if your short man is covered, all you've got to do is raise your eyes, like clicking the sight up on a rifle, and there's the long man on the same line."

The two quarterbacks began talking about the other mandatory attributes of their position.

Morrall said: "If you could put a quarterback together with all the skills he ought to have, you'd give him, first, speed—speed going back those seven yards into the pocket, which a quarterback like Van Brocklin had. This gave him time to see the action and the pass patterns develop. Then you'd give him the ability to fake well, which Y. A. Tittle and Eddie LeBaron have: good dramatics and action, good enough to make the defense lean the wrong way. And then, of course, an arm, a good arm, and strong."

"I'd put that first," Plum said. "The coaches look for someone who can throw the ball 50 yards, and almost on a line. In college there's not much emphasis on pass defense—it takes too long to develop a good one. With your receivers getting 10 yards clear of the defense, you can loft the ball without danger. But any pass which gets up in the air in this league will have four defenders crowding around waiting for it to come down—like an infield pop in baseball."

They could see from my fidgeting that I was uncomfortable as they put together their composite superquarterback. On the training field both of them had seen my passing efforts, which over the length of 20 yards began to develop the high trajectory of a howitzer shell. "Look," said Morrall. "You don't need to worry tomorrow. Call plays that get the ball to the running backs. Make those people pick up the yardage for you."

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I was ready to follow this advice when Coach George Wilson sent me in as his starting quarterback the next evening. As I ran out across the sidelines the teams were waiting on the offensive unit's 20-yard line. The kickoff was dispensed with. In the controlled scrimmage the defense would get one point for keeping the offense from getting a first down, two points for an interception or a fumble recovery. The scoring for the offense was regular.

Bud Erickson, the Lions' publicity man, was on the public address system telling the crowd how the scoring would work. It was a sellout crowd, packing the high stands that flanked the field, out to see the season's first appearance of the Lions. The rookies would be of particular interest to them. They had settled in their seats, watching me trot along the sidelines, my number, which was zero, staring up at them like an eye. They listened to Erickson explain that "number zero," coming out, was not actually a rookie but an amateur, a writer, who had been training with the team for three weeks and had learned five plays, which he was now going to run against the first-string Detroit defense. It was a nightmare come true, he told them, as if one of them, rocking a beer around in a paper cup, with a pretty girl leaning past him to pay the hot-dog vendor in the aisle, had been suddenly carried down underneath the stands by a sinister clutch of ushers and encased in the accouterments (the tape, the supporter, the wraparound girdle, the thigh pads, the arm pads, the shoulder pads, the sweat shirt, the jersey, the silver helmet with the two protruding bars of the cage jammed down over his ears) and sent out to take over the team. The crowd was interested, and I was conscious, though just vaguely, of a steady roar of encouragement.

My team, the first-string Lion offense, was waiting for me, grouped in the huddle, watching me come, their faces unrecognizable, lost in the shadows of their helmets. For the first call the running play I had available for them—following Plum's and Morral's advice—was the 26 near 0 pinch. In it the quarterback receives the snap, turns and takes two steps straight back and hands the ball off to his 2 back coming laterally across from right to left. The ballcarrier then cuts into the No. 6 hole (the holes are numbered 9-7-5-3-1 from the right, and 0-2-4-6-8 leading out to the left). That is what is designated by 26—the 2 back into the 6 hole. The mysterious code words "near 0 pinch" referred to blocking assignments in the line, and I was never sure exactly what was meant by them.

I went into the huddle and called out, "Twenty-six!" forcefully, to inspire them, and a voice from one of the helmets said, "Down. Down. The whole stadium can hear you."

"Twenty-six," I now hissed at them. "Twenty-six near 0 pinch, on three! Break!" Their hands cracked as one, and they streamed past me out of the huddle, moving up to the line of scrimmage fast as I wheeled and started for the line behind them.

I kept my eye on Bob Whitlow, my center, as he trotted up over the ball, and I followed in his tracks. Earl Morrall had told me that sometimes a quarterback, distracted, will stray off center as he walks up to the line of scrimmage, concentrating on the alignment of the defensive backs, perhaps considering the advisability of calling a checkoff play, and he will step up not behind the center but behind a guard, whose eyes widen inside his helmet as he feels the unfamiliar pressure of a hand under his backside, and more often than not he bolts across the line and causes an off-side penalty. On one occasion Jug Girard, playing quarterback then, stepped up behind a guard by error, but his count was so quick that the play was under way before the guard could demur, and the center beside him popped the ball back. It shot straight up in the air as the two lines came together, as if squeezed up like a peach pit by the pressure.

So I kept an eye on Whitlow, who was poised over the ball, and I ambled up behind him and rested a hand at the base of his spine, as if on a windowsill, a nonchalant gesture I had admired in certain quarterbacks, and I looked out over the length of his back to fix in my mind what I saw.

I had the sense of a portcullis down. On the other side of the imaginary bars the linemen were poised, the light glistening off their helmets; behind them the linebackers were drawn in close. Joe Schmidt was just opposite me, the big number 56 shining on his white jersey, jumping back and forth in quick, choppy steps, his hands poised in front of him, and he was calling out the defensive code words—colors they happened to be, "blue! blue! blue!" which indicated a variety of zone coverage or "red! red! red!" which designated man-on-man coverage. The defensive code words varied. When Jim Ninowski, a former Lion quarterback, was traded from Detroit to Cleveland, the defensive signals, which Ninowski knew, of course, had to be changed when the two teams met—from colors to girls' names, it was decided. One of them was Ninowski's young wife's name—Judy, I think it was. He would call a play in the huddle and come up behind his center to hear the linebackers across the line all hollering "Judy! Judy! Judy!" The Lions hoped that this would jar him somewhat. I had only the vaguest idea what these code words meant and could not have used such knowledge to advantage, since I knew no checkoff plays. "Jumbo!" was the only cry I had an ear cocked for—the linebackers' signal that the quarterback rush was on, the red dog.

I cleared my throat and began the signals. The count begins with three meaningless numbers. I have a sort of New England cosmopolitan accent, often mistaken for an English accent, and the Lions delighted in imitating my signal calls—"fawty-fowah! fawty-tew!" I'd hear them yelling in the shower after practice—so I avoided such numbers. I had a harmless non-accent number ready at hand to start the series: 16.

"Set!" I called out, my voice loud and astonishing to hear, as if it belonged to someone shouting into the ear holes of my helmet, "16, 66, 55, hut one, hut two, hut three," and at "three" the ball slapped back into my palm. The lines cracked together with a yawp and smack of pads and gear, and I had the sense of quick, heavy movement as I turned for the backfield. Not having taken more than a step, I was hit hard from the side, and as I gasped, the ball was jarred loose.

My first thought was that at the snap of the ball the right side of the line had been engulfed as I turned and stepped back for the hand-off. Someone, I assumed, had messed up on the assignments designated by the mysterious code words "near o pinch." In fact, my own man had bowled me over—John Gordy, whose assignment as offensive guard was to pull from his position and join the interference on the far side of the center. He was required to pull back and travel at a great clip parallel to the line of scrimmage to get out in front of the runner, his route theoretically passing between me and the center. But the creaking execution of my turn put me in his path, a rare sight for Gordy to see, his own quarterback blocking the way, like coming around a corner in a high-speed car to find a moose ambling across the center line. He careened off me, jarring the ball loose, and I stumbled after it, hauling it under me five yards back of the line of scrimmage, hearing the rush of feet and the heavy jarring and wheezing of the blockers fending off the defense, a great roar coming up from the crowd and, above it, a relief to hear, the shrilling of the referee's whistle.

*****

Plimpton got a view every NFL quarterback has seen sooner or later.

Plimpton got a view every NFL quarterback has seen sooner or later.

It was not new for me to be hit down by my own people. At Cranbrook I was knocked down all the time by players on the offense—the play patterns run with such speed along routes so carefully defined that each player had to do everything right and at the proper speed for the play not to break down in its making. I was often reminded of movie film clips in which the process of a porcelain vase, say, being dropped by a butler and smashed, is shown in reverse, so that the pieces pick up off the floor and soar up to the butler's hand, each piece on a predestined route, sudden perfection out of chaos. Often it did not take more than an inch or so offline to throw a play out of kilter. On one occasion, while practicing hand-off plays to the fullback, I had my chin hanging out just a bit too far, something wrong with my posture, and Pietrosante's shoulder pad caught it like a punch as he went by, and I spun slowly to the ground, grabbing at my jaw. Carl Brettschneider, one of the linebackers, said that afternoon: "The defense is going to rack you up one of these days—that is, if your own team would let you stand long enough for us defense guys to get at you. It's aggravating to bust through and find that you've already been laid flat by your own guys."

The referee took the ball from me and set it down. Whitlow was calling the huddle together. My confidence had not gone. Next on my list was the 93 pass, a play that I had worked successfully in the Cranbrook scrimmages. In the huddle I called with considerable enthusiasm, "All right! All right! Here we go!"

"Keep your voice down," said a voice. "You'll tip the play."

I leaned in on them and said, "Green right ["green" designated a pass play, "right" put the flanker to the right side], three right [which put the three back to the right], 93 [indicating the two primary receivers: 9 the right end, and 3 the 3 back] on three! Break!" The clap of hands again in unison, then the team hurried past me up to the line, and I walked briskly up behind Whitlow.

I knew exactly how the play was going to develop—back those seven yards into the defensive pocket for the couple of seconds it was supposed to hold, and Pietrosante, the 3 back, would go down in his pattern, 10 yards straight, then cut over the middle, and I would hit him.

"Set! 16!—88!—55."

All quarterbacks have different moves getting back to the pocket, some of them turning away from the line at the snap and scampering for the pocket, wasting as few of the allotted seconds as possible to get there, then turning again to look downfield, but most backpedal, moving back with near disdain, watching downfield. This has the advantage of letting the quarterback observe the play unfold from the start and the patterns develop. My own style was to get to the pocket as quickly as I could, turning and racing for it.