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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
"Hut one, hut two, hut three."
The ball slapped into my palm at "three." I turned and started back. I could feel my balance going, and two yards behind the line of scrimmage I fell down—absolutely flat, as if my feet had been pinned under a trip wire stretched across the field—not a hand laid on me. I heard a great roar go up from the crowd. Suffused as I had been with confidence, I could scarcely believe what had happened. Cleats catching in the grass? Slipped in the dew? I felt my jaw go ajar in my helmet. "Wha'? Wha'?"—the mortification beginning to come fast. I rose hurriedly to my knees, the referee's whistle bleating, and I could see my teammates' big silver helmets with the blue Lion decals turn toward me, some of the players rising from blocks they'd thrown to protect me, their faces masked, automatons, prognathous with the helmet bars protruding toward me, characterless, yet the dismay was in the set of their bodies as they loped back for the huddle.
I joined them, there being no alternative. "Sorry, sorry," I said.
"Call the play, man," came a voice from one of the helmets.
The third play on my list was the 42, another running play, one of the simplest in football, in which the quarterback receives the snap, makes a full spin and shoves the ball into the 4 back's stomach. He has come straight forward from his fullback position as if off starting blocks, his knees high, and he disappears with the ball into the No. 2 hole just to the left of the center—a straight power play and one which seen from the stands seems to offer no difficulty.
I got into an awful jam with it. Once again the jackrabbit speed of the professional backfield was too much for mc. The fullback, Danny Lewis, was past me and into the line before I could complete my spin and set the ball in his belly. The fullback can't pause in his drive for the hole, which is what he must keep his eye on, and it is the quarterback's responsibility to get the ball to him. The procedure in the forlorn instance of missing the connection and holding the ball out to the seat of the fullback's pants as he tears by is for the quarterback to tuck the ball under his arm and try to follow the fullback into the line, hoping that he may have budged open a small hole.
I tried to follow Lewis, grimacing, and waiting for the impact, which came before I'd taken two steps. I was grabbed up by Roger Brown, a 300-pound tackle. For his girth he is called Rhinofoot by his teammates, or Haystack, and while an amiable citizen off the field, with idle pursuits—learning very slowly to play the saxophone, a sharp dresser, affecting a narrow-brimmed porkpie hat with an Alpine brush—on the field he is the anchor of the Lions' front line, an All-League player, and anybody is glad not to have to play against him.
He had tackled me high and straightened me up with his power, so that I churned against him like a comic bicyclist. Still upright, to my surprise, I began to be shaken around and flayed back and forth, and I realized that he was struggling for the ball. The bars of our helmets were nearly locked, and I could look through and see him inside—the first helmeted face I recognized that evening—the small, brown eyes surprisingly peaceful, but he was grunting hard, the sweat shining, and I had time to think, "It's Brown, it's Brown!" before I lost the ball to him. Flung to one knee, I watched him lumber into the end zone behind us for a touchdown.
The referee wouldn't allow it. He said he'd blown the ball dead while we were struggling for it. Brown was furious. "You taking that away from me," he said, his voice high and squeaky. "Man, I took that ball in there good."
The referee turned and put the ball on the 10-yard line. I had lost 10 yards in three attempts, and I had yet, in fact, to run off a complete play. Preliminaries had undone me—handling the ball from center, the spin, then being frustrated by being knocked over by my own men or missing the hand-off, or taking a pratfall, so that the play had yet to be developed fully. It was vaguely like turning the ignition key without the dignity of hearing the motor turn over, perhaps having it fall out of the bottom of the car instead.
The veterans walked back very slowly to the next huddle. They had wanted me to succeed. The first time George Wilson had sent me in to run a play in the training camp at Cranbrook the rookies happened to be in the offensive lineup, and the veterans, in a block, came hurrying after me onto the field of their own volition, wanting to see that I got the best protection, and there were quickly 20 men in the huddle, a lot of pushing and murmuring as the rookies were replaced, and I could hear George Wilson calling out: "What's going on there?"
But now they were dispirited, and when I called my fourth play—a slant pass to the 9 man, the strong-side end, Jim Gibbons—that crack of the hands as we left the huddle was missing, possibly because I had forgotten to give them the signal on which the ball was to be snapped. "Two!" I called in a stage whisper as we headed for the line, holding my fingers spread in a V and showing it around furtively, trying to hide it from the defense and hoping my people would see.
The pass was incomplete. I took two steps back (the play was a quick pass), and I saw Gibbons, who is tall, break, then stop, buttonhooking. His hand came up, but I threw the ball over his head. It was my first play of the evening, however, which functioned as a play should, and so did the next one, a pitch-out play to Pietrosante, the last of my series. But the defense was keyed for it. One of my linemen told me later that the defensive man opposite him in the line, Floyd Peters, had said, "Well, here comes the 48 Pitchout" (they knew my repertoire), and it had come, and they were able to throw Pietrosante on the one-yard line, just a yard away from the complete humiliation of having moved a team backward from the 20-yard line to a safety.
I left quickly, as soon as I saw Pietrosante go down, heading for the bench on the sidelines at midfield. It was a long run, and I felt utterly weary, shuffling along through the grass. I heard applause, and I looked up and saw some people standing, and the hands going. I thought about the applause afterward—some of it, perhaps, in appreciation of the lunacy of my participation, but it occurred to me that most of it, even subconsciously, was in relief that I had done as badly as I had. It verified the assumption that the ordinary citizen could not survive in the brutal world of professional football. If by some chance I had uncorked a touchdown pass, there would have been wild acknowledgment—because I heard the groans go up at each successive disaster—but afterward the spectators would have felt uncomfortable. The proper order of things would have been upset. The outsider did not belong, and there was satisfaction in that being proved.
Some of the applause, as it turned out, came from people who had enjoyed the humorous aspects of my stint, and more than a few thought they were being entertained by a professional comic in the tradition of baseball's Al Schacht or bullfight clowns. Bud Erickson, who had been announcing on the public address system, told me that a friend of his had come up to him later. "Bud, that's one of the funniest damn—I mean that guy's got it," this man had said, barely able to control himself.
I did not take my helmet off when I reached the bench. It was painful to do—wrenching it past my ears—and there was security in having it on. I was conscious of the big zero on my back facing the crowd when I sat down. I heard someone yelling my name. I turned around and saw a girl leaning over the rail of the grandstand. I recognized her from a dance place in Dearborn where I'd gone with some of the team. She was wearing an Italian mohair sweater, the color of pink spun sugar, 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 Lion banner which she waved, her face alive with excitement, very pretty in a perishable, childlike way, and she was calling, "Beautiful! It was beautiful!"
I looked at her out of my helmet, lifting a hand just tentatively to acknowledge her enthusiasm, and I turned back to watch the field, where the true scrimmage was getting under way.
After the scrimmage the disappointment stuck, and it was hard to ease. It was quiet in the bus going back, everyone tired, thinking back on the game. We were a long time blocked in traffic outside Pontiac, but no one complained. It was dark inside. I was sitting alone. George Wilson came down the aisle. I was feeling low, and he knew it. He sat down, and looked, and began talking easily—not a word about the scrimmage but about football in general. He talked about the character of the football player—Bobby Layne, the Detroit quarterback, whose teams would take anything from him because he performed, and at the base of it was the urge, if you wanted to play football, to knock someone down; that was what the sport was all about, the will to win closely linked with contact. He talked about coaching, too, about its complexities, speaking almost with regret, as if the pleasures of the game, with its fundamental simplicity of physical contact, were unavailable if you were watching from the sidelines, as if it were a frustration and a nuisance to find self-expression in the action of others. No matter, he said. It was a tough and absorbing job, marshaling a host of minutiae within seconds and applying knowledge or intuition to make a decision whose circumstances—since only 14 games were played a season—could cost him his job, even though often something would happen, like a fumble, a penalty or an injury, that removed the reins and made the coach as much of a bystander as the fellow ripping tickets in half at the gate or the hot-dog vendor in the aisles. And yet the disaster on the field was his doing and his responsibility.
All of this made my own disaster seem far less important—which Wilson had calculated, I'm sure, and it was easy to sense why his men had such respect for him. "He's a players' coach," they said of him, as opposed to such Procrustean coaches as Tom Landry at Dallas, who, or so players' gossip had it, pulled the main switch at 10:30 to darken the training-camp dormitories—the big deer-hunting lamps came out, the beams crisscrossing the walls—or Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, the archrivals, who thought of players as "kids" and whom the Lions referred to as the ---.
The players themselves were concerned about my well-being. A group of them took me out that night, a long, tearing night through the Dearborn dance halls, celebrating, all of them shouting, "Fawty-fowah, fawty-tew!" from time to time, fussing, and making me feel as though I had really done something more than play the fool, until I began to say, "No, no, it was nothing at all, really."
I lost my car somewhere, and by the time I'd recovered it and got back to Cranbrook the sun was up. It was going to be a hot day. I knew the heat would begin to build up in my room, but the bed looked inviting. I hadn't been asleep for more than what seemed a minute when I heard a voice sing out: "Up you get there, rook'. No time for lying around."
I looked, and it was Harley Sewell standing in the door, one of the finest offensive guards. He had been 11 years in the National Football League. He had pale, thinning hair, a rolling gait like a sailor's, and was small in stature for a lineman (his weight was in the record books as 230, though he looked much lighter), but when he put his mind to something he was very insistent, and this determination was obviously a major part of his equipment. A Texan, born in a place called St. Jo, he kept after me to come down to his part of the world in the off season and try my hand at riding broncos. He was absolutely determined about it.
He'd say, "Now, when you coming down to ride them broncos?"
"Well, Harley, I don't know...."
"I'd sure like for you to have that experience."
"No trouble 'tall to set it up for you."
"When you think you can come?"
"Sometime in the off season," I'd say.
After the Pontiac scrimmage—I was told later—he had come looking for me in the dormitory. I would be downcast after my sorry performance and in need of company. He thought I would like a pizza pie, for some reason, so he had gone off in his car and gotten one somewhere, which he put on the back seat. Only two or three players were in the dormitory when he got there, chatting in one of the rooms about the scrimmage, and Harley appeared in the door, holding the big pizza in front of him. "Where's the rook' at?" he had asked.
They told him they thought I was off at the Club Gay Haven, a sort of twist palace, with some of the others. He waited around for a while, and they shared the pizza, though Harley kept a big piece of it in case I turned up. He left finally, and now here he was at 8 in the morning.
I had a sudden premonition that he had some broncos ready for me, waiting, outside on the lawn. "Wha'? Wha'?" I said. I sat up in bed. His two children were with him, staring around from behind him.
"Time to be up," Harley said.
"What time is it?" I asked.
"Eight," he said.
"God, Harley, I only just got in. I only had two hours' sleep."
"Time's a wasting," he said. "We'll go for a drive."
"Harley, I've been in a police station, and I've...."
He disappeared with his children, but they were back after a minute or so with coffee and rolls from the dining room. "These'll fix you up," Harley said.
I groaned and got up to dress.
"It's best to keep your mind occupied," Harley said.
"Harley, I was asleep."
"You would've waked up wrong," Harley said.
We went riding through the country in his station wagon. His children sat quietly in the back seat, flanking a lawn-mower Harley had borrowed and had been meaning to return. When I closed my eyes I could feel sleep rock toward me, so I kept the window down to let the warm air hit, and I tried to keep my mind on what Harley was saying. He was talking about the tough people he had played against, the enormous defensive tackles and guards he had tried to clear out for the offensive backs, and the humiliations he had been forced to suffer. He was trying to make me feel better about my own humiliations the night before. He talked about Big Daddy Lipscomb. Harley said that he had played against him a number of times and that while he was one of the best, and he'd been humiliated by him for sure, he was not as good as Henry Jordan of the Green Bay Packers, who was faster and trickier and much harder on a good day than Big Daddy on an average day. Occasionally Big Daddy would put his mind to it, and then he was invincible. Harley's worst day against him was in the 1963 Pro Bowl Game, when he just couldn't handle him, so he came out and someone else went in to try, and couldn't and Forrest Gregg tried and couldn't, so finally they double-teamed him, two men driving at him, and that helped, but not much.
I asked Harley why Baltimore had traded such a valuable property, even if he did have a bad day or so, to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Well, they'd had problems with him, Harley told me: he was not an easy man, being prideful and quick-tempered, and on one occasion, the year before he was traded, one of the Colts gave a party to which Big Daddy was not invited. He prowled around until the idea that he was being snubbed got the better of him. He turned up at the party and threw the host through a window. There was a big ruckus, of course, particularly since the host, who was a very fleet scatback, cut a tendon in his ankle going through the glass. After that they didn't think they could keep Big Daddy.
"The vision I have of him," I said dreamily, "is him sitting in a dentist's chair."
"What's that?" asked Harley sharply.
"I've read somewhere he couldn't stand pain," I explained. "He wouldn't get in a dentist's chair unless he had his wife with him, sitting on his lap, to calm him down at the slightest twinge. I never can think of him without seeing that dentist trying to get his job done with those two people sitting in his chair, and having to work around the girl to get at Big Daddy wearing one of those little bibs."
"I don' see Big Daddy like that 't'll," said Harley. "Regretfully, I see him down across the line from me, maybe that shirt out and hanging down behind him like a tail, and then trying to move that boy—like running up agin a barn."
Big Daddy had died earlier in the year of an overdose of drugs, but his presence had been such that Harley spoke of him as if he were still around.
"I'll tell you something, though—he could be humiliated," said Harley, and went on to explain that Lipscomb had a flaw Detroit was able to take advantage of, which was that he liked to pursue and tackle in the open field, preferably by the sidelines, where he could knock his man down in full view of the great crowds who had come to watch him do such things. He would reach down and pick his victim up by the shoulder pads, set him on his feet and whack his rear with a big hand.
The Detroit ruse was to get Big Daddy to range off toward the sidelines looking to make such a play, and then run the ball through his vacated position. The play was called 47 0 cross-buck takeoff, and it required the guard opposite Big Daddy—Harley, say—to pull from his position, indicating that he was leading the interference in a move toward the end, sucking out Big Daddy with him, and then the back—usually Pietrosante—would light out through the 7 hole with the ball. Of course, if Big Daddy didn't fall for it and stayed there in the 7 hole, refusing to trail out after the guard, it suddenly became very unpleasant for Pietrosante, and humiliating for him. But he was a showboat sort, Big Daddy, and the chances were—at least, at the beginning of his career—that he'd move off laterally after the guard, the long jersey shirttail, which always came out toward the end of a game, trailing behind him.
"He had his bad days, I'll tell you," said Harley, looking over at me.
"Like mine?" I said, grinning at him.
"Sure," he said, quite seriously.
Harley turned off the road, and we drove up a short driveway to a house on a wooded ridge. Friends of his were waiting on a screened-in porch. He hadn't told me we were going there, but it was like him not to. I was introduced around. Coffee was brought out. They'd heard about the game, and they were eager to get the details of my participation.
I sat down and took some coffee. I rather looked forward to telling them. "Well, it was a disaster," I said. "Just awful."
Harley was out in the kitchen overseeing something or other, the cutting of coffee cake, and he came hurrying in. He said, "Well, hold on now, I don't know about that."
"Come on, Harley," I said, grinning at him. "I lost 20 yards in five tries, fell down without anyone laying a hand on me, then had the ball stolen by Roger Brown, then threw the ball at least 10 feet over Jim Gibbons' head—that's pretty awful...."
Harley said, "You didn't do too bad...considering." He was very serious, really trying, consciously, to keep me from remembering and being humiliated.
"Harley," I said, "you're a poor judge of disasters."
The others on the porch kept after me for details, but Harley wouldn't let me discuss the subject. "It don't do any good dwelling on such things," he said.
"Aw, come on, Harley," they said.
"No sir!" he said.
So we humored him and talked about other things, and eventually I managed to tell them just enough about the game to satisfy them, though we waited until Harley was off the porch, out on the lawn with his children.
He drove me back to Cranbrook after a while. It had been a pleasant morning, and I told him so, standing in the driveway, hands on the car door, though Harley, inside behind the wheel, continued to look preoccupied. He was still worried about my state of mind. "The thing is not to fret on it," he said. "Your luck wasn't running too good. Just forget it, and get yourself going again."
"Listen, Harley," I said, "I really am grateful to you."
"When you wake up it'll be all right."
"Sure," I said.