If the Detroit Lions had permitted themselves a sentimental lapse 16 months ago, their most literate alumnus and our old friend George Plimpton might never have had the chance to investigate this season's perplexing collapse of the Baltimore Colts, a phenomenon he begins to describe on page 80 of this issue. Plimpton, of course, had been the quaintly adopted rookie of the 1963 Detroit training camp, where he survived various physical tortures, made lasting friendships and gathered the material for his book Paper Lion. So when a television producer asked George to convert his reportage into a one-hour documentary, he reasonably turned to the Lions, who, perhaps as reasonably, turned him down.
Detroit's decision was more the product of present than of past circumstances. "Joe Schmidt was the best friend I ever had," George says, "but he thought his team had a crack at the championship, and having a bunch of cameras around would have taken the fine edge off his players' competitive instincts. So instead I ended up with the Colts and had a marvelous time with all of them, but it was very weird to have had this great allegiance to one team and then find that I had the same involvement with another." And how about the Lions' surprise? Here is their onetime Boswell, now Plimpton the Colt, returning to face them in an exhibition game at Ann Arbor, where he quarterbacked his usual four plays to gain 21 yards (George admits this probably had less to do with any improvement on his part than with a 15-yard penalty for roughing the passer).
Although involvement is a much overworked word, it continues to be the key to Plimpton's approach to his craft. As for results, his football experience with Detroit and Baltimore has led to a new book, entitled Of Mad Ducks and Bears, to be released next fall. Drawing heavily on the reminiscences of Alex Karras and John Gordy (SI, Nov. 13), it began as a book on linemen but grew to include a diary that Plimpton wrote two-handed during his tenure with the Colts—because a practice left him with a dislocated thumb. Another book is forthcoming on pro basketball as the fruit of an exhausting month with the Boston Celtics ("You just run your guts out doing that damn thing"), and three more TV shows loom in Plimpton's future: "One on boxing, which I really don't like to think about very much, one on rock music, and I haven't decided what the third will be. The sport I'd like to do is hockey."
While the real possibility of physical damage seems a trifling concern to Plimpton in his devotion to participant journalism, he does draw the line at the political arena. "I might win," he says, "then I'd be stuck with a constituency, and it with me." Withal, George offers no apology for his method of discovering what makes the athlete or his organization tick. "I think the device is a viable one," he says, "as long as you remember you're a reporter getting a firsthand portrait of the people who play the game. One's own adventure pales beside all that. If you did it just to see what prevails with the amateur, it would be hopeless—an ego trip."
December 18, 1972
Perhaps it is this attitude that makes Plimpton, the amateur's amateur, the literary pro he is.