The trick is to lie on your stomach, chin on the floor, and study the toy soldiers from really up close. From this vantage, Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia—the hated Prussians, Tom says—looks terrifyingly authentic. The prince is wearing a black uniform and a black hat with a white plume. He's astride a white horse, and he carries what appears to be a swagger stick. Considering all the terrible things that are about to befall old Ferdinand, he ought to have more in the way of weapons.
"CHARGE!" yells Tom. His command rolls low across the battlefield like a hot wind, heavy with the malty scent of Labatt's Beer.
Aw, wait a minute, Tom. Hold off on the attack a second. How come you always get to be Napoleon? Or you get to be Marshal Lannes, one of Napoleon's favorites?
Tom Glassic, the 6'3", 260-pound left guard of the Denver Broncos, smiles. "I get to be who I want because it's my game," he says. "And I've never lost one of these battles." Glassic is wearing a yellow billed cap with NAPOLEON lettered across the front. His hair hangs along both sides of his face, and his beard bristles with combativeness. His eyes are narrowed to slits behind tinted glasses. He reaches out with a giant hand and repositions a field cannon, sighting along the gun's barrel directly at Prince Louis Ferdinand, the hated Prussian.
August 8, 1982
Oh, oh. Watch your fanny, Ferdy.
"Now, if all of this was real," Tom mutters, "this neighborhood, all of Denver—the whole world!—would be part of the French Empire."
Probably true. But, heck, it's already real enough without going quite that far. Consider this scene: There are hundreds and hundreds of tiny soldiers spread around the floor, all scaled to 25 millimeters, roughly one inch, all correctly uniformed and painted in high-gloss colors, mostly vivid reds and blues. They come singly and in groups, some on horseback, some on foot—all bent slightly forward, as if to attack. Even their skin tones are accurate: Minuscule eyebrows seem drawn together in scowls, and tiny mouths are curled in scorn. There are regiments of infantry, some kneeling to fire, others advancing boldly. Squadrons of cavalry charge, sabers raised. Batteries of horse artillery trundle along. There are fierce Hussars, fur jackets hanging rakishly off one shoulder: swaggering bounders every one. There's a new Polish regiment from the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. And here and there are little villages to sack and farms to pillage; a castle or two and stone walls and forests.
All of these bitty people fill the main room of a small guesthouse on Glassic's property. These miniature armies attack and circle, retreat and skirmish across a vast lumpy swatch of wrinkled green burlap. Long strips of brown burlap represent dirt roads. Blue strips are rivers. Empty cardboard boxes have been stuffed under the cloth to create bluffs and mountains. And if one of these little buggers were to stand atop one of those ridges and look toward the horizon, he'd see carnage that would make his plastic blood run cold. Ah, the horror of it all: Out there is pure desolation, guys—an entire outer perimeter of empty beer bottles, many half-stuffed with sodden brown cigarette butts punched in in the heat of long battles. War is hell.
And now Thomas Joseph Glassic, age 28, stands towering over it all, with his big feet planted carefully in among the regiments, and waves by its red ribbon a replica of the French Legion of Honor medal. "As Napoleon said, 'Give me enough red ribbon and I'll rule the world!' " he roars. "For these..." he dangles the medal over his armies, "...are the baubles that men die for!"
Gee, that's terrific, Tom. Heck of a nice ring to it. Medals all around, men, and let's open another Labatt's. This is a great game.
At times like this, it's hard to believe that there's a larger world outside this room. But there is, of course. First, there's Duchess, Glassic's half-golden Lab, half-bloodhound, who lies blocking the doorway—one wag of her tail could wipe out Marshal Lannes and all his cuirassiers. Out beyond Duchess lies Littleton, Colo., a suburb of Denver. And also somewhere out there are the East Slope of the Rockies and the Broncos, a football team that pays Glassic a princely $155,000 a year to labor in the trenches.
Indeed, Glassic is a mainstay of the team. He came on as a first-round draft choice from the University of Virginia in 1976 and he's played ever since. He's always in there; it's some sort of arcane claim to fame that Glassic has started every game in which he has played for Denver—a career total of 84 going into this season. Glassic is thickset; almost all his weight is bulked up around his torso on top of disproportionately short, slightly bowed legs. It gives him an unshakable look. And what his body doesn't convey, his face does: Glassic is one of maybe 10 people in the world who can look absolutely savage while petting their dog.
The nicest thing about that bite-your-head-off demeanor is that it masks one of the fiercest intellects in the game. Says Jerry Frei, the Bronco offensive line coach, "Tom understands football on a slightly different plane than many players. He has a special ability to see our plays as moves in an overall strategy, not just a hup-and-run. And he has surprisingly good speed and agility. Tom's good on pass plays, but I'd say his very best moves come on our running game. When the play flows in one direction or the other, he has an instinct for it. It makes Tom a mean, mean opponent."
On the field, and off it as well. Glassic not only plays with toy soldiers, but he's also got other guys doing it. On his battlefield big, brutish men careen around on long evenings, beers in hand, yelling, "I smell French blood!" Or such stirring utterances as, "Yield, sir! Surrender, Archduke, or it's your ass!"
"We've got authentic military banners that we wave occasionally to stir up our troops," Glassic says, "and I've got tapes I play that blow everybody away. I can play La Marseillaise and follow that up with the 1812 Overture—blam!—and bugle calls or Cossack music and British marches. Sometimes, oh, maybe about three in the morning or so, we'll call a truce and retire to the living room and pop a war movie on the television." Glassic has video cassettes of what seems to be every war movie ever made—everything from Zulu to that classic turkey The 300 Spartans, as well as bright new stuff, like Gallipoli.
Claudie Minor, the Broncos' 6'4", 275-pound right tackle, is a toy soldier recruit and now plays as mean a war game as anybody. Glassic's most promising general is Jon Keyworth, onetime Denver fullback, and currently appearing as the Duke of Wellington is Paul Tamulonis, once a tackle on the same Virginia team as Glassic. Steve Byrne, a local high school football coach, is Field Marshal Massena. "But the guy who really gets swept up in all of this is Doug Payton," Glassic says. Payton, who lives in Colorado Springs and is a guard for Montreal's new CFL team, the Concordes, always plays a Russian general. "Whenever I set up a battlefield, I put in a convent," Glassic continues. "And Payton always sends a band of his Cossacks to attack it. Even if the convent's in a non-strategic spot, there come his feared Cossacks, burning the place and ravaging all the occupants. I call him General Peter Rapenunovich."
Glassic prowled his battlefield the other day, inspecting his troops. "My poor veterans are getting shabby-looking," he said. "But I don't replace them with shinier soldiers; I mean, they've fought a lot of battles for me and they've won the right to stay on active duty. I've made little battle flags for them—see here?—and if they've earned one, I'll stage a little presentation ceremony. I mean, I line them up on parade, and I have an officer make the presentation and everything." He peered at one old vet, and sighed. "They're good fighters." Then he put it down and looked around for a missing officer of his Polish Vistula Legion.
"What the hell is this?" he said. "Where'd that guy go?" He scanned the room. "Have we had some desertions?" Then he swung around and looked through the open door, beyond his sleeping dog, where the summer sun angled down on the lawn outside. There was a sudden, piercing sense that Glassic half expected to see a tiny uniformed figure scrambling over the doorsill, perhaps hanging by its fingertips before dropping into the safety of the grass below. Then: "No, no. There he is." He picked up the soldier and put him sternly into place.
Glassic has been tinkering with the game, which is based on historical events, for 10 years. It isn't necessary to replay specific battles; armies and eras can be blurred a bit.
Before each battle he sets the situation. "I'm invading, you're defending, or vice versa. Here're the key roads and bridges and towns. My advance force is going to go for this bridge to capture it for the main army coming up; your job is to get to it first and hold it until your army arrives. See this river? Well, let's say that's swollen with spring runoff so you can't take heavy guns across it; gotta stick to the main road. See the forest? No cavalry in the woods; the branches knock them off their horses."
Glassic then drapes a sheet across the middle of the room, as in the old Clark Gable-Claudette Colbert movie It Happened One Night, so one side can't see how the other side is getting set up. There's a lot of muffled chortling from each side of the sheet: "I got you this time, Napoleon. You'll never believe this trick attack, you dummy." Or, "Listen, my guys are parched and I'm going to issue beer rations. What do the rules say about drunken Hessians?" And then: Away goes the curtain, and the war is on.
Under Glassic's rules, infantry, cavalry and cannon can move a prescribed number of inches per turn. When they get within attacking range, a series of firing or hand-to-hand combat tables tell what damage is done, depending on the roll of a die. What cheers Glassic most is that his game really works. Most of the time. "Once my very best artillery missed 10 shots in a row at close range," he says, looking reproachfully at one of the little cannon. "The firing table called for me to roll five or six and I kept on rolling ones." He leans closer and murmurs confidentially, "So I cited sabotage at the munitions factory because these guys were my best gunners and I didn't want to dishonor them.
"You got to understand that these are toy soldiers," Glassic says. "No use trying to give them—or me—adult stature by calling them miniatures or scale-model replicas. They're simple toy soldiers, and people have been collecting them for centuries. The Egyptians were buried with miniature armies to protect them in the next world. Napoleon had some soldiers made for his son, the King of Rome, in 1812. And 1942, before the Battle of Midway, the Japanese actually fought it out with toys as a war game to test the theory." He shrugs. "They lost four carriers in the war game and they went out and lost four carriers at Midway."
The roster of toy-soldier nuts is quite lengthy. Robert Louis Stevenson was one and so was H.G. Wells. Indeed, Wells wrote an instruction book called Little Wars, with this foreword: "A game for boys from 12 years of age to 150 and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys' games and books."
Glassic knows his military history so well it almost seems as if he had fought on all those smoky battlefields. In point of fact, Glassic says, "The only explanation for my grasp of certain history and, in some cases, a pre-knowledge of what I'm about to read, is that I was there."
Hoo-boy. First the toy soldiers and now this. But before one starts edging toward the doorway—um, excuse me there, Duchess old girl—one must remember two important things.
One: It is, of course, Tom Glassic's absolute right to believe whatever he wants, and anybody who doesn't like it can lump it. Glassic neither seeks approval, nor gives a hoot if anyone disapproves.
Two: Glassic doesn't think he's Napoleon. Now or then.
What he does think is that he was one of Napoleon's top aides. "I have a feeling that I wasn't nobility," Glassic says. "It's more a case of being promoted from the ranks."
And now, stepping carefully, Godzilla striding across rivers and forests, a giant dog and a badly sacked nunnery, Glassic leads the way to his living room in the big house next door. There are more soldiers there, naturally, as well as toy farms and circuses and what all, some arrayed in display cases, others stacked on tables. There are also swords, a rhinoceros-hide shield, a military hat and belt hanging on a coatrack, prints and one painting of various Napoleonic wars and a library of some 400 volumes on military history and related subjects. Add in a broken-down Naugahyde couch, and the place has a wonderfully musty air. A fine layer of dust covers everything. Not a doily or bud vase is in sight. Only a loner could live in such shabby splendor.
"Confirmed, lifetime bachelor," Glassic says. "Just me and my dog, a refrigerator full of beer and cold cuts. Freezer full of TV dinners. Did you know they're making TV dinners a lot better now than they used to? It'll help some guys decide to stay single."
Glassic capsulizes his life; his present life, that is. "My folks were divorced when I was eight and I was largely raised by my paternal grandparents in Elizabeth, N.J.," he says. "We're all Polish, longtime coal mining family; we once had a "z" in the middle of our name. I have two sisters. And my dad, who now lives in Pennsylvania, is so proud of me that he's on Volume 3 of the Tom Glassic scrapbook. And I haven't done that much. He's wild. I swear, he'll drive into a gas station and say, 'Gimme five dollars' worth of the unleaded and my son plays for the Denver Broncos.' "
But it was Grandma Mary and Grandpa Joe who spoiled young Tom when he expressed an interest in toy soldiers (more like cowboys and Indians in those days). Soon the things were all over the place. "And then I began reading," Glassic says. He pulls a battered old book from the shelf. "I accidentally found this copy of Model Soldiers, An Illustrated History (John G. Garratt, New York Graphic Society). And, I'll be damned: I found out that playing with toy soldiers was legitimate. A real, honest hobby. Respectable grownups did it. The toys led me into history. I couldn't possibly understand or grasp what Napoleon did unless I knew what Caesar did. That's because Napoleon had studied Caesar. And Caesar had studied Alexander. Who, in turn, had studied the Egyptians."
And gradually, through high school and the University of Virginia, where he was an honors student in English and history, it came to Glassic that—of course—he had seen and done a lot of this before.
No, not the football. Glassic is perfectly candid about the fact that he was recruited for his size, not his sparkling talents. "I was always the big kid in the class," he says. "You know: I got to pull down the map." Indeed, he didn't play football until his senior year in high school—and while he was at Virginia, the team went 4-7, 4-7, 4-7 and 1-10. He had no intention of playing pro football, but when Denver picked him in the first round he decided to give the Broncos a season, and he figures the reason he's still around is that he's gotten to be very good at playing guard. Glassic has come to regard his occupation as a sort of game within a game. "The whole football experience is a bit like a war," he says, "except that it's much more accelerated. But consider the lowly lineman: In order to make my life interesting, I have to resort to mind games with my opponent. It starts with my leaning the wrong way to fake him out on which way the play is going to go. But that's pretty elementary, and the real old pros aren't having any of that sophomore nonsense. So then you progress to subtle eye-fakes to throw them off. And after a while, that doesn't work, either. And, ah, then you resort to the game's real strategy—you give them the false lead, which they know to be false, and then you give them the false-false lead, which really screws them up. You do all of this properly and you start to feel like a pro."
If it weren't for his mind games, Glassic fears, his interest in football would flag. "It's my job to sacrifice myself," he says, "but not blindly. To wit: I've got to keep my man from getting to the quarterback. It's a task that involves holding him off for so many seconds—but it doesn't necessarily mean that I've got to knock him on his butt. We must spend our energy wisely. Now that's tough, but it's not the toughest part of the game for an offensive lineman. The baddest part is in learning to follow. If you'll forgive the parallel to war games, as a foot soldier, if I start making decisions, we're lost. I gotta learn to follow. Last thing in the world the general wants to hear is that one of his troops has just got a hell of an idea. And so I play on, quietly."
And protects his general at all costs. When NFLPA President Gene Upshaw of the Raiders recently sent a letter to Bronco Quarterback Craig Morton threatening retaliation on the field for Morton's anti-union stand, Glassic responded, "It's my job to protect Craig Morton and a slap in my face if anyone thinks I'd stand aside so he could take an extra shot. If anybody lays an extra hand on Craig, I'll cut it off."
In spite of the fact that he takes an obstinate pride in being voted as the worst-dressed, worst-groomed guy on the Denver team, Glassic clearly doesn't want to be tagged as a kook. His teammates seem to regard him as a gentle eccentric, no more or no less screwy than any old pro. When Coach Dan Reeves considered laying on a rule that the players must appear in blazers, dress shirts and ties on the road, it figured that Glassic immediately would launch a world's-ugliest-tie search to preserve his image. He drives an incredibly beat-up 1976 Chevy Monte Carlo, its once-sleek silver body now a mass of welts. The front window is badly cracked and the wiper blades flop uselessly—but, as he points out, it doesn't rain much in Denver. Besides, Duchess loves the car and Duchess goes where Tom goes—out jogging, alongside on team wind sprints, into the locker room, the weight room, the shower if she wants—probably the only dog in the NFL who's permitted such liberties.
Candidly, and Glassic is nothing if not candid, he feels his football career doesn't count for much. "One lifetime is like the flip of a coin," he says. "It's all over so quickly. There's only so much you can do in that time. Yet, why do we have such a diversity of interests—a consuming passion, or an intimate understanding of one thing? It's because we must have done it before, that's why. I have a feeling that I go all the way back to Napoleonic times—and yet I also feel that I'm just getting started. I think you have to develop slowly; it may take you thousands of years. You do it by living by an honorable code so that you can be worthy to go on."
Glassic feels that he's popped up at many times and in many places: "I think that I appeared again in British Colonial times," he says. "Perhaps I served with the British in India. And the French Foreign Legion somehow feels familiar—as if I helped conquer Morocco. And, finally, I have this intense feeling about the South Pacific in World War II—I think possibly I served and was killed in action there. Funny, I have a fascination for the sea, yet I'm afraid of it.
"I've settled on the Napoleonic era," he says, "because that's my favorite. It was a special age, never to be repeated, because everything was so equal in terms of arms and men. The results all came in the way they were used in battle. Warfare became, if you will, an art form; the era gave rise to the so-called Art of War. Well. That's where my interests lie and this is how I am, and you can accept me or not. I don't care."
Glassic plunks on his NAPOLEON cap. He grins, and there's a flash of the kid in him. "Thing about my life," he says, "is this. Out there, I'm a football player. A humble lineman. Uncelebrated. Un-All-Pro. One of the foot soldiers; all the action takes place behind me. Ah. But when I leave the field and come home..." he doffs the cap to Duchess "...when I come home, I'm a general! CHARGE!"