STATE OF GRACE
This is an article from the Dec. 13, 2004 issue
by Robert Timberg
Free Press, 292 pages, $26
"All that I know for certain about morality and the obligations of man, I owe to football." Who said that? Vince Lombardi? Bear Bryant? O.J. Simpson? No, it was Albert Camus, who won a Nobel Prize in 1957--for his writings on morality and the obligations of man. By football Camus meant soccer, but that's only because he grew up in Algeria before satellite TV and NFL Europe. His words ought to remind jaded fans that however clichéd it may sound, team sports really can build character and prepare young people for the challenges of life. Robert Timberg proves it with a beautiful, intimate, nearly cliché-free memoir that would have pleased both Lombardi and Camus.
Timberg, deputy chief of the Baltimore Sun's Washington bureau, recreates the long-forgotten world of 1950s "sandlot" football leagues--in particular, the Lynvets, the senior Pop Warner team (18- to 21-year-olds) he played for in Brooklyn. Named for a heroic World War II chaplain, Father Lawrence E. Lynch, the Lynvets had a roster of blue-collar kids, most of whom faced the same intimidating choice: Follow in their blue-collar fathers' footsteps and get secure but spirit-crushing jobs, or risk failure and humiliation by striving for more fulfilling lives.
Quarterback Tommy Wall was a typical case. His father, a doorman, urged him to emulate a neighbor who had put in 35 years at the electric company. "Tommy wanted to scream," Timberg writes. "The guy ... never went anywhere except the corner bar." No one expected Tommy to go any further--except the Lynvets, who expected him to be a quarterback. He responded by showing up at an asphalt playground, in pads and sneakers, every evening after work for grueling two-hour practices. "Away from the Lynvets," he told Timberg, "I'm an 18-year-old bum."
Most of Timberg's Lynvets buddies went on to lead happy lives, and much credit goes to their coach, Lawrence Kelly. But the help the players gave one another was just as important. A running back named Mike Faulkner, for instance, was pathologically self-critical. One evening a teammate complimented him on a good practice, and as usual, Faulkner began reeling off all the "deficiencies" in his game. Faulkner's fed-up teammate gripped him by the throat and lifted him into the air, choking him. "Mike," he said, "this is a real problem.... Everything else is not a problem. You've got to learn the difference."
Faulkner learned his lesson, and so did Timberg, after enduring a ghastly adolescence. His mother, Rosemarie, a stunning model and Broadway dancer, was an alcoholic; his father, Sammy, a gifted musician and composer, went from one failure to another. If life was too much for his talented parents, young Timberg wondered, what chance did he have? Timberg's success with the Lynvets gave him the confidence to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy, where, to his astonishment, he was accepted. His first year was so overwhelming that he thought of resigning--until he received a letter from a Lynvets teammate. "Remember," it read, "if you fail, we all fail with you."
Much ink has been spilled on the courage of the World War II generation. But the next generation, Timberg's, had moxie too. Opportunities abounded, encouragement did not. If you needed encouragement, the thinking went, to hell with you, because there were hundreds waiting in line behind you. Where could a young man find the courage to reach beyond his grasp? The sandlot football leagues were one place. A Lynvet could safely test himself against the Flushing Aces, the Baisley Park Bombers or the Pace Olds Whippets.
There wasn't much glory--"no place to strut your stuff on Monday if you had a good game," one Lynvet recalls. "You just went back to work." But you went back armed with invaluable lessons about morality and the obligations of man.
Army-Navy: More than a Game
THE ALL AMERICANS
by Lars Anderson
St. Martin's Press 256 pages, $24.95
SOME 20 YEARS ago Russian writer Vassily Aksyonov fled the Soviet Union for the U.S. and became a football fan. When a Russian friend came to visit, Aksyonov explained the sport, and the more he described, the more agitated his listener became. "Aksyonov!" he finally burst out. "A country that plays this game is invincible!"
Well, not quite. But Anderson, an SI staff writer whose father served in the Navy, makes a convincing case that the Army-Navy football rivalry played a significant role in preparing many young men for war. This book, which follows four players from the 1941 Army-Navy game through their experiences in the Second World War, is not for the cynical; you almost expect the Andrews Sisters to burst into song as you read along. But the guys who made up the Army and Navy teams of the early 1940s are nonetheless irresistible, with their simple goodness and determination, and with what they achieved when called on.
The moral of the book may be that those who bemoan the decline of Army and Navy football are missing the point. At the service academies, football is meant to help produce not great ballplayers but great leaders--as necessary now as they were in the heyday of the Army-Navy game. --C.H.