Sunday, February 04, 2007

Dr. Thompson, the Dingbat and Da Bears

I have a difficult relationship with football (which, for the duration of this post, will refer to the American sport of that name). This is largely, I think, because for me it calls up memories of those over-brawned and under-brained young men who made my adolescent life such a living hell and whose dominance of the high-school ecosystem still irks to this day.

Nearly six years after leaving the blessed land of my birth, however, I find myself in the strange position of somehow missing that most American of games and of thinking fondly of the notion of settling myself into one of the old bars I used to frequent in Baltimore, ordering up a big plate of onion rings, drinking far too much truly awful American beer and watching today’s Super Bowl. (It’s going to be shown here in Germany, but because of the time shift it’s going to start at some ungodly hour and, let’s face it, I ain’t so young any more.)

Part of my nostalgia for football may have to do with the fact that since those grim, geeky days of yore, I’ve discovered the athlete who was buried deep in me and am thus far less sceptical of sports than I once was. Perhaps it was also due to the high-school reunion I attended some years ago which revealed what horrendous losers most of my former alpha-male tormentors have subsequently become.

It could be that, given a little time and distance, I’ve come to appreciate the subtle and strategic nature of a sport I once associated with unmitigated savagery. (Or it might be simply that I’ve come to have a higher opinion of savagery.)

And, just maybe, it has something to do with the fact that one side of this year’s showdown are my home-town team, the Chicago Bears.

We’re a long way from the Bears’ last major glory days, and—though maybe this is just middle age talking—there’s something about simply saying the names Payton (Walter), McMahon (Jim), Perry (“Fridge”) and, of course, Ditka (Mike), which really takes me back to a youth on the suburban Midwestern plains.

For a change, in a nice way.

And it makes me think of these guys. And these guys.

These days, football also brings other associations to mind. Probably my favourite football-related anecdote (I don’t have that many, so competition in this area is something less than fierce) is that recounted by Hunter S. Thompson in his book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

During the 1968 presidential election, Thompson was given the unusual opportunity of accompanying candidate Richard Nixon, alone, for a more than hour-long car journey during the New Hampshire primaries. It was an odd pairing, as Nixon was Thompson’s key bête noire. But, in some ways, it made more sense than it at first seemed.

From here on, I’ll let the good doctor take over.

I was the only one in the press corps that evening who claimed to be as seriously addicted to pro football as Nixon himself. I was also the only out-front, openly hostile Peace Freak; the only one wearing old Levis and a ski jacket, the only one (no, there was one other) who’d smoked grass on Nixon’s big Greyhound press bus, and certainly the only one who habitually referred to the candidate as ‘The Dingbat.’

So I still had to credit the bastard for having the balls to choose me -- out of the fifteen or twenty straight/heavy press types who’d been pleading for two or three weeks for even a five-minute interview -- as the one who should share the back seat with him on this Final Ride through New Hampshire.

But there was, of course, a catch. I had to agree to talk about nothing but football. ‘We want the Boss to relax,’ Ray Price told me, ‘but he can’t relax if you start yelling about Vietnam, race riots or drugs. He wants to ride with somebody who can talk football.’ He cast a baleful eye at the dozen or so reporters waiting to board the press bus, then shook his head sadly. ‘I checked around,’ he said. ‘But the others are hopeless -- so I guess you’re it.’

‘Wonderful,’ I said, ‘Let’s do it.’

We had a fine time. I enjoyed it -- which put me a bit off balance, because I figured Nixon didn’t know any more about football than he did about ending the war in Vietnam. He had made a lot of allusions to things like ‘end runs’ and ‘power sweeps’ on the stump but it never occurred to me that he actually knew anything more about football than he knew about the Grateful Dead.

But I was wrong. Whatever else might be said about Nixon -- and there is still serious doubt in my mind that he could pass for Human -- he is a goddam stone fanatic on every facet of pro football. At one point in our conversation, when I was feeling a bit pressed for leverage, I mentioned a down & out pass -- in the waning moments of the 1967 Super Bowl mismatch between Green Bay and Oakland -- to an obscure, second-string Oakland receiver named Bill Miller that had struck in my mind because of its pinpoint style & precision.

He hesitated for a moment, lost in thought, then he whacked me on the thigh and laughed: ‘That’s right, by God! The Miami boy!’

I was stunned. He not only remembered the play, but he knew where Miller had played in college.

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (Harper Perennial, 2005 [1973]): 56-57.

After that, only one thing remains to be said.

Go Bears.

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