Interviews October 2008

Football's Founding Fathers

Mark Bowden discusses the legendary Giants-Colts game of 1958 and reflects on how the sport and its players have changed in the past half century.

You talked to more than a dozen players who were involved in this game, and you note in your book that the NFL at that time was generally “the haunt of brawlers, boozers, and big-time gamblers.” But you also mention that all these guys playing in the ’50s had to hold down real careers off the field, since they were making so little money. How much do you think the character of pro football players has changed in the last few decades?

Well, first of all, pro football is no longer, to my knowledge—and I spend a lot of time around it—made up of brawlers and boozers and big-time gamblers. I think the brawlers and boozers are mostly in the stands. And I think the big-time gamblers are doing their own thing apart from the game, at least to my knowledge. But football players themselves are highly professional. Some of them are dopes, but nevertheless, they don’t last very long in the NFL if they aren’t kind of grinds—hardworking guys. They are smart and focused and in tremendous shape, and they make so much money that they’d be out of their minds to take a poke at anybody. So there aren’t too many brawlers anymore. There are a few. But it’s a big league.

And another interesting thing: the football players back then weren’t as prepared either physically or mentally to play the game as players are today, because they had other responsibilities, other jobs. As Andy Reid noted in our interview, these guys didn’t have time to spend hours and hours every day studying film and implementing complex offensive and defensive systems. It was a part-time job. So in that sense they were rawer than today’s football players. I think they were much more like common folk than they are today.

And one of the interesting things that I’ve written about in the past is the way that that success sometimes estranges these young men from their families and friends. I mean, today’s professional football player is at an elevated socio-economic level just from the day he starts to play. It is such an enormous leap that he takes, in some cases from real poverty to relative affluence. He’s more likely to live in a gated community or McMansion than down the street in a row house carrying a lunch pail off to work. In that sense, players of the past were much more approachable. They were neighbors in the communities where they played football. And to some extent it made them far better prepared for life after football.

Did you get that sense talking to some of the older guys—that they had been able to put together normal lives and careers after their playing days were over?

Yes. And even some of the best players were torn, from year to year, about whether they should even continue to play football or pursue some other line of work where they could make just as much money but have more promise in the long term. Sam Huff nearly walked out of training camp with the New York Giants because he thought he could make more money teaching in West Virginia. Alan Ameche retired after about five years at the top of his game because he didn’t like his coach. In part, that was because players couldn’t easily move from team to team in those days—they couldn’t become free agents—so they were stuck. But also, the amount of money Ameche was making was not a huge thing to walk away from. I think that today most players had better hope they’ve saved and invested their money wisely when they leave football. Because they’re never going to make that sort of money again.

How would you say the old-timers you interviewed felt about today’s players, and the way the game itself has changed?

Well, with some of them, there is genuine bitterness about the way that the League has neglected them. They’re the people who created—and who really laid the groundwork—for the modern NFL, for these enormous salaries and billion-dollar franchises. A lot of people have gotten very rich in pro football, and these guys did not, for the most part. I never got the sense that they felt like they were owed reimbursements for being paid so little when they played. But things like health benefits, pension supplements—many of these guys feel that the League has really neglected taking care of the older players.

And at the same time, watching the game, they are not as impressed by how great the League is today as many of us are. They feel like the game in their day was just as tough and the players were just as good. They tend to think that modern players are overrrated by comparison.

When you interviewed Sam Huff, it seemed like he had never fully gotten over losing that game.

Yeah, I think so. In a good natured way, I think he was far more bitter about the way the Giants treated him down the road when they traded him. But I think it’s a lasting disappointment to him that they failed to win that game. And when you get right down to the particulars of him trying to out-think John Unitas, he still gets frustrated when he thinks about it. Because he really got out-played, and he knows it. And he admits it.

Raymond Berry—who had one of the great performances of all time in this game—was so deeply shaken that he had what almost seemed like a religious experience sitting alone in the locker room afterward. How did he react when you started talking to him about the game?

Well, he bowled me over with his memory, in part because he had kept such copious notes, and in part because of the kind of guy he is. But he was delighted to talk to me about it, even given the level of detail I was after. And it was really, suprisingly, perhaps the first time that he had ever really had the chance to explain in detail exactly what was going on and exactly why he was able to be so successful and how he had prepared for that moment. Raymond’s never written a book about himself or his career. I don’t believe anyone ever has. If someone did, it would have been a sort of hagiography that isn’t interested particularly in the nuts and bolts of his preparation and performance. But I think Raymond is all about preparation and performance. And I think to describe all that was great fun for him. It was one of the easiest interviews I ever did. All I had to do was take notes and listen. Raymond answered questions I would not have even thought to ask.

I think the experience that he had after the game was personal. The most important thing for him was how far he had come, and how fast. I wrote a bit in the book about his sense of desperation just two years earlier—when he felt sure that he was going to be cut from the team, and he was just hanging by a thread, and how he had applied all these very unorthodox ideas about preparation and play to his game, and how just astonishingly well it had all worked. And then I think the thing that really shook him was how it had all come together at the most significant moment of the most significant game.

You know, it wasn’t like he had been preparing to play Carl Karilivacz [the Giants’ cornerback] in some regular season game, and then at some point in the second quarter he just beat him like a drum and the Colts won the game and moved on to the next week. I mean, this was the most important football game that he had ever played in his life, this was the team’s most important game, this was in some sense the league’s most important game. And it came down to the final moments, the critical moments, in the final drive. All of that advance preparation—right down to the play that he and Unitas had scripted years earlier and had filed away for future use in the event that somebody ever did something as crazy as pull a linebacker all the way out to line up nose-to-nose on a wide receiver—it meant that they looked at each other and they knew exactly what to do.

And I think the feeling that that came as the clock was ticking down in the final seconds of this championship game with the whole world watching was overwhelming to him. He eventually came to feel that it wasn’t just a coincidence. But at the time, he says, he just was shaken by how powerful the moment was.
  
You mentioned earlier that the coaches on the sideline for this game were some of the architects of modern football strategy. And one of the important historical aspects of the game was that this was really where the 4-3 defense that Landry developed hit the big time. Why do you think the 4-3 still dominates the NFL as the standard formation, even as offenses have grown so much more complex than the ones used in the ’50s?

I actually think defenses have also become dizzyling complex, and while the 4-3 is the basic defensive formation, they change it from down to down. Defenses have made very innovative and sophisticated adjustments and they’re still doing so. Right now there’s a big controversy in Philadelphia because Andy Reid hung on to three Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks and one of them is pissed off because he’s a traditionalist and he thinks he should be starting. But the fact is, they do face teams with just incredibly difficult passing games—witness the Cowboys the other night—where you really need three blue-chip cover guys to try to keep up with them. So I think the game continues to evolve.

But the reason we remember the 4-3 defense, and the reason it’s become the foundation, is that it was football making the transition from being primarily a running game to becoming as much a passing game as running game—and to where now I think we’re at a point where it’s more a passing game than a running game. And so back then defenses were struggling to figure out how to cover all these receivers coming out in the pass routes and yet not give up easy five, six, seven yard runs every time they handed the ball off. So they had to come up with that flex position, the middle linebacker, where you could go both ways, and where you relied on the wits of a Sam Huff in the middle to make it work. And I think, you know, it was successful and that’s the key to understanding anything in pro football, just as it is in evolution: if it works, it survives. And if it doesn’t, they get rid of it fast.

In your book, you tell the story of Neil Leifer, a 16-year-old amateur photographer who snuck into Yankee Stadium and ended up taking the most famous picture of the final touchdown with a borrowed camera. Can you talk about what’s happened to him since?

He went on to become one of the most famous sports photographers in history. Some of the really iconic images that all of us know from sports were shot by Neil Leifer, for Life and Sports Illustrated. One that comes readily to mind is the picture of Mohammed Ali standing over Sonny Liston shouting, “What’s my name, what’s my name?” One of the most famous pictures in sports—that was Neil Leifer. You know, he’s a great photographer and he still works for Sports Illustrated. I interviewed him at his office there, and he’s still as busy as could be. He was annoyed, actually—he didn’t really want to be bothered when I interviewed him, and I had a lot of questions. I think he’s told that story a few times.

You spent a lot of time with Andy Reid, and you got to see his peculiar genius at work. Why can’t he win a Super Bowl?

Because I think Andy Reid is not a genius—he’s a smart man who has turned himself into a very successful professional football coach. And he’s up against about 20 or 30 other guys who are similarly dedicated and have varying levels of talent to work with. You know, I used to cover football and I’ve written about it over the years, and I think it’s really, really hard to be successful in the NFL. Frankly—although Eagles fans would string me up for saying it—I think a far more accurate measure of the capability of a coach is whether or not his teams are right in the mix and have the potential to win every year, or just about every year. And I think you can say that of Andy Reid—the Eagles have been a contender every year that he’s coached them. Once you get into the playoffs, or once you get into the Super Bowl, anything can happen, especially when you’re playing against a great team. You know. The ball bounces funny.

Tim Lavin is an Atlantic associate editor.
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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic senior editor.

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