Submission No. 52

http://www.nytimes.com/news/the-lives-they-lived/2013/12/21/george-sauer/

george sauer in NYT screenshot!
Or,

from the New York Times, Sunday, December 29, 2013

By Hugo Lindgren
By all outward appearances, George Sauer’s dreams came true. At 25, he was a Super Bowl hero. In the 1969 game that ordained Joe Namath’s future as a modern TV celebrity, the Jets quarterback racked up 133 yards of passes to Sauer, who, as the son of a highly decorated player and coach, was born and bred to be right there. He went to the University of Texas, where he developed a fluid, intuitive understanding of the game. Watch the old Jets highlights, and you see a receiver who ran his routes more elegantly than could be drawn in a playbook — he had “the best moves,” Namath said. “Nobody can cover him one on one” — and who plucked balls from the air with strong, soft hands.

Sauer’s Super Bowl performance was the greatest of any pass catcher until Lynn Swann’s spectacular show in 1976, and yet he played only two more seasons after that, retiring at 27, too young by even the merciless standards of football. He left with a year and $40,000 to go on his contract, a big number for a football player in those days.

Then he did something that almost nobody had done before and astonishingly few have done since: He opened up about just how awful it was to play professional football. The words he used were not ambiguous. He described how “the structure of pro football generally works to deny human values” and criticized its “chauvinistic authority.” He told Dave Anderson of The Times that “for me, playing pro football got to be like being in jail.” His plan for self-liberation was to become a writer — he took an assignment from Life magazine for an article about quitting pro football. He wrote 12,000 words that were never published.

A few years after he retired, in 1973, another disillusioned football player — also a wide receiver, for whatever that’s worth — would accomplish what Sauer could not. Peter Gent, who played five seasons for the Dallas Cowboys, published a dark, funny, profane novel called “North Dallas Forty,” which dramatized the ruthlessly competitive, militaristic elements of the game that tormented Sauer. In Gent’s voice, you can hear Sauer’s: “When an athlete, no matter what color jersey he wears, finally realizes that opponents and teammates alike are his adversaries, and he must deal and dispense with them all, he is on his way to understanding the spirit that underlies the business of competitive sport. There is no team, no loyalty, no camaraderie; there is only him, alone.”

The great sadness was that Sauer loved the essence of football and could not stay away from it. Failing to make headway as a writer, he returned to the sport, tentatively at first as a coach for Oberlin College, where the competitive atmosphere must have been a tad more humane. Then he signed up again as a player for the short-lived circus known as the World Football League.

The rest of his life was spent wandering, writing constantly but never publishing. He couldn’t bear the imperfections of his own prose, perhaps discovering, as Gent confessed in a new preface he wrote for “North Dallas Forty” in 2003, that “writing is the only thing I have done that comes close to being as terrifying as being a football player.” Like many football players before him, and surely many, many more to come, Sauer suffered from dementia at the end of his life. It is impossible to know whether it was caused by football, but there is no doubt that as much as the game made him, it also destroyed him, and that he sensed this even at the time.

Watching how football is played now — in which every single achievement on the field is rapturously celebrated, as if human experience scales no greater heights — it is hard not to wonder how much of this is compensatory, a high-pitched attempt to disguise the inhumanity of the game. Could these really be the happiest, most exuberant men on earth, or are they compelled to behave that way for our enjoyment? How many George Sauers are trapped behind those steely masks, dreaming of something else they would rather do with their lives if only they could escape? Every now and then, the secrets spill out. This season, people around the N.F.L. were shocked when John Moffitt, a journeyman lineman, up and quit the Denver Broncos, leaving a hefty salary on the table and leveling an indictment of football even bigger and more sweeping than Sauer’s. “How much do you really value intelligence,” Moffitt told ESPN the Magazine, “when as a society you continue to do unintelligent things?”

THE RIFF:

Thanks Miriam. I hadn’t seen this.

So… I think I know why you thought to send it to me.

Confession: I am a football fan. The riffer is a football fan. That is, I like to watch it very much. My sons and I watch the 49ers regularly when they play (we are still mulling over the play-off loss last Sunday). We admire the grace of the receivers, as they reach for a spiraling ball and then tumble, sometimes turning 360 degrees in the air, before hitting the ground. We admire the brute force of the linemen, with their arms as thick as my thighs, as they slap and spin and shove their way to the QB. We admire the strategy, the Xs and Os, the double bluffs, the audibles. We wince at the hits, the broken limbs, the concussions.

We are consumers of this violent form of entertainment. And that’s generally ok with me.  President Obama spoke to this in a recent interview in the New Yorker: He said:

“At this point there’s a little bit of caveat emptor… These guys, they know what they’re doing. They know what they’re buying into. It is no longer a secret.”

But I believe that children, to the age of 18, should play only flag football. In their college years they can begin to make the transition to tackle. Or perhaps a new type of helmet can be introduced — a giant bubble-wrap dome to enshroud each player’s head? I would be all for it.

This, however, is not the crux of the article that Miriam has submitted. The crux is Sauer’s determination that he does not want to play football, despite his talent for it. It may have a “chauvinistic authority” structure, and it may “deny human values” — but really, what shocked the world was not his justifications for his refusal to pursue his professional career path but the refusal itself. Like Bartleby he said, “I would prefer not to.”

This is what perplexed and angered the fans. This what still drives the otherwise sympathetic author of this article to conclude that “there is no doubt that as much as the game made him, it also destroyed him, and that he sensed this even at the time.” In our culture you cannot say “No” to achievement. You cannot decline the pursuit of money and fame and power and success. If you do you are a fool, a lost soul, someone “destroyed.”

Sure Sauer never published, as he had hoped. Does this make him destroyed? Sure he drifted back to football at times, coaching at Oberlin, playing in the World Football League. Those do not have the status of the NFL, but does that make him destroyed? He may have been a “destroyed” person, who made wrong choices and regretted them, but the article supplies exactly zero evidence of this. He may also have been delightedly content, radiating love and serenity. He may have found meaning in something other, like, I don’t know… human values.

I.e. animal values. Living, breathing, loving, being attentive. Perhaps in his later years he prepared a great breakfast for his wife and sprinkling the cinnamon just so… Is that a destroyed man?

Success is the religion of our time. Examine the grip this myth has on you. Separate it from money and pleasure — which are associated with it but quite different when you think about it. What proportion of your energy is going towards satisfying the so-called “bitch-goddess”? What does she give you in return? What if you were to drop out and prefer not to, like Bartleby, like Sauer. Would you be destroyed? Or would people only say that about you?

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