The Magazine

Hut! Hut!


Jan 29, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 19 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Football, for better or worse, is America's dominant spectator sport. In much of the country -- certainly throughout the South and Midwest -- it inspires a frenzied devotion that baseball, with its loose pace and long summer season, never achieves.

In fact, football dominates because it is not a summer game. It's always been a school sport, supported and largely financed by the American educational system. As a result, for countless Americans, football is tied up with the fresh days of adolescence and early adulthood. They've kept happy memories of its robust pageantry -- the silly cheers, the smuggled flask, the marching band blaring through the theme from Rocky one more time.

But nostalgia can't explain the sustained power and prestige of professional football, nor the fact that the National Football League's title game bears all the trappings of a national holiday. Twice as many Americans will watch this Sunday's Super Bowl as watched the World Series and professional basketball's finals combined. Decades from now, historians will almost certainly point to the rise of the NFL as one of the most striking aspects of American social life in the second half of the twentieth century.

And many will identify the singular influence of Pete Rozelle, the league's commissioner from 1960 to 1989. Before the 1960s, pro football was far less popular than the college game. But Rozelle understood business, politics, and -- perhaps most important -- marketing. Under his direction, the NFL became prosperous, ubiquitous, and, in its way, glamorous. It was thanks to Rozelle, for example, that Monday Night Football made its television debut, to much skepticism, in 1970. From the start, the show packaged football as an entertainment extravaganza complete with infographics, roving cameras, dancing girls, and blimps. On Mondays, football became a brutal but highly complicated sport requiring squads of analysts like Howard Cosell, who boasted a big vocabulary and a law degree. Professional football wasn't just for jocks anymore.

Inevitably, this new prominence attracted Hollywood's attention. In fact, until the late 1960s and early 1970s, football -- unlike both boxing and baseball -- was all but ignored by the film industry. With a few exceptions, such as Knute Rockne: All American (1940), the sport had been portrayed only in the background of films, most of which were comedies. But suddenly, football came to be seen as a subject intriguing in itself -- and an apt vehicle for social commentary.

The coming trend was signaled by the 1968 Paper Lion, a more-or-less true story in which Alan Alda portrays the writer George Plimpton in his quixotic attempt to play quarterback for the Detroit Lions. Detroit's bruisers are competitive and tough, willing to goad their teammates or flatten a foe. But they're also gentlemen, and they eventually warm to Plimpton and permit him, however briefly, a place in their ranks.

But the breakthrough really came with Brian's Song in 1971, a hugely successful "made for television" movie based on the true story of Brian Piccolo, a reserve halfback for the Chicago Bears. Piccolo was less known for his athletic skills than his wit and drive -- as well as his close friendship with his far more gifted teammate, Gale Sayers. Brian's Song follows the course of that friendship from the Bears' rookie camp to Piccolo's death from cancer at the age of twenty-six. Because Sayers was black and Piccolo white, Brian's Song was widely praised for its attempt to help improve race relations during volatile times.

At least one critic dismissed Brian's Song as "treacly," but its leads -- James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers -- are remarkably understated in their roles. The film's tone is elegiac, not soppy, and is effectively supported by Michel Legrand's wistful score. There's a kind of elegant simplicity to this low-budget movie, which is sometimes interspersed with actual game footage showing Sayers -- one of the game's best running backs -- dodging tacklers as he sprints gracefully upfield.