Beyond the Game
Collision Low Crossers:
A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football
(Little, Brown and Company, 2013)
Rarefied victory in the N.F.L. incarnates as the glorious Vince Lombardi trophy: an ugly metallic regulation-sized football fused to a stylized, oversized football tee. Bestowed to the annual winner of the Super Bowl, it is the stuff of countless football dreams. And countless football nightmares.
“Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”
Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers who led his team to triumph in the first two Super Bowls, is reported to have spoken these words. They inspire gospel-like veneration, and hang in innumerable lockers, meeting rooms, and minds. The fact that someone else coined the phrase really doesn’t matter (U.C.L.A. Bruins football coach Red Sanders said it first, in 1950). That the tagline and physical reward for football excellence would spring from the same source seems both just and believable in an institution so single-mindedly focused on victory.
But within this obsession lies a paradox. More than in any other sport, the possibility for perfection in football is tantalizingly within reach. All that stands between a team and a flawless record is a mere 19 games (16 games in the regular season, with the potential for three more in the postseason). But, as Nicholas Dawidoff underscores in Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football, for most teams, the game’s quintessence is not winning, but losing. Only one N.F.L. team in history has gone undefeated: the 1972 Miami Dolphins, with a then-perfect 17-0 season (at the time, the regular season was two games shorter). Other teams have only come frustratingly close; in no other sport is winning so elusive and mercurial. “That’s what I most looked forward to watching, the attempt to impose order on a significantly unstable pursuit,” Dawidoff writes. “That was art. That was life. Or maybe it was death.” In this way, Dawidoff learns something very different than Michael Lewis did in his baseball-focused Moneyball: where Lewis found the secret of success in the rationality of numbers, Dawidoff finds it hiding in the hearts of men.
Given a locker, a desk, a nickname (Nicky), and later, a play call (Nicky Read Tracy), Dawidoff spent the 2011 season physically and emotionally embedded with the New York Jets. Invited to follow the team by charismatic head coach Rex Ryan and fellow football nut and Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, Dawidoff arrived in the wake of the team’s sensation-filled 2010 appearance on “Hard Knocks,” an HBO documentary series that profiles a N.F.L. team through summer training camp. Sensation, however, is rarely an issue for Jets owner Woody Johnson. He welcomed the easy publicity and considered the show a success. If it hadn’t been for 2011’s protracted N.F.L. labor dispute (which cancelled training camp), and a personal appeal from Ryan not to do another season, Johnson reportedly would have had his Jets reprise their “Hard Knocks” role. Dawidoff was Plan B. Johnson and a number of players encouraged him to tell the whole, uncut truth, and the team granted him unparalleled access. If “Hard Knocks” held a mirror up to the Jets’s inner-workings, then Dawidoff walks through the looking glass, into a Carroll-esque land of giants, feuds, and fantastical cant—“rare dudes,“ “mighty men,” the elusive but sought after “bitch-kitty,” that fearsome defender who can rush the passer.
Mostly, Dawidoff finds the outsized humanity lurking within the game. Many of the players grew up in difficult situations, often in broken homes. For them, football was a surrogate family. In a post-Blind Side world, this is a familiar narrative. But Collision Low Crossers is something entirely different, a plunging song of ourselves. Football is a family, but also so much more. It is a business, as every player finds himself muttering at some point in his career, whether he’s been cut, traded, or pushed into retirement. It is also a spectacle, and a stirring, obsessed-over piece of American culture. As Dawidoff dissects the game, he finds himself asking a question that has become so banal it has circled back into relevance: What is football, and why is it important?
At the end of long haul of a year, Dawidoff sees that it is a game of process, transformations, and attempted transcendence. Since 2003, the NFL has seen at least one team vault from last to first place in its division. “The game,” Dawidoff writes, “thrived on mystery…So much went on away from the ball that it was impossible not to assume that you were missing a lot of what was meaningful about football.” In this inversion of conventional wisdom, where winning is everything, the 16 larger-than-life contests in a season are more like 16 iceberg peaks, the vastness of football hidden out of view—or perhaps more like 16 moves in a game of cup and balls. Follow only the ball and you lose the whole game, where so much goes on covertly in plain sight.
“All manner of strange things happen in football huddles,” Dawidoff writes. Players vomit, spy huge bugs in the grass, or—in a highly unusual move—kick one of their own team members out of the huddle, as the Jets did to Santonio Holmes, so noxious was his presence and his perceived lack of effort. In coach Ryan’s opinion, football is “the ultimate team game.” For every single play, 11 men need to know the scheme, execute their role in it, and trust their teammates. Games can come down to a single mistake or a series of near-invisible imperfections. Almost anything less than maximum effort and attention could derail a week’s (or a even a year’s) worth of training and fraternity. “In America, land of happy endings to feel-good films,” Dawidoff writes, “this was the truer entertainment; to fail is human.”
So dazzling and full of observed detail is Collision Low Crossers that it alters the football experience. Watching a game now, my thoughts drift to the deep history of a play—to the practice field, the training, the endless tape viewing. “Tape don’t lie,” the coaches preach. Football is suffused with the dim glow of television and computer screens playing back tape. Tape from games and practice. Tape to show players how to improve from their errors. Tape that coaches fall asleep to in offices where they spend the majority of their lives, seeking some control in an uncontrollable world. Tape with a grip on coaches as strong as the ties that bind them to their loved ones. “How’s life outside football?” Dawidoff asks one coach. “What’s that?” the coach replies. With Collision Low Crossers, football is richer, more complex, more colorful than it appears on any HD television set. Read it and a whole new dimension is added—the human one.
A son of the Chicago suburbs, JEREMY POLACEK has somehow lived in New York City even longer even than in that metropolis of the Midwest. Often found in the dim light of the theatre or library, he tweets at @JeremyPolacek.