Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 128 from February 15, 1973. This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone’s premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story. Not a member? Click here to learn more about Rolling Stone Plus.
— Grantland Rice: who was known — prior to his death in the late Fifties — as “The Dean of American Sportswriters.”
They came together on a hot afternoon in Los Angeles, howling and clawing at each other like wild beasts in heat.
Under a brown California sky, the fierceness of their struggle brought tears to the eyes of 90,000 God-fearing fans.
They were 22 men who were somehow more than men.
They were giants, idols, titans….
They stood for everything Good and True and Right in the American Spirit.
Because they had guts.
And they yearned for the Ultimate Glory, the Great Prize, the Final Fruits of a long and vicious campaign.
Victory in the Super Bowl: $15,000 each.
They were hungry for it. They were thirsty. For 20 long weeks, from August through December, they had struggled to reach this Pinnacle …. and when dawn lit the beaches of Southern California on that fateful Sunday morning in January, they were ready.
To seize the Final Fruit.
They could almost taste it. The smell was stronger than a ton of rotten mangoes. Their nerves burned like open sores on a dog’s neck. White knuckles. Wild eyes. Strange fluid welled up in their throats, with a taste far sharper than bile.
Those who went early said the pre-game tension was almost unbearable. By noon, many fans were weeping openly, for no apparent reason. Others wrung their hands or gnawed on the necks of pop bottles, trying to stay calm. Many fist-fights were reported in the public urinals. Nervous ushers roamed up and down the aisles, confiscating alcoholic beverages and occasionally grappling with drunkards. Gangs of Seconal-crazed teenagers prowled through the parking lot outside the stadium, beating the mortal shit out of luckless stragglers….
What? No….Grantland Rice would never have written weird stuff like that: His prose was spare & lean; his descriptions came straight from the gut … and on the rare and ill-advised occasions when he wanted to do a “Think Piece,” he called on the analytical powers of his medulla. Like all great sportswriters, Rice understood that his world might go all to pieces if he ever dared to doubt that his eyes were wired straight to his lower brain — a sort of de facto lobotomy, which enables the grinning victim to operate entirely on the level of Sensory Perception….
Green grass, hot sun, sharp cleats in the turf, thundering cheers from the crowd, the menacing scowl on the face of a $30,000-a-year pulling guard as he leans around the corner on a Lombardi-style power sweep and cracks a sharp plastic shoulder into the linebacker’s groin….
Ah yes, the simple life: Back to the roots, the basics — first a Mousetrap, then a Crackback & a Buttonhook off a fake triple-reverse Fly Pattern, and finally The Bomb….
Indeed. There is a dangerous kind of simple-minded Power/Precision worship at the root of the massive fascination with pro football in this country, and sportswriters are mainly responsible for it. With a few rare exceptions like Bob Lipsyte of The New York Times and Tom Quinn of the (now-defunct) Washington Daily News, sportswriters are a kind of rude and brainless subculture of fascist drunks whose only real function is to publicize & sell whatever the sports editor sends them out to cover….
Which is a nice way to make a living, because it keeps a man busy and requires no thought at all. The two keys to success as a sportswriter are: 1) A blind willingness to believe anything you’re told by the coaches, flacks, hustlers and other “official spokesmen” for the team-owners who provide the free booze … and: 2) A Roget’s Thesaurus, in order to avoid using the same verbs and adjectives twice in the same paragraph.
Even a sports editor, for instance, might notice something wrong with a lead that said: “The precision-jack-hammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the Washington Redskins today by stomping and hammering with one precise jack-thrust after another up the middle, mixed with pinpoint-precision passes into the flat and numerous hammer-jack stomps around both ends….”
Right. And there was the genius of Grantland Rice. He carried a pocket thesaurus, so that “The thundering hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen” never echoed more than once in the same paragraph, and the “Granite-grey sky” in his lead was a “cold dark dusk” in the last lonely line of his heart-rending, nerve-ripping stories….
There was a time, about ten years ago, when I could write like Grantland Rice. Not necessarily because I believed all that sporty bullshit, but because sportswriting was the only thing I could do that anybody was willing to pay for. And none of the people I wrote about seemed to give a hoot in hell what kind of lunatic gibberish I wrote about them, just as long as it moved. They wanted Action, Color, Speed, Violence…. At one point, in Florida, I was writing variations on the same demented themes for three competing papers at the same time, under three different names. I was a sports columnist for one paper in the morning, sports editor for another in the afternoon, and at night I worked for a pro wrestling promoter, writing incredibly twisted “press releases” that I would plant, the next day, in both papers.
It was a wonderful gig, in retrospect, and at times I wish I could go back to it — just punch a big hatpin through my frontal lobes and maybe regain that happy lost innocence that enabled me to write, without the slightest twinge of conscience, things like: “The entire Fort Walton Beach police force is gripped in a state of fear this week; all leaves have been canceled and Chief Bloor is said to be drilling his men for an Emergency Alert situation on Friday and Saturday nights — because those are the nights when ‘Kazika, The Mad Jap,’ a 440-pound sadist from the vile slums of Hiroshima, is scheduled to make his first — and no doubt his last — appearance in Fish-head Auditorium. Local wrestling impressario Lionel Olay is known to have spoken privately with Chief Bloor, urging him to have ‘every available officer’ on duty at ringside this weekend, because of the Mad Jap’s legendary temper and his invariably savage reaction to racial insults. Last week, in Detroit, Kazika ran amok and tore the spleens out of three ringside spectators, one of whom allegedly called him a ‘yellow devil.'”
“Kazika,” as I recall, was a big, half-bright Cuban who once played third-string tackle for Florida State University in Tallahassee, about 100 miles away — but on the fish-head circuit he had no trouble passing for a dangerous Jap strangler, and I soon learned that pro wrestling fans don’t give a fuck anyway.
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