Monday, January 29, 2007

Super Bowl Flashback: Hunter S. Thompson, An Appreciation

Super Bowl week is upon us. So what have we learned, thus far, about Sunday's SB XLI? The media has focused on three pre-game story lines: match-ups like Brian Urlacher Vs. Peyton Manning, Manning's mysteriously sore thumb, and Lovie Smith's upbringing in a small Texas town. All of these articles are all fine, good, and, I suppose, necessary, and yet--besides some of the Smith pieces--are ultimately forgettable, making me wonder: what has been the most memorable Super Bowl journalism? For me it is an article by Hunter S. Thompson, the deceased gonzo journalist.

For those of you who only know Thompson's book Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, he was an outstanding sportswriter. Thompson's "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" stands out as one of the most original articles in sports journalism. It is a celebrated piece and deservedly so, but Thompson's interest in athletics didn't end with the Derby. In the early days of the Web, ESPN hired Thompson to write an entertaining column, “Hey Rube,” on ESPN.com. (Thompson is the father--grandfather?--of irreverent sites like Deadspin). But his younger-days-long-form journalism really stands out in my mind. I am thinking specifically of "Fear And Loathing at the Super Bowl"--a lesser-known and not widely available article that I re-read last night. If a February 28, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone isn’t handy (look in the garage under the macramé and bong pipe), Thompson covers Super Bowl VIII in Houston and, at the beginning of the lengthy article, struggles with his story lead so he decides to stick in his opening line from the previous year's Super Bowl and simply replace the teams:

"The precision-jack hammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the Minnesota Vikings 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-jackstops around both ends..."

Obviously, and unfortunately, not a story lead you read every day.

About Viking coach Bud Grant, Thompson wrote:

"[Grant] spent most of Super Week acting like a Marine Corps drill sergeant with a terminal case of the piles."

For his football story assignment, Thompson tried to follow one team all the way to the Super Bowl and "try to document the alleged--or at least Nixonian—similarities between pro football and politics." (I can guarantee you no one will bring up George W. in any serious way this week, and yet sports is certainly intertwined with our cultural life; whatever your political affiliation the New Orleans Saints becoming America's team was as much sympathy with the Katrina victims as underlying anger at governmental incompetence.) Thompson chose the Oakland Raiders to wonderful results. Describing Al Davis, Thompson penned: "...I'd realized that this strange-looking bugger named 'Al,’ who looked like a pimp or a track-tout, was in fact the infamous Al Davis…”

While some may argue that Thompson's writing was pure shtick, isn’t that description as accurate as any ever written about the legendary owner? While access was not as controlled as now, Thompson spent time with the players, hanging out with them at taverns, getting to know their foibles, their motivations. And the writing wasn't simple, self-indulgent stuff: X & Os-wise he sat through a film session and had the players do a strategy breakdown. The players encouraged him to get out of the press box: “You’ve gotta be down on the field and have Jack Tatum really crack somebody right in front of you. You’ll feel it, man. It’ll scare the piss out of you, just watching it.”

Now I am excited to see Brian Urlacher take on Peyton Manning.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

City of Angles: Frank Lloyd Wright/Los Angeles

[UPDATE: NOVEMBER 2007: In The Fray has an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Frank Lloyd Wright's Los Angeles homes. Also, some nice mentions here and here about Hollywoodlandwright.com.

[UPDATE: February 26, 2007: Nice write-up of HollywoodlandWright on PrairieMod.]

Excuse the digression into the non-sports world, but In The Fray wanted to announce a recently completed project. It's a Website featuring several Frank Lloyd Wright dwellings. In The Fray collaborated with Analogue's Jory Kruspe--whose father played in the Canadian Football League, by the way...--on HollywoodlandWright. We are getting some recognition for this side project: Michael Bierut, America's premier design critic, wrote on Design Observer that the site is "an elegant look at Frank Lloyd Wright's work in Los Angeles;" we were given a Best Design Award, an award for Website design; and Digitalthread, a design site, called Hollywoodland "a beautiful and simple minimalist tribute to a set of five Los Angeles homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1920's. These designs of his, defined by the concrete brick work, are simply summed up - not with so many words - but with a series of full-screen photographs... the remainder of the interpretation is up to you..."

If you're interested in FLW, I think the site is worth a few minutes. Click here or type www.hollywoodlandwright.com into your browser to see our work.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Fugees: Warren St. John's Outcasts United

This is sportswriting at its best. Click here for the story. [Registration Req'd.] St. John told me a book version is in the works.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Red Grange: Ghost poem, opening lines

There are shapes now moving,
Two Ghosts that drift and glide,
And which of them to tackle
Each rival must decide.
They shift with spectral swiftness
Across the swarded range,
And one of them’s a shadow,
And one of them is Grange

--Grantland Rice

Friday, January 12, 2007

Author Interview: SI's Jack McCallum

Hoops, Phoenix Suns, and, especially, Steve Nash fans, there is a good author interview today with Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum on the CBC (the NPR of Canada). The interview, on a show called The Current, is about McCallum's book, Seven Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench with the Runnin' and Gunnin' Phoenix Suns.

RealPlayer req'd.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

David (Beckham) and Posh (Spice)! Welcome to Los Angeles

I live in Los Angeles so it will be fun to see David Beckham play live on a regular basis, and it will create a much-needed carnival, or more accurately any, atmosphere around Major League Soccer. But joining the Los Angeles Galaxy at this point in his career feels a little like Kobe Bryant moving to the Scottish Rocks of the British Basketball League. It also reminds me of when Wayne Gretzky left the Edmonton Oilers and joined the Los Angeles Kings, partly because his wife wanted to be in the land of movies. (Tangent Alert: Has the NHL ever recovered from its abandonment of its roots?) I know, I know, endorsement deals (see Pepsi commercial above), re-igniting Victoria Beckham's (Posh Spice) career, and escaping the English paparazzi are, at least partly, the reason for the move to Southern California, but aren't most of the best MLS players trying to get out of one of the weaker leagues in the world?

Here is an alternative, and quite reasonable, view from the Guardian.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Breakdown: BCS Championship Game

For your clicking convenience, here's how several national, local, and Web outlets see tonight's championship game between Ohio St. and Florida:


New York Times
USA Today


Columbus Dispatch
Gainesville Sun


The Onion

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Stadium dome collapses

One witness said the B.C. Place (Vancouver) stadium collapse Friday afternoon sounded like "elephants running through your living room. It was thunderous." Looking on the bright side: with global warming who needs domed stadiums anyway?

CBC story here.

(Thanks to J. Kruspe for the tip.)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Review: Adam Gopnik's "The Unbeautiful Game"

Adam Gopnik, a superb writer (Paris to the Moon is a splendid book), has an article--"The Unbeautiful Game: What's happening to football?"--in the New Yorker's January 8 edition [No link yet]. I'm an admirer of Gopnik's work and some of his observations about watching football on TV vs. in the stands, and his takes on fandom are dead-on and well worth reading, but the premise of his piece is shaky. Gopnik argues that "partly what drains the joy from the inner game of pro football these days is the same as what drains the joy from much of American life: there's a lot of money to be made by a few people, and a lot less for everybody else." Errr, there is a lot less money for everyone but I don't think economics has anything to do with any recent joy or sorrow in pro football...baseball, on the other hand...

In the article, Joe Namath makes an appearance at a Texans vs. Jets game and the New York reporters flock around Broadway Joe, ignoring the game (it is the Texans vs. the Jets) being played in front of them, and try and crow-bar a controversial statement out of the guy known by many youngsters as a drunk person wanting to kiss sideline reporter Suzy Kolber. Sounding like an old-timer in a rundown tavern talking about the glory days of yesteryear, Gopnik uses Namath as a metaphor for when football was fun. "There's no laughter now," he laments, and cites recent tomes about Brian Billick and Tom Brady (with Bill Belichick playing a role) as examples of the loss of hilarity. C'mon, Billick, Belichick and Brady are great and everything but they are the three musketeers of dull. (Even Charles P. Pierce, one of the best sports writers out there, couldn't make Brady exciting, Gopnik concedes.) There are still interesting players on the field and off, the authors of the books cited just didn't pick them or didn't get good access, and didn't pull off the excellence, and originality, of a Paper Lion or a Semi-Tough. Gopnik quotes John Feinstein regarding the "here-today, gone-tomorrow" culture in the NFL, which is true, but that's nothing new: it has been the same thing for ninety years. Joe Namath's swinging era was a blip in the history of the NFL (and the country), certainly entertaining but not the norm. Moreover, football might be athletically "unbeautiful" when played by the heady and gutsy and AP NFL Comeback Player of the Year Chad Pennington, who is the opposite of flashy, and Eli Manning, wonderfully described by Gopnik as "the Giants' talented, inconsistent quarterback [who has] an unfortunate wide-eyed, golly-gee look for all occasions, like Opie, on the old Andy Griffith show, if he were to see Floyd the barber in Halloween mask." But what about Eli's brother Peyton? Or team-mate Tiki Barber? Or, LaDanian Tomlinson? (See Lee Jenkins' New York Times article on LT's family background...Reg. Req'd) Or, Reggie Bush? Or, fun-loving Brett Favre? Hardly "unbeautiful" players.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Sirius Self-Promotion

No, I won't be on The Howard Stern Show, but I am scheduled to be on Sirius Radio's "Across the Nation with Bob Dunning" Thursday at 1:12 p.m. (10:12 a.m. PST) to talk about my article in last Wednesday's USA Today, and my forthcoming book about Red Grange. Dunning's show airs on Sirius Channel 159.

Also, if you want very occassional email updates about the book, please go to my Website at www.garyandrewpoole.com, click on "The Book" and put in your email address. Otherwise, just keep checking this blog--In The Fray--for intermittent book information and regular commentary.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Ol' Playbook: The wisdom of trick plays

After watching Boise St. take on, and out-fox, Oklahoma in a thriller that everyone is calling one of the best games in college football history (the Sooners and the Broncos combined for 22 points in the final 86 seconds of regulation), it made me wonder why old school trick plays are not put into game plans more often. After all, Boise St. used a hook and ladder, had its wide receiver throw a touchdown pass on a critical fourth down, and won the game with a Statue of Liberty play. Holy Bob Zuppke! The Sooners, all of whom were born when Reagan was president, looked completely fooled by this leather helmet era trickery, and Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said they were expecting a gimmick play when Boise St. ran the Statue of Liberty.

Sometimes imaginative play-calling seems like a lost art. The best play-calling college coaches (Notre Dame's Charlie Weis, USC's Pete Carroll and Chris Petersen of Boise State) win games through their creativity, and the same is true in the NFL (Bill Cowher last season, the suddenly ingenious Chargers' Marty Schottenheimer and the Saints' boy wonder Sean Payton this season). Of course, gadget plays only work if you have a good team and you don't use them all of the time, such as the case with Mike Martz, who when he was left alone in St. Louis, was so tricky that his own team seemed confused. But the Boise St. win in the Fiesta Bowl begs the question: why can't coaches be a little crazier? Coaches are a conservative lot--college headset-wearers more than most--but I don't understand why these guys don't take a calculated chance here or there: it can create big yardage and it pumps up your team and the fans. A gutsy, well-timed roll of the dice is what separates the good coaches from the great ones. (It's also entertaining to watch a great strategist setup an opponent and then--boom!--strike them with something unexpected; many fans simply concentrate on each play, forgetting the totality of game strategy.) And, need I say, it's fun, and funny, to watch your opponents hold their collective jockstraps when one works. It could be argued that the Denver Broncos' Mike Shanahan, the Sean Payton of ten years ago, has lost a little bit of his play-calling flair because he has become more conservative--the element of surprise used to be a staple of the Broncos attack. The Shanahan-led Broncos were a play-off contender (perhaps one Statue of Liberty away from a win on Sunday?), but what's the excuse of Art Shell's Oakland Raiders? The Silver and Black seemed to run a grand total of four different plays each game this season. You would think that Shell would be bored watching Andrew Walter drop back and...get sacked about every other play. How about a double-reverse? How about a flea flicker? Something! Anything!

As for the rest of the coaches, I'm not saying put every throwback play onto your laminated play sheets, I mean, c'mon, the drop kick! The drop kick...and...yet....Doug Flutie did make one in 2006...

Joe Kines, 'Bama, Half-Time

Note: For a first-rate book about Alabama football (and college football in general), check out Warren St. John's Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Road Trip Into the Heart of Fan Mania.