Saturday, September 15, 2018

Week 2: Pain

Football fetishes its strategic sophistication.  All coaches now need to communicate via radio to their Tactical Press Box Command Centers except for quarterbacks who need to use the last landline telephones in existence for some unexplained reason; coaches shield the mouths against the possibility of sideline lip readers; no play can be called without three assistant coaches and every backup quarterback performing vigorous, bug-eyed calisthenics to signal the play; referees constantly litigate impossible rules to the pixel and then give complex explanations to the crowd in a clunky law enforcement argot.  The needlessly complexity distracts from the fact that, at root football is about violence and mayhem.  On every play, gigantic human beings smash into each other, shove each other, drive each other into the turf, and generally clobber each other for our amusement, and every few plays the whole thing stops to someone can writhe around in pain while trainers run out to assess the damage and broadcasts pause to sell us trucks.

The brutality of the entire enterprise is part of its appeal; even the most stringent football wonks appreciating the sublime architecture of an R.P.O. also get excited to see a defensive end come in and blast the quarterback enough to drop the ball or huck it straight towards a cornerback.  And the violence is an integral part of strategy.  When announcers talk about receivers "hearing footsteps" or quarterbacks having a clock in their head, they're talking about the fear of physical violence, that no matter how much these athletes have conditioned themselves to take beatings and play through injuries gruesome enough to keep me in traction for months, at heart no person wants to get absolutely whaled upon; that threat is an integral part of the sport.  The notion of pain as an unavoidable part of tackle football the way it is currently played always exists, but becomes greatly magnified when a you are stuck on a couch watching some unfortunate lineman clutch his ankles while having to steel yourself through pain to reach the remote in order to fast forward through a commercial for extreme sports nachos.

Football players put themselves through agonizing training sessions and getting yelled at by obese goatee guys and then go out there and let some of the most well-conditioned human beings on the planet run into them as fast as possible; I woke up wrong. It is never pleasant to watch a person collapse in high-definition agony, but it is something that comes into sharper focus after an ill-advised commute through heavy traffic ends with me in a parking lot face down in the driver's seat, legs danging out of the car, back muscles attempting for some reason to wring me out like a sponge.  That was not a spectacular condition to watch Northwestern play its first home game, propped up by pain medications and orthopedic brace devices that look like discount professional wrestling championship belts and flinching as players blasted into each other with familiar football clacks and grunts and, miraculously, getting up most of the time.

I would like to say that awareness of pain and the various clobbering and clobber-adjacent injuries created by this sport trivialized the silly, moronic disappointment in watching the team I root for get once again hammered by Duke of all places, but I cannot lie: it's not good.


Duke and Northwestern doesn't even sound like it should be a football game in 2018.  It sounds like some sort of nineteenth-century leather helmet spectacle that takes place only after both teams saw four men trampled death and dozens students inflicting riots upon each other in preposterous Victorian boxing stances.  It seems ludicrous o write about a Duke-Northwestern game in modern terms instead of noting that the Duke-men rousted North Western's staff of Quarter-Backs while bamboozling its Defenders with plays like the Governor's Sash and the Winsome Circus Boy.

North Western managed a hard-fought victory 
against Indiana's Train Lads and Purdued-Petes

Pat Fitzgerald managed to wrangle one positive from the Duke loss by popping up in the news referring to the run-pass option as "pure communism" in a press conference.  This insight led to some light mockery across the internet because several wags and goof-makers had to point out the minor point that there exists no historical or philosophical context in which his remark makes sense.  The comment led to two responses online: a horde of pedantic Football Bukahrins unfolded their pince-nez spectacles to confront Pat Fitzgerald, an anthropomorphic jaw, on the finer points communist ideologies; a gaggle of shirtsleeved Cubicle Guys overheated while constructing elaborate flop sweat-laden RPO/communism puns.  I am not sure to what extent Pat Fitzgerald has studied up on World Communisms before comparing them to specific football strategies, but I am positive that his understanding of communism has been influenced most by the 1984 film Red Dawn and the run-pass option is definitely something the devious Soviets would have done while invading various high schools and local drug store hangouts.
Pat Fitzgerald stands in Northwestern's new $270 million Oafish Communist 
Comparisons Building

Both games featured an array of quarterbacks.  Northwestern is no stranger to quarterback committees.  Some of the most successful years involved a rotation between a running quarterback and a throwing quarterback so slow that he was mounted to a wheelbarrow and pulled around the pocket.  This time, though, the quarterback chaos comes from an unwieldy attempt to manage Clayton Thorson as he returns from knee surgery.  The first rotation happened in the Purdue game.  Fitzgerald remained characteristically coy about Thorson's availability leading up to the game.  Thorson started, but came out after two brilliant series without explanation while the sideline reporter scrambled to figure out if Thorson was injured again, whether Fitzgerald was playing some sort of mind game, or if something more nefarious was afoot like the Thorson disappearing under mysterious circumstances or the NCAA discovering that Trevor Siemian had gotten Face/Off surgery and had taken his place and they would need to vacate the Music City Bowl victory.

Thorson's backup is T.J. Green, a junior who has tantalized broadcasters eager to induct his father, former NFL quarterback Trent Green, into Northwestern's inner circle of Celebrity Sports Parents along with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a beet-red Doug Collins who spends of Northwestern basketball games doing an impression of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall when he is thrown out onto the surface of Mars. Green is also cousins with receiver Bennett Skowronek, which I only mention because it led to the Dan LaFontaine Schwarzenegger Trailer-caliber Tribune headline "Bonded by blood, Northwestern's Ben Skowronek and TJ Green hope to find home in the end zone."

The Wildcats have another inexplicable MAC night game showdown against Akron.  The quarterback situation remains unsettled.  Northwestern fans would be thrilled to see the 'Cats leap out to a quick and decisive lead and let Green gain experience against the demoralized Zips; after watching Northwestern teams, I am pretty sure that no matter how good Akron may or may not be (SBNation's preseason Numbers Rankings had them at 166th in the country), I have determined that Pat Fitzgerald is committed to giving fans good money value for their tickets and ideally would take every single game to overtime except the Illinois game because the Hat is too important to leave to chance. 


Spencer Hall's Elephant article reminded me of a book I picked up earlier this year called Behemoth: The History of the Elephant in America by Ronald B. Tobias.  Tobias, a nature documentarian, traces the presence of elephants in the United States both literally, as circus and zoo attractions, but also as rhetoric, symbols, and mascots.  Tobias's book is wide-ranging and often tragic, describing the plight of circus elephants in revolting conditions and deaths that came from attempting to keep them contained.  But what really struck me reading this book was the reminder that the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a vast, wild, and lawless place, where elephants were kept in bizarre and casual situations that occasionally resulted in them rampaging all over a town.

Imagine that a circus comes to town and an elephant (usually male and in musth, a months-long hormonal phase that renders them violent and unpredictable, especially when kept in chains and assaulted by nineteenth-century mustachioed trainers) frees itself.  Few towns at the time had anything resembling an elephant-stopping infrastructure; they had several confused constables and panicking circus personnel; an elephant rampage was essentially a Godzilla-level event.
World militaries differ in strategies, values, and promotion system but 
what binds them all together is evidently the universal belief in promoting 
any officer whose Godzilla Defense Strategy involves continuing to attack it 
with conventional weapons long after they prove useless

Tobias, for example, describes the exploits of Tusko, an elephant that repeatedly ran amok in the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s and 30s.  In 1922, Tusko, held by the Al. G. Barnes 4 Ring Wild Animal Circus got loose in Sedro Woodley, a town along the Skagit River in Washington State.  Tusko, in the heat of musth, threw his keeper 30 feet in the air and then crashed through buildings and fences before smashing into a bar to gorge on sour mash as residents drunkenly followed him around.  "When it was over," Tobias writes, "Tusko had squashed or overturned twenty automobiles, collapsed the walls to three houses, knocked down a variety of oubuildings, and pushed a farmhouse off its foundation.  His swath of destruction ran for thirty miles." "The local paper dscribed the bull as 'frisky' and 'full of hijinks.'"

In 1931, the circus sold Tusko to a circus promoter named Al Painter who "used him to ballyhoo dance marathons at a 'Million-Dollar Pleasure Paradise' called Lotus Isle, near Portland Oregon."  But Painter could not contain him either.  A pilot buzzed the building where Painter kept Tusko chained and he once again became free and basically destroyed Lotus Isle.  The attraction shut down.  Painter sold Tusko to another former circus man named "Sleepy" Gray for a dollar.  The elephant nearly escaped again; as Tusko thrashed against his chains in Portland and the mayor called in the National Guard.  Gray sold Tusko again to "Colonel" H.C. Barber, according the strict law that says that any unseemly and huckster-adjacent enterprise in the United States must at some point involve a self-proclaimed Colonel.  Gray still lived with Tusko and tried to take him to Seattle, but the city would not allow him to bring Tusko within its limits.  Here, in a situation so insane that it could only happen in Depression-era America, Gray got hired by a demolition company to let Tusko smash houses, just showing up with his rampaging elephant.

Tusko, though, could not turn a profit; when the Colonel planned to have him killed and stuffed the Mayor of Seattle impounded Tusko at the Woodland Park Zoo (Tobias notes that the city complained that Tusko had been "used continually as a racket").  Seattle residents donated money for his feed.  But he only survived a year in custody and died heaving against his chains after another musth season.

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