Dick Butkus and the Nature of Football

“The truth about football is that, rather than being a game of incredible precision, it is a game of breakdowns, of entropy” (Kretchmer 403). I just finished reading Albert Kretchmer’s piece on Dick Butkus. Interesting read, well-written, and with the same down-to-earth writing style as Tom Wolfe in his piece on Junior Johnson. The piece itself is a pretty simple take on the Chicago Bears 1970 season, a relatively lackluster season marked by great defense and pretty much no offense. The season is looked at from the point of view of middle linebacker Dick Butkus, one of the lone start of the team in those days. The article paints him as a relatively normal guy who would just go blitzkrieg insane on the football field, only to shut it down pretty quickly and return to normality once the game was over.

The ferocity of football is fascinating. It starts on the field, but it can quickly spread to the fans. And it’s unique to football, I think. There are violent rivalries in other sports, sure. God knows Red Sox fans can be downright vile when it comes to games against the Yankees. And no hockey fan doesn’t love a good fight. But there’s something primal about football. I think it may hearken back to gladiatorial combat in ancient times. We have always loved to watch people beat each other up. But football carries a grace to it that other sports with similar degrees of brutality might lack. Hockey is characterized by quickness of play, chaos, of fast-break scores that catch even the announcers by surprise (to quote John Hoynes of the West Wing: “LePeiter passes to Huckenchuck who skates past the blue line. Huckenchuck, of course, was traded from Winnipeg for a case of Labatts after sitting out last season with… Oh my God, he scores!”). And actual combat sports such as UFC and boxing are solitary sports that play to our need to see someone actually injure another person.

But football balances our desire for ferocity with our desire for perfection. Football is heaven and hell combined into one. Kretchmer marks an interesting contrast between two football players in his piece. He describes Dick Butkus as “an animal, a savage, subhuman” (401). Later on, in discussing a game against the Green Bay Packers, he calls their QB Bart Starr “the Decent American.” “If Butkus is the symbol of the game’s ferocity, then Starr is the symbol of its potential for innocence and glory” (415). And this is what makes football fascinating and inherently modern. Baseball is certainly a pastoral activity that evokes childhood innocence as we watch a man smash a baseball 450 feet. And hockey is purely ferocious as we scream for blood with every check and every fight. Basketball has replaced ferocity with gamesmanship, playing to our need to not only dominate one another but to make it abundantly clear just how superior a person is to another person. And fighting sports play to our need to vicariously live out our deepest violent fantasies so that we don’t act on them. Only football tows the line between all of these, and this is what makes it such a wonderful sport.

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