Sunday, February 3, 2013

'The Precision Jack-Hammer Attack:' A Hunter S. Thompson Super Bowl Reader

(It's Super Bowl Sunday, which means it is time for We Want Marangi's annual re-posting of our look at Hunter S. Thompson's thoughts on one of the most uniquely American institutions, first published in February 2013.)

Hunter S. Thompson wrote about a lot of things -- bikers, bluegrass, police corruption, high-powered weaponry and horse racing, to name a few.

Mostly, and most successfully, though, he wrote about politics and football. At his best, both at the same time.

In particular, presidential elections and Super Bowls were his twin inspirations, regularly scheduled events that embodied what he hated and loved about America and Americans. Even his suicide note was entitled "Football Season is Over."

I'm not going to try to write about his writing here, because doing so would be an exercise in ego and pointlessness, other than to introduce a few of my favorite passages you can enjoy while, or instead of, sitting through the four-hour pre-game show leading up to the epic struggle between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers. It's got to beat getting force-fed yet another fond farewell to Ray Lewis and further exploration of the brotherly love shared by the Harbaughs.

As a recovering sportswriter, I've never read an analysis that captures the profession's spirit, or lack thereof, as this bit from Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, a collection of Thompson's Rolling Stone articles on Richard M. Nixon's final run for office:

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 Lypstye 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-jackhammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the Washington Redskins today by stomping and hammering with one precise jackthrust 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.

A few paragraphs earlier, Thompson served up a brutal parody of every hack who ever filed a game story (present company included):

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 twenty-two 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 twenty 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. . .

A year later, Thompson referred back to the 'The precision-jackhamer attack of the Miami Dolphins ...' lede in a lengthy Rolling Stone piece entitled "Fear And Loathing At The Super Bowl: No Rest For The Wretched." Gonzo Journalism at its finest, Thompson blends his thoughts on Watergate, labor relations and fortune-telling with a mini-profile of Oakland Raiders strongman Al Davis, trademark accounts of substance abuse and a pre-dawn sermon based on Revelations 20:15 from the 20th-floor balcony of his hotel.

As in the best of Thompson's work, he cuts the psychedelia and free-form association with some remarkably precise description of the physical and psychic impact of Miami wide receiver Paul Warfield:

This was what happened in Houston with the Dolphins' Paul Warfield, widely regarded as "the most dangerous pass receiver in pro football." Warfield is a game-breaker, a man who commands double-coverage at all times because of his antelope running style, twin magnets for hands, and a weird kind of adrenaline instinct that feeds on tension and high pressure. There is no more beautiful sight in football than watching Paul Warfield float out of the backfield on a sort of angle-streak pattern right into the heart of a "perfect" zone defense and take a softly thrown pass on his hip, without even seeming to notice the arrival of the ball, and then float another 60 yards into the end zone, with none of the frustrated defensive backs ever touching him.

There is an eerie kind of certainty about Warfield's style that is far more demoralizing than just another six points on the Scoreboard. About half the time he looks bored and lazy -- but even the best pass defenders in the league know, in some nervous corner of their hearts, that when the deal goes down Warfield is capable of streaking right past them like they didn't exist. . .

Unless he's hurt; playing with some kind of injury that might or might not be serious enough to either slow him down or gimp the fiendish concentration that makes him so dangerous. . . and this was the possibility that Dolphin coach Don Shula raised on Wednesday when he announced that Warfield had pulled a leg muscle in practice that afternoon and might not play on Sunday.

This news caused instant action in gambling circles. Even big-time bookies, whose underground information on these things is usually as good as Pete Rozelle's, took Shula's announcement seriously enough to cut the spread down from seven to six-- a decision worth many millions of betting dollars if the game turned out to be close.

Even the rumor of an injury to Warfield was worth one point (and even two, with some bookies I was never able to locate). . . and if Shula had announced on Saturday that Paul was definitely not going to play, the spread would probably have dropped to four, or even three. . . Because the guaranteed absence of Warfield would have taken a great psychological load off the minds of Minnesota's defensive backs.

Without the ever-present likelihood of a game-breaking "bomb" at any moment, they could focus down much tighter on stopping Miami's brutal running game -- which eventually destroyed them, just as it had destroyed Oakland's nut-cutting defense two weeks earlier, and one of the main reasons why the Vikings failed to stop the Dolphins on the ground was the constant presence of Paul Warfield in his customary wide-receiver's spot.

He played almost the whole game, never showing any sign of injury; and although he caught only one pass, he neutralized two Minnesota defensive backs on every play. . . and two extra tacklers on the line of scrimmage might have made a hell of a difference in that embarrassingly decisive first quarter when Miami twice drove what might as well have been the whole length of the field to score 14 quick points and crack the Vikings' confidence just as harshly as they had cracked the Redskins out in Los Angeles a year earlier.

The above represents Thompson at the peak of his powers, the writer who produced Hells Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved." Over the three decades before his suicide (for which I remain pissed at him), his genius unraveled, whether due to fame, wealth, drugs, the internal victory of cynicism over hope for his country, or a swirl of all four.

But the Super Bowl remained his personal Holy Day, and he could still reach back and find the groove when writing about it.

Whoops. Strike that. Leeches are not rodents. They are blood-sucking members of the Hirudinea family, a sub-species of the hermaphroditic sucker-worm that is frequently applied to headache-victims and other human wounds. Leeches used in human treatment range in size from three inches to 13 inches when fully bloated. They have two ugly mouths, one on each end, filled with tiny, razor-sharp teeth by which they attach themselves firmly to the flesh, prior to sucking. The leech has many eyes.

The Oakland Raiders are the only team in football that still routinely uses leeches for treatment of serious injuries. It is an old-timey medicine, deriving no doubt from the team's Bay Area roots, with its powerful Italian community and its many neighborhood grocery stores and exotic foreign delicacies, along with sausage, fresh fish and leeches ... I have many fond memories of hanging out in North Beach at elegant Italian restaurants with Raiders players in the good old days of yesteryear, when the silver-and-black dynasty was just getting started, long before they turned into the gigantic, high-powered winning machine that they are today.

Things were different in those years, but they were never dull. Every game was a terrifying adventure, win or lose, and the Raiders of the '70s usually won -- except in Pittsburgh, where cruel things happened and many dreams died horribly. You could see the early beginnings of what would evolve into the massive Raider Nation, which is beyond doubt the sleaziest and rudest and most sinister mob of thugs and whackos ever assembled in such numbers under a single "roof," so to speak, anywhere in the English-speaking world. No doubt there are other profoundly disagreeable cults that meet from time to time in most of the 50 states ...

But so what? There is nothing more to say. I have obviously made my decision about the Raiders. They are simply a better football team than the Buccaneers, and they will win. A realistic line for this game would be 10 or 11, but right now it is hovering around 5 or 6.

For all Thompson's gifts, football prognostication was not one of them. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers stomped the balls off the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, 48-21.

(NOTE: If, for some reason, you do not already own The Great Shark Hunt, an anthology of the first and best two decades of Thompson's writing career which includes the full articles from which the first two passages above are lifted, you can do so here. For only $11.87, for God's sake. Or, if you are a lazy and/or cheap bastard, you can get the whole thing in .pdf form here.)

When Colorization Goes Right

I have never knowingly sat through a colorized movie, but saw the computer-altered image above late last night on Deadspin and thought it was about the sweetest football-related image I've seen this week.

Clicking back to the source revealed the original, which is equally brilliant.

The pictured smoker, Len Dawson of the Kansas City Chiefs, had just gotten knocked around by Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I (which officially went by a much-less-catchy name, "The NFL-AFL World Championship Game) on Jan. 15, 1967.

Two weeks earlier, the Chiefs had knocked off the American Football League's two-time defending champions, your Buffalo Bills, at War Memorial Stadium to reach the first-ever contest between the rival circuits. So it could have easily been Jack Kemp relaxing with a smoke and a Fresca.

The Chiefs kept it close in the first half, trailing only 14-10 at intermission. Dawson's only interception came early in the third quarter, setting up the first of two touchdown runs by Green Bay running back -- and future Bills assistant coach -- Elijah Pitts and the Packers rolled, 35-10. If anyone ever needed a break after a long day at work, it was this guy.

However tonight's clash between Baltimore and San Francisco turns out, the post-game coverage will include plenty of staged euphoria and desolation -- at least one extended close-up of Ray Lewis crying is guaranteed.

Another sure thing -- you won't see anything like this.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Hero-Worship And Loathing At The Super Bowl

While getting situated for the AFC Championship game a couple Sundays ago, my 6-year-old son called my attention to the television screen.

"Dad," Oscar asked, "why is he crying?"

I looked up to see the image of Ray Lewis having some sort of breakdown as the National Anthem played.

"Because he knows the camera is on him," I said.

Or maybe I'm just a prick.

In case you had not heard, the Baltimore linebacker and future Hall-of-Famer announced his pending retirement before the playoffs started. To the delight of television producers and hack sportswriters everywhere, the Ravens gave flesh to the easiest narrative possible by getting the best of both Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, allowing Lewis to finish his career in the Super Bowl.

When a mini-scandal broke involving accusations that Lewis used something called deer-antler spray to help heal a mid-season injury, one ESPN writer rushed to his defense in an embarrassing display of jock-sniffing.

Jeffri Chadiha's column remarkably managed to brush aside an accusationof PED use (which, to be fair, is not being levied by the most credible of sources), while not making one single mention of the double-murder case that has hung over most of his career.
The story of Ray Lewis chasing a Super Bowl in his final season has been easy to love and impossible to ignore from the moment he announced he was calling it quits. Football fans in Baltimore -- and around the league -- loved the idea of Lewis ending his career in the same way as Denver's John Elway and Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis. It's touching when a great player leaves on top. It lets us all feel warm and fuzzy at the end of a long season.
Unless you are a cynic of the type who feels the need to bring up that night in Atlanta 13 years ago, when Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker were disemboweled during a brawl outside a bar following another Super Bowl, a pair of killings for which no one has ever been convicted.

At least two men in Lewis' entourage that night, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, and Lewis himself, were involved in the brawl outside the Cobalt Lounge in Atlanta's Buckhead district hours after the St. Louis Rams beat the Tennessee Titans (who were present thanks to the most controversial lateral in NFL history), 23-16, in Super Bowl XXXIV.

All three were charged with murder, though prosecutors reduced the charges against the linebacker, allowing him to plead guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to police, ostensibly in exchange for his testimony against his friends. On the stand, Lewis said he was trying to break up the fight and didn't see anyone do any stabbing. Two key witnesses also changed their initial accounts about the degree of his involvement.

The jury acquitted both Oakley and Sweeting, so the one year of probation to which Lewis was sentenced on the misdemeanor obstruction charge was the only punishment ever meted out for the two killings. Lewis was also fined $250,000 by the NFL and settled lawsuits by the families of the victims out of court.

But, of course, you know all that if you've been paying any attention to the annual fortnight of Super Hype leading up to Sunday's epic clash between the Ravens and San Francisco. When that bloody scene in Atlanta is mentioned at all by the cogs in the NFL's publicity machine,   though, it's to underscore how nobly Lewis is handling related questions this time around. As opposed to the days leading up to his last Super Bowl appearance, a year after Lollar and Baker bled out on the street, when he actually said:
Yes I got money. Yes I'm black and yes, I'm blessed. But at the same time, let's find out the real truth. The real truth is (this) was never about those two kids that's dead in the street. This is about Ray Lewis.
In the ensuing 13 years, he's upgraded to gently scolding those who ask the questions, while treating his own victimization in a much more circumspect fashion.
"Nobody here is really qualified to ask those questions," he said. "I just truly feel that this is God's time, and whatever His time is, you know, let it be His will. Don't try to please everybody with your words, try to make everybody's story sound right. At this time, I would rather direct my questions in other places. Because I live with that every day. You maybe can take a break from it. I don't. I live with it every day of my life and would rather not talk about that today.
At least two reporters decided to tell the story of how the deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar affected someone other than Ray Lewis. Tim Graham of the Buffalo News contacted Lollar's mother after the Ravens beat the Patriots to qualify for the trip to New Orleans, traveled to Akron, Ohio -- the hometown of both victims -- and wrote a rather powerful piece on their survivors which ran in the News last Sunday. A very similar story also ran in the Washington Post.

Drew Magary sums up the anti-Lewis sentiment nicely in a Deadspin piece aptly headlined "The Hater's Guide to Ray Lewis."
It's not exactly daring to hate Ray Lewis. Facebook data show that most people are rooting for the 49ers to win the Super Bowl, and I'm sure "FUCK RAY LEWIS" has a lot to do with that. No one disputes that Lewis should be a Hall of Famer, and I guess we can all agree that he's a good leader. He sure shouts a lot. What is in dispute is whether he's an overrated, self-aggrandizing sack of shit who throws God in your face any time you accuse him of being anything less than a saint.
This being the age of media contrianism, there is a backlash to the Lewis backlash. Deadspin's take on the Buffalo News and Washington Post stories carried a headline, "How Two Newspapers Ended Up Staging The Same Sob Story About The Ray Lewis Murder Case," which was snarkier than anything in the inside-baseball narrative itself.

So where does We Want Marangi come down on all of this? I came to the conclusion while covering the Bills as a full-time beat in the 1990s that the notion that watching men play football, then talking to them about it for a few hours a week offered any insight into their true character is pretty ridiculous.

I saw Bruce Smith routinely mythologized by the national media when it came through town. Meanwhile, many of his teammates barely tolerated him due to his undeniable talent, but showed little use for him as a person.

Doug Flutie's public image as the scrappy little quarterback that could conflicted with the locker-room politician who campaigned among select teammates against Rob Johnson, while deftly presenting himself as an anything-for-the-team guy to media and fans.

When Chris Spielman retired after taking a year off to support his wife, who was being treated for breast cancer, I wrote the following for the BuffaloPOST:
Once in a while, when someone finds out I spend part of my working life talking to and writing about professional football, he or she asks, "What's (insert name of Buffalo Bills player here) like, anyway?" 
My usual answer? "I don't know." 
I don't know that being friendly and eloquent with the press or fans necessarily makes an athlete a good human being. People thought O.J. Simpson was a pretty nice guy for about one quarter of a century. 
Likewise, a player not comfortable in the limelight or with public speaking can be the most solid citizen on the roster. 
We see athletes on the field and in the locker room (and occasionally in court or at the mall). The gauzy up-close-and-personal features seen nightly on the nightly news, ESPN and on every pre-, post- and mid-game show might make us think we know these guys, but we don't. At least I don't.
That pretty well sums up my feelings on Ray Lewis. Rationally, I will never know what happened that night in Atlanta, or how he really feels about it, beyond clearly feeling victimized by the whole mess.

Nor do I know whether he is really the Patton-esque leader of men the ESPN's of the world love to portray him as, or if his exhortations trigger the same sort of eye-rolls and snide comments Smith used to get from his Buffalo teammates.

But there is little rational about being a fan. Which is what makes it fun. We get to love, hate, excuse or ridicule based on nothing more than geography, favorite color or other instinctive impulse. It's sort of like politics, except free of real-world implications.

I had sort of been dreading this Super Bowl, due not only to the Lewis factor, but also the hype machine's unending fascination with the siblings who coach the Ravens and 49ers. That's another column entirely, one I have no intention of writing. After thinking this through, though, I realize my feelings toward Lewis have less to do with him than with the myth-making hordes who make me give the whole mess a second thought in the first place. And it should be a good, even great, game between two teams who have proven themselves the NFL's best.

Like it or not, we are guaranteed this much on Sunday evening: We will get to see Ray Lewis cry before the game, and again after, however it turns out.

After all, the cameras are sure to be on him.