Sunday, February 5, 2017

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


(It's Super Bowl Sunday, so the staff at We Want Marangi is taking a break from taking a break that lasted for most of the 2016 season, and once again re-posting our look at Hunter S. Thompson's thoughts on one of the most uniquely American institutions. The following was first posted here in February 2013, thereby explaining the Ray Lewis and Harbaugh Brothers reference in the introduction.)

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. . .

Behemoths.

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.

Behemoths.

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 AngelsFear 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.)

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rex's Reign Ends In Ruin, Scarring Teen


For whatever other lousy traits I may have passed on to my sons, Bills fandom has not been one. At least until Christmas Eve.

My 13-year-old has always been more into baseball, with his 10-year-old brother mainly considering Buffalo football games as three-plus hours that the Xbox and/or Playstation are unavailable.

As far as their football loyalties go, Jackson (the 13-year-old) has always been something of a Patriots kid -- due to his maternal ancestry, which lends itself to Boston-centric thinking -- and an instinctively contrarian nature, which I guess is one of those aforementioned lousy traits passed down from his old man. His younger brother, Oscar, also a bit on the contrary side, loves animals, including the marine variety. So, he considers himself a Dolphins fan, as far as that goes.

None of which usually leads to much football talk on game days, with the exception of the occasional, "Is it almost over?"

Last Saturday, though, the three of us wound up watching the Bills-Dolphins fiasco, or at least the second half and overtime, when things got interesting. It was the first time I think that has ever happened -- at least since both were fully ambulatory and able to focus on anything more than a few feet away for more than a couple of minutes.

During the fourth quarter, as Tyrod Taylor was having the game of his career while bringing Buffalo back from what had been a two-touchdown deficit as recently as midway through the third, I noticed something different about Jackson.

He was getting into it,  reacting viscerally to each big play and arguing with his brother about whether Oscar was allowed, as a kid who grew up within half an hour of the stadium in which the game was being played, to cheer for Miami (for the record, he is).

There were even high-fives after Taylor connected with Charles Clay for the touchdown that put Buffalo ahead with 1:20 remaining.

Having been a Bills fan since I was way too young to know better, and despite having my own loyalties tempered by years of writing about the team (first due to the semblance of objectivity required of a beat reporter during my stint in that gig in the 1990s, then the soul-sucking grind of finding new things to write about during the past 17 playoff-free seasons), my emotions while seeing this transformation were mixed, at best.

It was good to see him getting passionate about something relatively new to him but long important to me, the way I felt earlier in the fall when Oscar asked for his own copy of Quadrophenia after hearing The Who's vintage rock opera for the first time.

But it also felt like seeing the first tell-tale signs that your offspring is coming down with something, like the runny nose that turns into a nasty cold, or the simultaneously pale-and-flushed sweats that turn into the flu.

Hoping to nip the illness early, I explained that one minutes and 20 seconds was way too much time remaining to celebrate too much, particularly when the Bills are involved. Especially these Bills.

Sure enough, one long kickoff return and a couple completions by the immortal Matt Moore later, the Dolphins lined up to try the tying field goal.

Which Miami kicker Andrew Franks, of course, managed to push between the uprights.

He would have been forced to do it twice in a row had Rex Ryan been able to manage what pretty much ever other professional and college head coach has done routinely in similar situations for the last decade or two -- get a timeout called before the snap.

The recently deposed Buffalo coach can complain all he wants that he was ignored by the official (and Corey White was frantically making the universally accepted hand signal well before the snap), but the sideline replay sure looked like Rex was waiting for the last possible second, then somehow allowed the snap to take him by surprise.

After Dan Carpenter missed yet another field goal to end Buffalo's first possession in overtime, Jackson got up from the couch and announced, with sad fatalism, "I'm going in the other room. I can't watch this."

Which is when I made perhaps my biggest mistake as a father.

"And if they win, you'll miss it," I said. "And if they lose, they'll lose whether you're watching it or not."

He sat back down.

I am sorry, Jackson.

I could have spared you perhaps the single dumbest decision I have ever seen a Bills coach make. And I have lived through the wisdom of Lou Saban, Jim Ringo, Chuck Knox, Kay Stephenson, Hank Bullough, Marv Levy, Wade Phillips, Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron, Perry Fewell, Chan Gailey, Doug Marrone and Rex.

But this. This was pretty spectacular, even by Buffalo standards.

On fourth-and-2 with four minutes left in overtime, needing a win to keep his team's slim playoff hopes from vanishing altogether, on a day when Taylor's offense had already set a franchise single-game record for yardage and his own wildly over-hyped defense couldn't solve Matt Fucking Moore, Rex decided to punt.

Maybe he thought the defense that had spent much of the previous three-and-a-half hours getting shredded had a better chance of forcing a quick three-and-out than his single-game-record-setting-offense had of advancing the football six feet.

Or, maybe Rex simply didn't know that a tie would officially snuff his team's season. Given that he apparently did not remember that he was allowed, but not forced, to field 11 defensive players at the same time on THE VERY NEXT PLAY, the latter seems a lot more feasible.

I've never been much for calling for a coach's firing in print, mainly because I don't much like the idea of someone demanding that I lose my job. But as the ball left Colton Schmidt's foot, I said, "That's it. Rex has to go."

Forget the blown icing attempt, and the 10-man thing, and the failure to instill anything resembling a two-minute offense until the final game of his tenure, and all the botched replay challenges, and keeping Carpenter around no matter how many kicks he missed, and everything else that added up to equal the two most disappointing consecutive Bills seasons I can remember.

Punting in that situation showed that, at the end, Ryan was completely oblivious to what was required to get his team into the playoffs, that he though there was some advantage to finishing 8-7-1 as opposed to 8-8 or 7-9. After all, then he could brag about being the first Bills coach since Marv Levy with a career mark above .500, thanks to the scintillating 8-8 season he produced in 2015.

"This is so ... Billsy," Jackson said, correctly.

"You don't have to watch the rest of this," I told him, knowing we'd just seen Rex keep the playoff drought alive.

He got up off the couch and headed for the kitchen. So at least he missed Jay Ajayi running free through Buffalo's undermanned defense and down the sideline for 57 yards, setting up Franks' game-winner.

At least if I have, in fact, infected my son with this chronic regional malady, he's going into the battle without any illusions. I've already explained to him how the front office's mishandling of Taylor's benching has all but ensured the team's search for a quarterback will continue unabated.

And later today, he and his brother will experience another Buffalo tradition -- watching the Bills run for the proverbial bus.