Showing posts with label Al Davis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Al Davis. Show all posts

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Robert W. Service and the Oakland Raiders

Canadian vagabond and poet Robert W. Service wrote popular narrative verse, the most famous of which may be "The Cremation of Sam McGhee." His work is not terribly welcome in academic circles, but I don't imagine the spirit of Service, wherever it is, cares much. His collected poems from G.P. Putnam still sell well; in fact, I just bought a copy. Service's is a special talent, involving a genius for rousing rhythm, song-like rhyme, and narrative drive. Service was an entertainer and a teller of tales: nothing to sneeze at.

If you happen to be an Oakland Raider [American football]fan, you will likely be suffering from depression (the team has been on the skids), but you will likely also be aware of a Service-like poem written by Steve Sabol, a producer of films and video concerning football, and narrated by the deep-voiced announcer John Facenda.

I'm a life-long Raiders fan--but by accident. Because I grew up in a canyon of the High Sierra in pre-cable-TV days, our household's TV received the signal of only one channel well. The channel happened to be an NBC affiliate, and NBC broadcast games of the fledgling American Football League, of which the Raiders were a member. So I started watching the Raiders and getting intrigued by how quirky they were, and how obsessively single-minded their owner, Al Davis, was.

At any rate, the style of Robert W. Service meets the substance, such as it is, of Steve Sabol's poem in this video from Youtube (oh, and incidentally, the Raiders somehow found a way to win today)

Friday, September 21, 2007

Are You Ready for Some Football? Yes and No.

'Tis the season for football in the U.S., little rectangles of grass lit up on Friday nights in innumerable towns, suburbs, and cities, littler rectangles of pixels and High Resolution lit up with college and professional football on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday--oh, heck, every day of the week.

I played football in high school. I was a second-string quarterback as a freshman, and my longtime friend Ronn English and I still cherish a black-and-white photograph of us: I have just pitched the ball to him, "sweep right," our classmate Rick is blocking for him, Ronn is about to take off, and I'm about to turn and look for someone to block. Such moments and photographs make all the endless practices and physical pain seem, briefly, to be "worth it," but upon further review, I'm not sure, nor do I think many football players are, even the very wealthy, although at the time, of course, to play seemed like a terrific idea. The ratio of moments-actually-enjoyed to moments-of-exhaustion-pain-and/or-boredom amounts to too small a fraction, and the more scientists learn about concussions (among other injuries), the less football seems like a net-gain.

As a junior and senior, I played safety, the furthest position back on defense, responsible for defending against the pass and for tackling anyone who has escaped defensive linepersons and line-backers. (I'm sure a conventional football fan would just love my use of "lineperson," but in fact women are beginning to play high school football.) Mostly I remember the collisions, my body meeting the body of someone running with the football. Velocity and mass, muscle and bone. I also remember the hard fields, which turned to dirt and mud in autumn; --also the odd co-mingled sounds of the fans, the cheerleaders, the grunting players, traffic far off in the night, a referee's whistle, coaches yelling, the echo in the helmet....

The following poem, "High School Football," first appeared in the South Carolina Review. The poem about high-school-football in the U.S. is James Wright's "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio" (and yes, we have no apostrophe in Martins). Last year a visiting poet-and-professor said he might teach Wright's poem and mine together, and of course I was cheered by that prospect; it's not everyday that a poet has a poem put in the company of one by James Wright. Experiencing that comparison felt every bit as good as intercepting a pass, something I did, officially, only three times over two eight-game seasons. The poem:

High-School Football

We stuffed our crotches into hometown pants.
Clacked on concrete out to mud and grass.

Hit each other. Bled. Got dizzy.
Sweat, got knocked down, got up,
got down, puked, hit each other, bled.
We were having fun.

I swear reasons existed then
for playing. Honest I swear
there was a girl on the goal line
promising a slow dance. A referee
waited to whistle me into manhood.

We were not good.
Often we had to buy the ball back
from the other team. Once were down
forty points before the game began.
Our coach sold real estate at half-time.
Our cheerleaders hung us in effigy.

We pounded each other
until no one was left on either team.
The pads and helmets and shoes
went on grunting and blocking and tackling.
Fans stayed to see which set
of equipment would win.

We could hear that Homecoming crowd
roaring in the stadium
as we loaded the cars. We drove
to the bus station, took
the midnight express out of there.

(first published in the South Carolina Review, Winter 1985).

I became a fan of the professional Oakland Raiders in a highly circuitous, even accidental, way. I grew up in a canyon of the Sierra Nevada, pre-cable, and the only television-signal that made it into the canyon was that of an NBC affiliate in Sacramento. NBC broadcast games played in the brand-new American Football League, and Oakland was the AFL team from California, so I became a fan of that league and that team by default. Oakland's owner, Al Davis, a former English major, became an interesting cultural figure; he is self-admittedly obsessed with football; he has even said that he has led "a tunnel-life." He is the first NFL owner to have hired an African American coach and a Latino coach, and the first to have hired a woman executive. A colleague and friend who grew up in Ballard (Seattle) before the Seahawks existed is also a longtime Raider fan--and a New York Yankee fan. Apparently he has chosen well, considering the "world championships" (American overstatement at its best or worst) both teams have accrued. The Raiders have fallen on hard times, but the Yankees persist, in part because of a robust bankroll and a determined owner. Capitalism and professional sports seem to be happy companions.

I don't really watch football on TV anymore, not in a sustained way. I glance at it. I leave the TV on, so it becomes a virtual campfire. Occasionally I'll walk past it or sit down for a few moments and catch a few plays. The cat will be asleep nearby. The only televised sport my wife is interested in watching is professional tennis; she claps and cheers.

You don't have to be Kafka to realize that such apparently meaningful spectacles of sport (such as football games) are, in fact, absurd, but there is still some kind of creature-comfort to be had from watching football, at least for many men (and some women), partly because old memories visit, partly because a football-play is a little drama performed in (usually) less than 12 seconds, and partly because the game and the game-as-broadcast are so highly ritualized. And there are good memories of specific players, the Oakland Raiders being known as a haven for cast-offs, eccentrics, tricksters, and not-so-gentle giants. Ultimately, football on TV is a visual lullaby.

Goodnight, James Wright, wherever you are; and let us say a prayer and/or hold a good thought for Kevin Everett, injured terribly in a professional football game two weeks ago.