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Excerpt: "1,001 Days in the Bleachers"

November 18, 1983

My grandfather coached football. He won the first Sugar Bowl, fifty years ago this coming New Year’s, when Tulane beat Pop Warner’s Temple team; you can look it up. As a child, I knew this, and I knew him as the man sitting in the comfiest chair in the house, cigar in one hand and drink in the other, watching television and telling stories about those days and before, but to me the stories were a confusion of names and places—Cooper, Bierman, Stillwater, Baton Rouge. Not that my grandfather was a boring old man—he never was and never will be, for the stories have been honed by years of being told and retold, and although they wander to include the details he remembers at the moment, they come to points precise as wedding silver—but that I was incapable of associating the man telling the stories with the events of so long ago. It was as if he were making the stories up as he went along, or—worse yet—as if he were the sole surviving biographer of a man long since gone.

That is a spooky thing, watching someone pack and unpack memories like so many furnishings, enough to intimidate any child, but it is a quality he shares with many of his age, I think, and with many of his generation. In the days before the tape recorder, the instant camera, eight millimeter and videotape, before jet planes, before convenient air travel in general ( Knute Rockne went in an airplane long before Buddy Holly did ), the only thing you could rely on to fill the hours spent on trains, going from game to game, was either your skill as a storyteller or your ability as a listener—and usually both. The stories my grandfather tells are almost completely true—this is what makes them great; they never arouse disbelief—but they are also finely crafted, as if in exchanging them again and again with the very friends who were in those same stories they lost extraneous details, were embellished in the subtlest manner, until a finished version was reached. And after the stories were completed and repeated, there was always Negative Bull.

Negative Bull, my grandfather explains, is a game played by a group upon an unwary subject, although games of solitaire are not uncommon—played by one person upon a subject. Today, it is practiced, unknowingly, everywhere, but it was perfected as an art in the long hours of train travel. The object, as the name dictates, is to get the subject to bullshit, eventually prodding him into such a state that he will get up out of his seat to make his point. The person who agitates the subject into a standing position wins. In solitaire, the winner achieves the simple satisfaction of outsmarting the subject, but with the added risk of having to calm him without help.

In a game with Toby Pearson—his good friend of recent years, a 1916 graduate of Alabama and, to boot, a Coca-Cola distributor in his region of West Virginia—he could begin by asking, “So what is it that makes this Bear Bryant such a good coach?” and have him already on the edge of his seat. Toby, however, could accept the gambit without losing control—a rare quality—and for years they would meet regularly for an afternoon-long lunch, “with only two rules,” he says. “One, that you couldn’t say you’d heard the story before. And two, equal time.”

There are few stories showing Negative Bull in detail—there is a limit to everyone’s memory, after all—but I have no trouble picturing them, this group of coaches and writers, friends and wives, playing Negative Bull in a railroad car or hotel lobby or speakeasy (it seems a game well suited to drinking ) and so flustering a victim he goes off muttering about these simpletons without realizing he is the biggest ass of all. It is a game of elites played upon the rest of the world one at a time, and as some of the best participants were sportswriters—especially Fred Russell from the Nashville Banner, he says—it shows what a peculiar relationship players and coaches had among themselves by today’s standards.

It is a familiarity that is foreign to me, both as a journalist and as a grandson. Once, when he visited during the summer, we were sitting and watching the Cubs, and he was talking and trying to get me involved in the game. I, full of adolescent petulance, would have none of it. To almost everything he said or noticed—Ron Santo’s soft hands, Don Kessinger’s long reach—I said, “I know.” My grandfather is, I think, a happy man, of good disposition, but he could get serious quickly; moments like that reminded you suddenly of his great size and his years as a football coach, that he had played both sides of the line at the University of Minnesota and had set a Big Ten track-and-field record that still stands for throwing the hammer of that era’s size and weight. In such moments he never threatened you physically—not in the slightest—but it seemed as if he were leaning on you, or preparing to. “Now look,” he said, “old people have lived a long time and they have a lot of things to talk about. They don’t get a chance to talk about these things very often. So do me a favor—don’t say, ‘I know,’ because that’s the worst thing you can say to an older person. No kidding,” and he twisted his head sharply for punctuation and went back to watching the Cubs. I don’t think I’ve said “I know” to him more than a handful of times since.

We journeyed out to Wheeling, West Virginia, more Thanksgivings than not, my family and I, before I went to college, until watching the Detroit Lions play in the mud became almost as much a ritual as Thanksgiving itself. Last year, I went out myself, and now that I too had some stories I was trying to preserve as truthfully as possible—I am compulsive to a fault with memory, but as my grandfather says, you don’t learn these things from strangers—my grandfather’s stories became clearer than they had ever been, clearer in their intent and in what they were trying to salvage. He talks often of the 1923 game against the Fighting Illini, favored to win “by thirty or forty points, no kidding.” The Golden Gopher defensive line, including himself and his future best man, Conrad Cooper, held Red Grange to minus yardage, however, and Minnesota won. Yet, the point he lingers on is not a single memory of throwing Grange for a loss, nor anything specific about the game, but that it was the first game played at Minnesota’s Memorial Stadium, that they had dedicated the stadium Minnesota still plays in with an almost impossible victory.

Last weekend, along with my father, we drove back to Wheeling on the turnpike, past farms and tilting columns of smoke, the smell of burning leaves seeping into the car and lingering for miles. We spent Saturday—all of Saturday—watching college football, three games in all: first UCLA and Arizona, to scout the Bruins for the Rose Bowl only to watch them be virtually eliminated, then Auburn and Georgia, two teams in the top five in a spirited game, and finally Tennessee and Ole Miss, in which Ole Miss pulled the second upset of the day. This is the behavior of a football fanatic, but I didn’t mind. I listened to them— my father and grandfather— tell stories, correcting each other on what details mattered. Toby Pearson is dead in the last couple of years, and so is Conrad Cooper and many other close friends of my grandfather, so he does not get much of a chance to exchange the stories he spent a lifetime gathering, but I could listen to them as long as he is willing to speak.

He is an old man, eighty years old, and does not feel fit enough to attend the fiftieth Sugar Bowl, but he sent in his place a letter to be included in the program. In it, he described the biggest play of that first game, when, down 14 –3, Tulane’s “Little Monk” Simons ran a kick back for a touchdown, and they went on to win in the second half. My grandfather wrote that five key blocks broke Simons into the clear, but that he would never tell who threw them because that way any member of the team could claim responsibility for turning the game around. Looking at me as he explained this, he said, “Yeah, no kidding. That’s important.” My grandfather is a person who understands just how important memories can be.