There is a fine late-night row to be had over which of George Plimpton’s sports books ranks as his most daring. Plenty would nominate Shadow Box, in which our slender hero gets his nose flattened by light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. Others would agitate for Open Net—a perilous venture into the world of pro hockey—and still more, Paper Lion, which culminates with Plimpton nearly becoming the first quarterback ever decapitated during a scrimmage.
Fine and rousing as these accounts may be, I am here to tell you that the distinction belongs to Mad Ducks and Bears. I assert this knowing full well that this is the author’s most obscure athletic odyssey, little known even to devout Plimptonians.
In fact, what makes the book so courageous is the fact that it does not hang neatly on what we should probably dub the “Plimpton Hook”: that of the plucky amateur ethnographer sent hurtling into the hazards of professional athletic combat.
Mad Ducks and Bears is a much stranger and more improvisational composition, an extended suite of riffs that bop wildly in tone from madcap to mournful. The essential subject here is football, specifically the rigors of serving as a lineman. Plimpton’s guides through this inferno are a pair of world-class bullshitters: Alex Karras, a motormouthed defensive tackle (dubbed the “Mad Duck” for his deranged pursuit of quarterbacks) and the infamously hirsute offensive tackle John Gordy (“the Bear”). The initial aim of the project, as outlined by Gordy, is to provide a remedial guide for manhandling opponents.
I’m happy to report that the finished book contains precisely zero percent of such instruction. Instead, Plimpton allows these two to mouth off. There are long sections devoted to Karras and Gordy’s disastrous business endeavors, including their devout and doomed efforts to peddle a high-end vibrator known as the Picomaster. (Karras winds up with a basement full of them.)
Many pages are spent at the annual Karras golf tournament, an endeavor of such startling and persistent oddity—midgets play a prominent role, as do llamas—that Fellini would have classified the event as implausible. We also get surreal excursions into the alcoholic adventures of the famously Texan quarterback Bobby Layne, and a portrait of his brutal hazing rites.
First published in 1973, seven years after the blazing success of Paper Lion, Mad Ducks offers us football not as a ritual of discipline and valor but as a pretext for anarchy.
The book is also astonishingly forthright about the darker motives that roil beneath the pageantry of the gridiron. Here’s Gordy explaining why he returned to football after being driven from the game by nervous anxiety:
“Oh Christ!” he said. “The best thing in football was to really pop someone. One of the great joys of my life was to get a bead on a guy and really put him out. Absolutely! To lift him up right under his chin, or under his throat with the top of your helmet and put him on his back on the grass. You’ve done your job, you’ve gotten your good grade. The movie’s going to show it. That’s it. Yes, that’s why I came back to the Lions the next year.”
Do players speak like this anymore? Not often. The essential business of the league (marketing violent spectacle to the masses) has led us to a historic moment in which such candor is virtually verboten. And yet we now know—thanks to actuarial experts hired by the NFL itself— that up to 30 percent of all retired players will suffer “long-term cognitive ailments,” which is lawyer for “brain damage.” To read Mad Ducks and Bears in this context is to understand that pro football has always been predicated on huge men who report to work every day with helmets, shoulder pads, and homicidal intent.
Gordy said intensely, “It’s the frustration. They take out their frustrations through what we do on the field. They can’t go around hitting people. They’re scared to, or they don’t want to—it’s barbaric—so they pay football players to do it. But the trouble is that the game doesn’t really rid them of their frustrations. I’m not even sure that a win satisfies them, but a loss makes them grotesque. They wait for you at the end of a game. They hang over the fence, their faces twisted with hate, and shake their fists—these little people.”
He was visibly upset. He began pacing around the room. “You can feel the mob rule ticking in these people.”
Because Plimpton is freed from the mission of documenting his own incompetence, he can devote himself to the larger universe of football. “I am an eavesdropper at heart,” he tells us. And he makes excellent use of this vice.
Point Plimpton in the direction of a peewee game that Karras coaches, and he will return with this startling dispatch, one that speaks volumes about the medieval gender roles that football enforces, even among its youngest acolytes:
The teams churned back and forth, neither scoring. Behind the Jet bench a few girls stood watching the game, shifting their weight from one long, thin leg to another. “Is that your brother?” I heard one of them ask in disgust. “He fell down. He’s gross.”
It can all seem that silly. But Plimpton is too sensitive a correspondent to overlook the fragile ego dramas that prevail. He devotes a full page to a postgame interview with one of Karras’s charges, an overmatched player nicknamed Puffer:
I continued, “Puffer, did you put out any lightbulbs?”
He did not answer. He walked with his head down. My heart sank.
“No,” he said softly. “I ran away.”
This is football, boiled down to its essence: to succeed you must fear the perception of cowardice more than you fear injury. The end result, in the here and now, is a game that devours its own players, even as it bathes them in luxury and fame.
I laughed so much reading Mad Ducks and Bears that my wife often made me get up and move into the other room. But I also found the book to be more searching and sad than Plimpton’s others. Perhaps this was because of his deep love for Karras and Gordy, his willingness to elicit and record not just the high jinks but the elemental terrors of their trade.
I’ve quoted Plimpton extensively because the elegance of his prose demands transcription, not description. And so I must leave you with one final passage, the one that continues to haunt me. It comes late in the book, as Karras is sitting in Plimpton’s apartment. The two are discussing the dead bodies that, according to local lore, sometimes float by on the Hudson River.
The general perception is that these are the corpses of criminals and stool pigeons. But Karras reveals the solemn truth:
“Well, look close the next time you see a bunch of floaters going by and you’ll see they’re all old washed‑up football players. They can’t afford cement boots. And they’ll all be linemen,” Karras said. He stared moodily down at the currents and sighed. “Quarterbacks and tight ends die comfortably, in big beds, and the Irish setter is whimpering on the other side of the door, and someone is mowing the great lawn outside the big mansion. But the linemen give it up in these little rooms in the poor sections. They wake up on a cot in a room the size of a closet, and they look at their pushed-in kissers in the little mirror, and they pull out their old football jerseys with the number on the back out of the bottom drawer of the beat-up dresser, and they put them on and go up to the bridge there … and they drop off the Triboroughugh and float down here … There goes one. That’s Ed Glurk, number seventy, good journeyman tackle for the Eagles in the fifties. Always was a nice guy. Look how he rides nice and high in the water. Just behind him, that’s Al Wojciechowicz—good Polack kid who played guard for the old Yankees. He’s got his jersey on inside out. Look at him turn in the water. He always had classy moves.”
Karras is just joshing around, of course. But he’s also telling us the deeper truth about football, the one we prefer not to hear, about the disposable nature of its heroes and our own habit of turning away from the human ruin.
We needn’t dream up any Glurks or Wojciechowiczs. We’ve got our own Websters and Seaus and Duersons. New bodies drift past every year. And yet we stubbornly cling to football as a place of refuge. It’s a tainted paradox. Or a dissertation nobody will ever read: The Modern Killing Field as Personal Salvation.
This is the small miracle Plimpton achieves in Mad Ducks and Bears. He makes us love football more deeply, for its rogues and its folly and its thrills. And yet he also gently reveals to us the depths of our own corruption, those moments when the game gives way to sorrow, when the floaters appear and linger in our periphery and we must face the cruel truth that, for a few seconds anyway, we are no longer children.
Foreword copyright © 2016 by Steve Almond. From the book MAD DUCKS AND BEARS: Football Revisited by George Plimpton. Copyright © 1973, 1993, 2003 by the Estate of George Plimpton. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
Steve Almond’s most recent book is Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.