Don DeLillo’s Nuclear Football


On Sports

American football had a violent year in 2017.

The refusal by all thirty-two National Football League teams to sign free agent Colin Kaepernick, a black quarterback who had started kneeling during each game’s national anthem in the summer of 2016 as a form of protest against police brutality, ignited a national political debate that often devolved into ugly racial vitriol. After additional players began kneeling to take up Kaepernick’s cause in his absence, President Donald Trump made the NFL a target of repeated angry tweets, railing that the protesting players were disrespecting the whole country and condemning NFL team owners for not punishing the players. The sad apotheosis of all this noise came when Trump, in his first State of the Union address, appeared to make reference to Kaepernick and other kneeling players when he said that a twelve-year-old boy’s organized effort to lay flags at the graves of veterans “reminds us … why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”

As the violent rhetoric spread on social media throughout the season, the NFL saw its prime-time television ratings drop precipitously. It’s unclear how much of the problem was political; people who say they watched less football in 2017 cited a whole host of additional complaints: too many games, bad games, unfair games, too many ways to watch a game on something other than television, too many things to watch besides football.

And always in the backdrop, there is the violence of the sport, and the growing unease over what professional football does to the brains of its players. A study at Boston University last year of 111 brains belonging to deceased NFL players found chronic encephalopathy (CTE) in 110 of them. Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots star and convicted murderer who died in prison last year, had CTE when he died at twenty-seven. He had played only three seasons of pro football.

No novel nails the omnipresent violence of football better than End Zone, Don DeLillo’s second novel, published in 1972.

Yes, the NFL has changed since 1972. It’s grown into a fourteen-billion-dollar, logo-soaked commercial circus. It has become, arguably, even more DeLilloan. But the game itself has not changed much. (It is why the most accurate football movie, to this day, is North Dallas Forty, from 1979—years pass, American culture changes, but football culture remains generally the same.

End Zone isn’t even about a professional player but a college player in dusty West Texas—readers today will repeatedly be reminded of the book, movie, and television series Friday Night Lights. The narrator is Gary Harkness, a running back and a reluctant team captain. Like almost every DeLillo character feels toward his occupation or obsession, Gary is both apathetic and passionate about football.

Gary gets kicked out of Syracuse, then heads to Penn State, then quits Penn State because he’s bored by the repetitiveness of practice. His coach implores him to keep at it, arguing that football bestows moral lessons and life skills. Gary asks him, “You’re saying that what I learn on the gridiron about sacrifice and oneness will be of inestimable value later on in life. In other words if I give up now I’ll almost surely give up in the more important contests of the future.” The coach says, “That’s it exactly,” and Gary replies, “I’m giving up.”

After Gary quits the University of Miami and then quits Michigan State, he again tries to live at home with his parents but ends up at Logos College in West Texas because “I had discovered a very simple truth. My life meant nothing without football.”

At Logos, Gary (and the book) becomes fully immersed in the language of nuclear war. He reads “an immense volume about the possibilities of nuclear war” for a course on “modes of disaster technology” (an extremely DeLillo college course indeed) and becomes “fascinated by words and phrases like thermal hurricane, overkill, circular error probability, post-attack environment, stark deterrence, dose-rate contours, kill-ratio, spasm war.”

At this point, we are squarely in Don DeLillo territory: the language is meant to exhaust, to glaze eyes. The melding of Gary’s football routine with his inner nuclear preoccupation is more of a macro effect. It doesn’t rely on actually knowing what half these terms mean; they are there to paint a larger picture when you step back.

When Gary first meets Myna, who will become his girlfriend, he notices her because of her orange dress and the “mushroom cloud appliquéd on the front.” When they meet, Gary is wearing lampblack under his eyes, and reflects that, “I didn’t know whether the lampblack was very effective but I liked the way it looked and I liked the idea of painting myself in a barbaric manner before going forth to battle in the mud.” Later on, he tells Myna that when she wears the dress, “You look like an explosion over the desert.” He means it as praise.

The nuclear language is in fact more the point than the football; it’s the only interest Gary has outside of his sport. The most appropriate End Zone cover design, of the many versions over the years, is the edition that simply bears a nuclear reactor symbol with a football at its center.

When we finally get a big, bursting set piece—thirty-eight pages of game action, Logos against Centrex—Gary describes what he’s seeing in reverent, militaristic language. It sounds like a Game of Thrones battle sequence. “The special teams collided, swarm and thud of interchangeable bodies, small wars commencing here and there, exaltation and firstblood, a helmet bouncing brightly on the splendid grass, the breathless impact of two destructive masses, quite pretty to watch.”

No one ever accused Don DeLillo of being too subtle. But lest you think the message of football as war is being hammered home too hard, DeLillo offers a treatise on “the exemplary spectator,” who, Gary insists, “has his occasional lusts, but not for warfare, hardly at all for that. No, it’s details he needs—impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols. Football, more than other sports, fulfills this need. It is the one sport guided by language, by the word signal, the snap number, the color code, the play name.” (Of course, Logos, in Greek, means “words” or “reasoning.”)

A football spectator may not lust for warfare, but warfare is what the spectator gets. Even in the locker room at halftime, the players and coaches psych themselves up for the rest of the game with noises of anger. “Cree-unch. Creech. Crunch,” one coach chants. Another coach screams, “This is footbawl. You throw it, you ketch it, you kick it. Footbawl. Footbawl. Footbawl.” (It is a perfect football coach line; I think of it extremely often.)

As they run back onto the field, the players conjure for each other images of cartoonish violence to get in the spirit:

“They’re out to get us. They’ll bleach our skulls with hydrosulfite.”
“They’ll rip off our clothes and piss on our bare feet.”
“They’ll twist our fingers back.”
“They’ll kill us and eat us.”

In the dorm, watching an NFL game, Gary reflects that, “In slow motion the game’s violence became almost tender, a series of lovely and sensual assaults.”

Of course, there is nothing lovely about seeing a player get hit in the head by another player’s head, drop to the field, and take a long time to get up. And that is an image NFL fans see with regularity. The cover of the December 18, 2017 issue of Sports Illustrated reads CARNAGE: INSIDE THE NFL’S SEASON OF PAIN. The number of concussions in the NFL in 2017 grew to 281, the highest it has been in the last six years.

The NFL has sought to improve safety by introducing new and more high-tech helmets. But some say no helmet can ever make the game safe. Rich Cohen, author of the book Monsters, about the famously terrifying 1985 Chicago Bears team, says that some of the defensive tackles he interviewed for the book told him, “Our game plan was, we’re going to get to know your second-string quarterback today.” Their intent was to injure.

“Football is violence,” Cohen says. “You can’t get rid of it, because then there’s nothing left. If you take the violence out of football, you don’t really have football.”

DeLillo knew it, and he captured it perfectly.


Daniel Roberts is a business journalist in New York City. He has written about books for Salon, NPR, the Daily Beast, LitHub, The Millions, the Morning News, and more.