Close Reading: Did Grantland Rice Misquote Grantland Rice's Most Famous Quote?

Not long ago, the staff of ESPN's Grantland objected to a letter published by our Grantland Comments and Corrections Desk, which argued that the site's slogan misquoted Grantland Rice. After extensive research, Deadspin has concluded that Grantland's version of the slogan is valid. The irregularity is the result of Grantland's having chosen an irregular literary mascot.

The quotation in question comes from Rice's 1908 poem "Alumnus Football." Grantland's version reads:

For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name
He writes—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game.

Our letter-writer claimed that the correct text had "mark" and "write" reversed:

For when the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name
He marks—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game.

The latter is how the lines appear in Charles Fountain's Sportswriter: The Life and Times of Grantland Rice, which reproduces the full text of "Alumnus Football," all 13 quatrains of it. ("And when he tackled at Success in one long vicious bound / The fullback Disappointment steered his features in the ground.")

So who attests to the Grantland version? Well, Grantland Rice did. In his memoir The Tumult and the Shouting: My Life in Sport, Rice wrote:

Back in the gloaming, I wrote a piece of verse entitled, "Alumnus Football" which closed with these two lines:

For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,
He writes—not that you won or lost—but how you played the Game.

That gloaming gets thicker. The Sportswriter version of "Alumnus Football" doesn't close with those lines at all; there's a whole stanza afterward. Was Rice misquoting himself?

The Deadspin Literary Desk set out to find the original of the poem. After a week of inquiries at libraries and newspaper archives, the Literary Desk was rewarded with a copy of a newspaper clipping, courtesy of the Vanderbilt University Library Special Collection. It comes from Box 4, File 23 of Rice's papers, in a scrapbook of his columns for the Tennessean, which were published under the title "Tennessee 'Uns."

The clipping doesn't contain an issue date, but it appears to be the same column that Fountain dates at June 16, 1908. As in Sportswriter, "write" comes before "mark."

Close Reading: Did Grantland Rice Misquote Grantland Rice's Most Famous Quote?S

The Vanderbilt Alumni Association was unable to find any earlier written evidence of the poem. The Vanderbilt alumni magazine did not begin publishing until 1915; a 1909 edition of the Vanderbilt Quarterly reported that the sportswriter had spoken at the Football Banquet of 1908 — delivering remarks titled "Out With the Old, In With the New" — but it did not reproduce Rice's words.

So the "Tennessee 'Uns" clip appears to be the earliest text available. Does that make it definitive? Charles Fountain wrote us:

[H]e reworked it when he republished it later, in a collection of his poems and when he republished it in his column, which he did numerous times through the years. Most notably he dropped a final couplet that appeared in the original, and let how-you-played-the-game as the final line. But he also switched around writes and marks. The correct answer is that he wrote it both ways—writes/marks originally and marks/writes later, and more commonly.

Close Reading: Did Grantland Rice Misquote Grantland Rice's Most Famous Quote?S

Thus a version published in the Pittsburgh Press on November 2, 1914, is only 11 stanzas long, and it ends on the famous lines — this time, with "mark" coming before "writes." (It also, among many other things, capitalizes "HOW" and changes "The massive guard named Failure did a two-step on his spine" to "...did a tango on his spine.")

Which version of the lines is better: "write" before "marks," or "mark" before "writes"? We asked Stephen Burt, a professor of English at Harvard and a published poet. His analysis:

The second version seems to me so much better than it might have been what Rice wrote, and the first version generated by a copyediting-level mistake. You mark (make a mark) against a name on a list (X or O, W or L) but you write a qualitative description (how you played the game) — the second version is the one that makes sense.

In defense of the first version: there's something pleasingly archaic about "marks... how you played the Game," with "mark" in the sense not of "make a mark" but of "witness; take visual notice" (since if you believe in God you must believe that God marks, sees, witnesses our behavior) — but to "write against your name," in any English of which I am aware, would mean not to make a mark beside but to attack in writing, to pen tracts against.

Making sense is a tricky test to apply to "Alumnus Football." This is a text that includes the line "His first thought was a train of cars had waltzed across his face." It's a fable in which the protagonist "dashed into the thickest of the fray" in vain, only later to be admonished by the wise old coach Experience to "go in there low and hard" ("Forget all this New Football as you move on yard by yard," the Pittsburgh Press edition adds). In other words: Don't run north-south; run north-south. A poem that includes the line "His first thought was a train of cars had waltzed across his face" is not the work of a writer particularly concerned about where the boundaries of English idiom might lie.

What have we learned, in the end? Grantland's choice of the text for its motto is not necessarily wrong. And Grantland Rice really was a brutally awkward poet.

Special reporting by Jack Dickey, and special thanks to Teresa Gray, at the Vanderbilt University Special Collections and Archives.