Spend enough time on sports boards and you start to absorb a multimedia shorthand. Someone asks why Raul Ibañez is a defensive liability, and you automatically post an animated gif of his laser-like throw from the outfield right into the dirt eight feet in front of him. Someone wonders why people dislike Laker fans, and you must choose: The Lakers Bros or, "Lakers .... Llllllllllllakers!"
Or, better yet, a fan screams bloody murder about a bad NFL call that was obviously correct, and some patient soul posts a link to the Amazon page for this: Chris Schenkel's 1964 self-help book, How to Watch Football on Television. You don't even think of it as a book, really; you internalize the reference as a burn and not an object its own. But, between laughing at it for years and the $0.15 price, eventually I thought, "Reading it couldn't hurt, right?"
As we near kickoff for the most-watched football (and most-watched-by-people-who-don't-understand-football) game of the year, I began to wonder if maybe it was still a book that could help everyone.
Like a lot of people, I've reconciled myself to the idea that not only is much of what we experience crummy but also pitched to us as somehow desirable. Almost every generation of humanity preceding the recent few were worse off than we are, but nobody sold the experience to them. If someone had a megaphone at Depression-era bread lines touting to hungry people the UNIQUE, PERSONALIZED BREAD EXPERIENCE YOU WILL ONLY GET FROM PLUTOBANK'S CHARITY CUSTOMER CARE, America would have been burned to the ground.
If anything, this probably explains the modern tendency to watch white conservative rappers on YouTube or to stay up late on Twitter and watch Strippers vs. Werewolves with a complete stranger just to check its accuracy. (I am an expert in Lycanthropy.) If we accept that much of what we process is bad, there's something empowering about choosing the badness ourselves and watching on our own terms. Plus, sometimes it's transcendent. Like Gymkata.
Which is to say that a book like How to Watch Football on Television instantly seems entertaining far beyond its purported helpfulness. You can just look at the cover and know that, beyond maybe coming away better at diagramming X's and O's, there is going to be some kinda goddamn lunkheadedly Dobie Gillis-levels of earnestness that will either seem funny as hell or beamed from another planet. This is an artifact from an America where people still considered it rude not to take most things seriously. My God.
At 110 pages of patient explanation, plus glossary and a foreword by Otto Graham, How to Watch Football on Television is predictably earnest from the first page, and it would take a heart of stone to laugh at its good intentions. Within a few pages, any urge to laugh or to treat the book on anything except its own terms disappears.
The dust jacket cover features the New York Giants' offensive line squaring off against the Detroit Lions' defensive line in one of those classic "war in the trenches" moments before the snap. On the bottom right of the hardback cover itself is a blue rectangle, about a quarter the size of the book, shaped like an old television screen. On it, one sees a football player on the ground, one defender tackling another player whose arm is upraised, one man in full-arm extension as if throwing, and another approaching them with arms outstretched. It's football as offertory, the glory of the human form, sacrifice and ecstasy. If it had been printed on any book made in the last 25 years, it would be instantly hilarious. Here, it can't possibly be.
The first chapter, "The Evolution of Today's Football," establishes the terms of the book. Schenkel runs down the development of modern football television contracts, the establishment of a reliable, competitive schedule, the creation of the modern draft, and the televised audience response. He sounds as stunned as anyone that executives paid $22 million to broadcast football games in 1964.
Certainly money figured somewhere in Schenkel's designs in writing the book. He was a play-by-play man for the Giants and only stood to gain from a wider, football-savvier audience. But all self-help books are mercenary at heart. At least this one is correct and written by someone who actually understood how football appears on television. (It could have been written by the mid-1960s equivalent of this guy, for God's sake.) And Schenkel himself seems as happy to be there as anybody. It's impossible not to share a little in the evident pleasure he takes in writing this book, of all possible books.
This is why it still works for a modern audience. Schenkel's tone in describing football is positive and proud, like a dad beaming at seeing his adolescent son growing sophisticated and at ease with the world. It's written without the faux-poetical tones of an NFL Films John Facenda voiceover, before a time when people started sincerely believing the dramatic narration designed to make clip shows seem of epic significance. How to Watch Football on Television makes sense to us because it's written before the era of heroic NFL self-congratulation, self-mythologizing, and over-marketed bullshit that we all learned to stop taking seriously at some point in the last 15 years or so. That serious football is war and war is hell cover photograph and the cover illustration of players in extremis can still speak to a cynical heart because they were created three years before the first Super Bowl and without the finger-on-the-scale marketing significance of 50 years of promotion.
Naturally, a lot what makes a guidebook work in 1964 will seem horribly inapt early 50 years later, and Chris Schenkel's football universe appears hopelessly simple by comparison. Unlike baseball, whose gameplay remains essentially unchanged over the same period, Schenkel mentions that players play on offense or defense as a development that some readers might be unaware of.
The rest of the world seems unreal to modern eyes.
On Page 1, Schenkel describes the sybaritic delights of the Yankee Stadium locker room, with each player "assigned to a walk-in stall with enough room not only for clothes and equipment but for all the razor blades, shaving cream, and non-greasy adult stuff he'd care to endorse." On the next page, he effuses, "I'm sure that when the first group of admitted professionals played their inaugural game in 1895, none of them ever imagined that one day players would dress for a game in a locker room with wall-to-wall carpeting." Wall-to-wall carpeting! If Schenkel had gone on to rave about how even second-stringers had access to antibiotics, you'd throw the book at the wall. There is no way that it could be real.
The players themselves are different. Green Bay defensive tackle Dave Hanner "is a soil conservationist in the offseason," Schenkel writes, because of course he is. At least this aspect of the book aged fairly well. In Super Bowl XXIII, after the 49ers' game-winning touchdown, Dick Enberg described the man who caught the ball as, "John Taylor, who sells cars in the offseason for Reggie Jackson." That was January 1989.
Other archaisms are less cultural and financial and more a reflection of the basic structure of football. "Each of the teams in the NFL uses a basic 'T' formation, strong to one side," Schenkel writes, "because it's the the only proved offense that keeps the defense undecided between a pass or a run." Later, he writes: "All plays in the National Football League are designed to be run against a 4-3 defense."
Schenkel writes about flankers, not wide receivers, and he describes the pass-happy Giants offense as a relative novelty. Defense is, by far, the most unfamiliar to the reader. There is no zone blitz. In Schenkel's version of the game, defense is a man-to-man affair, almost wholly governed by which set of individuals is stronger or craftier. What scheming there is amounts to "red-dogging," which is to say, "blitzing." Quarterbacks can overcome the red-dog threat by going to "automatics," i.e. "audibles."
The zone defense itself is such a rarity—still awaiting the AFL style and guys like the Mad Bomber Daryle LaMonica to make them an every-down scheme—that there is exactly one paragraph on "Combating the Zone Defense," 52 pages into the book. Here is all you need to know: "The secret of penetrating a zone defense seems to lie in the ability of the quarterback to call a play which will take a defensive man out of his zone." Thank you, Mr. Buck.
There are other dated aspects of the book that leap off the page, but it seems too easy to impugn it on those points. Yes, there is a casual early-1960s sexism about curvy cheerleaders (multiple mentions) or the fact that your wife will be serving you and your neighbor your favorite snacks at home during the game. Unless you're some kind of crazy social leveler. "You might even permit the presence of your wife and kids," Schenkel says in the closing paragraph, "since they now know all about the game from reading this book." Holy crap, women can read?
But there are many other points of the book that seem familiar. Some of them are fairly obvious. Schenkel describes calling games next to Pat Summerall, and you realize just how long that guy was on television. Product oversaturation is another obvious evergreen, with Schenkel quoting Johnny Unitas's observation that "people are going to get tired of seeing so much pro football on television. Part of the lure has been the fact that it hasn't been easily attainable for the fans." He sounds like every change-resistant grouch who greeted Thursday Night Football and the RedZone Channel. "Maybe so," says Schenkel, in a timeless reply, "but the public right now is demanding it."
Schenkel is also a classic homer, which comes through on the page whenever a Giants player is mentioned. You can tell, because all the adjectives preceding or following the name carry an "-est" suffix. Not being old enough to remember Schenkel on air, I wanted to check to see if perhaps the timing of the book's writing resulted in a lot of praise for contemporary stars from a Giants team packed with them, or if this was just a Schenkel tic. I come from a long line of haters, and when I called family and said, "I am reading a book on football by Chris Schenkel," each one, unprovoked, said, "He's the worst." When I pressed for clarification, I was told, "Oh, call your cousin ___. He hates him more than I do." After getting passed along the hater chain, I was finally furnished with a high falsetto improvised song, whose lyrics were:
O, the Giants!
I love him so much!
There was also a long exchange about Schenkel's broadcast career with PBA Bowling, which was unprintable.
Other through-notes aren't so clear. Referring to Green Bay Packers guard Jerry Kramer, Schenkel writes,
By the time he reached his twenty-seventh birthday last year, Kramer had been hospitalized for a detached retina, an eight-inch wood splinter in his groin, several broken bones and vertebrae, a shotgun injury, and an automobile accident in which the car rolled over his body.
Beyond the butcher's bill aspect of the NFL, a litany of nightmarish physical abuses stretched across the league's existence, there's the subtler matter of noting that football players making bad decisions is fairly timeless. What the hell was Jerry Kramer was doing in the offseason? Every Caste Football yahoo who wants to make a racist point about Plaxico Burress or Donte Stallworth and "NFL thugs" is welcome to riddle out how somebody gets eight inches of wood shoved into his groin, how the shotgun injury happened, how Kramer wound up with the car rolling over him, which event came first, and whether he considered making some personal lifestyle changes.
But the truest statement in the book comes early on. While the animating purpose of the NFL was elided by decades of NFL Films and hacky Grantland Rice-esque melodrama, Schenkel frankly describes the league thus:
Football is big business. For the owners and shareholders, it's another money-making venture. For the coaches and players, it's their way of earning a living. The pro doesn't subject his body to a severe pummeling week after week. [...] in response to the enthusiasm of a dozen curvy cheerleaders and for the glory of the old university. The pro gives the lumps and absorbs the bruises for his own individual paycheck. He fights for his team to win, but he has the necessary resources to promote his own cause as well. [...] The professional football player's desire to win is largely economic.
This was written at a point when the institution of football should have been the most naïve about itself. What's sad is that it grew into its naïvete, nurturing and developing its own poetical credulity even as the product became more sophisticated. If Jon Gruden or Joe Buck or Bob Costas (when he's in his "Hurling Great Thoughts Down From Olympus At You" mode) had to read something so frankly hostile to delusive myth as that passage, they would explode on air. And maybe they should.
Yes, although to be fair, this book could have been titled, How to Watch Football with Your Eyes and not specified the location or medium. While you will learn nothing of zone blitzes, quarterback reads, and complex scheming—for that, look to Collinsworth, Mayock, or Jaworski—the book is still helpful and accurate in terms of football's rudiments. Plus, the $0.15 price point is still a total bargain.
"Mobutu Sese Seko" is a writer. Know of any other weird old sports books? Drop a line.