December 6, 2007
The Deep Blue G
Let me state, for the record, that I know nothing about sports.
I don't watch them; I don't follow them. My parents didn't. I never did as a kid. I don't now with my family. Occasionally in the finals of a season, a few names flutter into my consciousness and then, just as quickly, disappear. I'm not proud of this. I watch, rather wistfully, as sports informs the conversations of a wide range of folks, as I watch families and friends gather in living rooms or in bars to scream and shout and be together. I have observed all this, yet I am not part of it, and at a fundamental level, I can't understand: |
What is the pull of this thing called sports?It was in this spirit that I approached Roger Director's "I Dream in Blue" (Harper, $24.95), a chronicle of his lifelong obsession with the New York Giants football team and the 2006-2007 season. That I laughed at the many comic moments and was touched by the poignant moments, that I came to understand something of the history and present of the New York Giants, is testament to how good the book is.
Speaking of testaments (what a segue!), Director recounts that the book was prompted by his wife's insistence that he write a will.
"There was a way in which a will was a summarization," Director told me recently over breakfast at Fromin's Deli. "It represented that the best was over, that I was heading back to the clubhouse."
Perhaps a hint of how Director was going to react was apparent when the attorney asked him to name a guardian for his child. Director didn't hesitate for a second:
"Tiki Barber," he said, referring to the Giants' former running back.
Even today, Director still believes he could have eventually convinced Barber, but he could not convince his wife.
So as he was poised to become, in his words, "super-adult," Director decided to reconnect with his "superkid," and spend a season following the New York Giants, a team that has been part of his psyche since the 1956 NFL championship game played in Yankee Stadium, in which the Giants bested the Chicago Bears 47-7 and that he referred to in our conversation as "the native soil" from which all his sports desire grew.
Now would be as good a time as any to reveal that I first met Director many, many moons ago, at a mutual friend's bachelor party. As I recall, Director was trying to talk some of the more inebriated members of the party (it could have been me, but sealed court records prevent me from saying so) off the terrace ledge of a suite at the Morgan Hotel in New York. At that time, Director was a sportswriter, a columnist for the New York Daily News.
By the time I turned up in Los Angeles, Director was deep into a successful career as a TV writer-producer on such programs as "Moonlighting" (which gave him material for his 1996 novel, "A Place to Fall"), "Mad About You," "Arli$$" and "NCIS."
In my estimation, Director is one of the more genial people in Hollywood, but as he faced, in his words, "the burden of late middle-aged disappointment," he found himself falling prey to a whole host of issues: He was, on occasion, screaming at TVs and at people in bars (this was Giants related), and he was suffering from restless-leg syndrome, which was keeping his wife up at night. At the same time, his daughter was growing up, and his wife had returned to graduate school. So he decided to revisit his inner child, or in Director's words: "I got all dressed up to date the Giants again."
Sharing Director's "dream in blue" educated me about Giants lore, past and present. I gained an appreciation for the late owner Wellington Mara, coach Bill Parcells and players such as Andy Robustelli and Frank Gifford -- names that until now, meant little to me (beyond the Kathie Lee reference). Director has a particular soft spot for Robustelli -- a gentleness he ascribes to the player's first name, and the fact that he reminds him in spirit of his father. The scene where Director finally approaches Robustelli at old-timer's day at the Meadowlands is moving and revealing about the mental fortitude that is central to great athletes and so often lacking in mere mortals in general, and overly empathetic writers in particular.
Regarding the 2006-2007 Giants: Director delves into Eli Manning, the quarterback who must suffer the burden of his last name. I also learned that many players are smart, despite what we read in tabloids about their hors concours activities. As Director reiterated to me at breakfast: many are college graduates from good schools, whose attendance of classes one would not want to have to match, and who are compelled for their day job to study, review and retain tremendous amounts of information, even as their bodies receive pounding that few of us could withstand, or even appreciate.
As for Director's man crush on Barber, it continues unabated: "He's a stellar guy. He's an interesting guy because he's a guy with no boundaries in his mind about what he can do. I would not be surprised if Tiki ended up sitting in the Capitol someday."
You heard it here first.
Then there is Tom Coughlin, the Giants' coach, whom Director can't seem to abide. Director rails at Coughlin, whom he sees as a tyrant, unwilling to tailor his approach to best motivate his players. Although he acknowledges that Coughlin "works very hard," Director feels that like getting a great performance out of an actor, "you can't just have one set of rules." But it was more than that. One got the feeling that Coughlin was, in some deep way, an affront to Director's conception of the Giants as a team; an insult, in some way, to the memory of his father -- to the gentleness that Robustelli embodied.
I have a running joke with my wife, where she asks what my column is about this week, and I answer: "You know what it's about -- it's about me." So, too, Director's book is as much about the Giants as it is about him. Director has made a living writing TV scripts, and given that doing so is generally more lucrative than writing books, or writing for a newspaper, Director will most likely continue to do that for as long as they let him. But I wish that weren't the case.
On some level, "I Dream in Blue" is also about a world in which Director might use writing a book to create a new life for himself. That lets Director return to who he once was, not only as a Giants fan, but as a writer; that allows him to write not about imaginary dramas, but instead about the drama of being himself.
I asked Director whether his restless-leg syndrome had improved since finishing the book. It had not. And I asked whether the child inside him, having had another season in the sun, had been put to rest. Director confided that he had thought that by revisiting with him, he would exorcise him. But the opposite was true; "I haven't been able to get him to go away," Director told me.
That Director's personal saga had no tidy, happy ending made me ponder the difference between our own lives and those we imagine to occur between the covers of a book, or on a sports field, for that matter.
The more I pondered this gap, the more I wondered: Why are sports hailed as "the national pastime"? Why do sports continue to be the most highly rated entertainment programs and such media company profit centers?
"I Dream in Blue" led me to the following theory: People are passionate, obsessed, by sports because they are events whose outcomes can not be determined -- while the games themselves are punctuated by moments of grace, beauty, brute force, elation and victory, as well as boredom, frustration, depression and loss. They linger with the viewers for a moment, and sometimes forever. The statistics, strategies, arguments and conversation arising out of sports are but efforts to know the unknowable. And as such, are endlessly debatable, and for some, endlessly fascinating. But games end, as do seasons.
We admire the athletes not only because they stand in the arena in our places, doing what we can not, not only literally on the playing field, but also metaphorically regarding all those unknowables we seek to avoid. They act as unreflective as we imagine our childhood selves to be (although their reality, like ours, even in our childhoods, are far more complicated).
More importantly, they fascinate because they go on, from defeat as much as from victory, and even after their careers are over and despite their imperfections. They have the capacity to move on, and change even as we are stuck in who we are. That is why we fixate and freeze athletes and sports teams in their moments of greatness. At some fundamental level, they are able to treat what others care so deeply about, as a sport and a game.
We wish and dream (sometimes in blue) that we could do the same.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.