Sunday, January 25, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 261: W. C. Heinz, The Ghost of the Gridiron (#261)

W. C. Heinz, "The Ghost of the Gridiron" (1958) from The Top of His Game: The Best Sportswriting of W. C. Heinz:

As someone who isn't very interested in football--not even with the current Deflategate going on, with the scandal about the Patriots using under-inflated balls for easy gripping--I still found this an interesting profile of Red Grange. Part of that is the easy conversationalism of W. C. Heinz.

For instance, check out that first page, that rocky shore upon which so many articles break. But here, Heinz has such a fluid control over the flow and the ultimate themes that he will hit on

  1. I saw a film of Red when I was young.
  2. I'm sure I saw lots of educational films.
  3. I only remember Grange, looking huge.
  4. Grange has no memory of that film, and finds the whole celebrity thing off-putting
It's pretty great in the way that Heinz makes himself a stand-in for all the spectators, allowing Grange to be great, but also allowing Grange to separate himself a bit from that greatness.

(It's the sort of control that allows Heinz to say in one chapter that lots of writers tried to figure out what made Grange so great, but never could--and then in the next, offer up some of the attributes that made him great.)

Which is kind of a big theme of the piece, and the other part that makes this essay so easy to read: Grange is an interesting guy, who talks about how what he did wasn't all that important. Sure, he popularized football and made a lot of money and stuff--but it's not like he had to work on it or could teach it or like he's a doctor or scientist. (After so many athletes thanking God for their win, it's nice to see a great athlete have some perspective on where his games fall in the greater scheme of things.) And it's not like he did it alone: he's the one who got attention, but he had blockers and a coach and a whole team behind him.

Which is why the end has a certain single melancholy turn, when we learn that Grange has let go of all his memorabilia--which isn't the melancholy turn. After all, he did all this great stuff, but it wasn't really all that much about him or reflective of his worth, so no wonder he doesn't care about a ball with his initials. But at the end, he lets a little glimmer of nostalgia come through with his desire for a shirt from the team. Or maybe it's not so melancholy, after all: after his greatness is gone, Grange doesn't want a reminder that he was once great, but that he was once part of something bigger than him.

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