Saturday, 15 October 2011


My obit of Pete Gent, Dallas Cowboy receiver and author of North Dallas 40, is in today's Independent, you can link to it here. It was, of necessity, short, but there was a lot more I would have liked to say about both the man, and his book and film. It is probably the best novel about football, but there are other contenders. What it did was to come along, as I said in the obit, after Jim Bouton's Ball Four; a time when writer George Plimpton's Paper Lion and Green Bay Packer star Jerry Kramer's Instant Replay had offered insider looks at the NFL, while Dave Meggesey's Out Of Their League was critical of it from much the same perspective as Gent. But Gent's fiction carried with it an aura of reality, as well as a situation where the intrinsic hypocricsy of those who ran it could be highlighted.

Phil Elliott is forced out of the game he loved because he won't conform, and, unlike Seth Maxwell, the team's good ol' boy star quarterback, he flaunts his non-conformity. He delivers on the field, but that isn't enough, because in the computerised Dallas system, there is always going to be someone bigger and/or faster. In Gent's case it was Lance Rentzel, whom Dallas had identified as a potential flanker to replace Gent, and who available from Minnesota because he'd been caught exposing himself (he was married to the TV starlet Joey Hetherton, which made the story even more bizarre). It had been covered up in Minnesota, but when he was caught again in Dallas it became a cause celebe, and again, as Gent's book makes clear, there is a double standard implicit in the morality of America's Team.

I made quite a bit of the Cowboys' scouting: Bob Hayes, of course, considered himself a football player who happened to run, but most NFL teams didn't take that seriously. Cornell Green, who was a very good corner for a long time, was, like Gent, a college basketball player, and the Cowboys specialised in finding guys at small black colleges or the by-then passe Ivy League. The NBA wasn't as rich an option in those days; John Havlicek was the last player cut by the Cleveland Browns before become a star for the Boston Celtics, but as a 6-4 shooting forward Gent was a long-shot, so to speak, for an NBA career.

Dallas' computerised judgement of talent was a metaphor for our dehumanising era, and in the film--which I said unequivocally is the best ever made about American football--Steve Forrest, as the team's owner, and Dabney Coleman as his brother, who has personal issues with Elliott and who has his job because of nepotism, are the real enemy. They are eerily accurate, except perhaps for the extent of their control (though look at Dallas now) and the way Phil perceives that the coach is merely a tool of the ownership is both perceptive and prophetic, if you think what happened after Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys.

There are many other twists to admire in the film: Charles Durning's smarmy assisstant coach, and the born-again quarterback who is the coaches' favourite, and wears number 9, and who drops the extra-point snap that would have tied their cruicial game, sent it into overtime, which Phil and Seth would surely win. Eerie foreshadowing of Tony Romo in Seattle! The film deals with the medical issues every bit as strongly as Any Given Sunday would many years later (you have read my Pocket Essential Oliver Stone, haven't you?). If it ends with less blackness than the novel, well, the metaphoric ending still works.

Gent wasn't a great writer--his other novels are sometimes heartfelt, sometimes revealing, but never as compelling as his first. But his first novel was a great book, coming at just the right time, making just the right message, in just the right way. He then became part of a group of Texas cynics, many of them transplanted, like Gent, from other areas, that included singer Jerry Jeff Walker and writers Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake, who also wrote good books about football. But his heart probably lay in small town Michigan, to which he returned in the 1990s. The Bangor High School state championship in basketball was a Hoosiers-type story--exactly the sort of sporting triumph which no amount of profit or corporate pressure can take away from an athlete.

No comments :