Dis-Illusion in the NFL
By Troy Lyle
Editor’s Note: This was left in our e-mail box at NoC HW, accompanying an attachment containing the final drat of this article. We reproduce it here verbatim:
“Here’s the final version. The next part should start with a quick back story about titans, the steelers and redskins, and how teams were just that–teams back then. From there I’ll segway into an 8 or so part segment into why the NFL has lost its way. Starting with the individual player (aka the premodonna syndrome), movingto why espn has ruined the nfl, to how the NFL sold its soul to capitalism, to how fantasy football killed team allegence, why pink out sucks for cancer, to the overregulating of hits, to the ridiculous nature of million dollar idiots. I’ll need your help as always. I’ll try and get it to you earlier the next issue.
And the piece itself:
Since I was gifted with my first pigskin on Christmas Eve 1977, I’ve been a fan of pro football. From the initial moment I tried to grip my small right hand around that perfectly elliptical ball with its sinuous leather, eight tight laces and tanned rawhide reeking of oils, I was hooked. So much so I knocked over my family’s Eastern Red Cedar Christmas tree the very next morning attempting to throw my first pass to my sister Stacy. Admittedly, my ability to spiral the ball had yet to be fully realized, but she still should have caught it. The pass was on the money.
Me and that Wilson football, which I named “Feets,” went everywhere together. Like conjoined twins, he and I formed an intertwined relationship where no matter how bad my skills at passing and catching were, he’d bail me out. And minus a few monumental mistakes on my part, he did. At night we would tunnel under the sheets and make a pillow fort. I’d talk us to sleep each evening as we dreamt away countless nights, making game winning play after play. I had it bad.
Those were the days before a lot of families in rural Ringgold, Virginia owned a TV, much less a color version. Video games had yet to replace school yard pick ups.
In those days kids were told to go outside and play.
“And don’t come back till you’re hurt or its dark,” were my standard orders.
This unabashed freedom provided the perfect foundation for a dreamer. And dream I did. I would throw Feets onto the rear roof of our A-framed house, dodge our Doberman Jo Jo, run under the eave, all the while attempting to calculate the exact velocity, angle and speed by which Feets would descend, during which time I would count down, like all kids do, 10, 9, 8 … Lyle makes his move … 5 … he jukes … he cuts … 3, 2 … he dives … 1 …. and he does it. It’s a miracle! The Steelers win, the Steelers win!
Pittsburgh in the seventies
Summers came and went, and Feets and I got better.
By the fall of 1979 my friends and I had formed an impromptu after school league. It didn’t matter how many people showed up. We had a rule to define every situation, but most games consisted of the classic two on two variety. You know … one kid plays quarterback, the other receiver.
On the glorious occasions we could muster together eight people, we’d play a real game with blockers, pass rushers and linebackers. 4 on 4. Full contact. Mano y Mano.
It’s amazing we weren’t injured more. There was the weekly sprained ankle and the sporadic black eye, usually resulting from a heated call involving the final score or whether someone was in bounds or not. And a few of us even managed to get better at football. Myself included.
It was in those neighborhood scrap fests and roof tossing afternoons of the late 70s that I honed my skills as a receiver. You’d be surprised how good you become after judging and catching a football for hours on end. I should say days, because Feets and I played more football than the average kid. I knew more about how a football acted on a cold winter night or a hot balmy afternoon than any kid I knew. Feets had taught me. And in retrospect he taught me more than any coach ever did.
What Feets left out the NFL provided. My earliest hero was Steeler receiver Lynn Swann. Swann was poetry in motion. He had speed but nothing earth shattering. His knack lay in the art of always, and I mean always, being in the right place at the right time. I can’t even remember the number of ridiculous plays I’ve seen Swann make, most notably his 53 yard juggling act in Super Bowl X, where he shakes off a holding Mark Washington as he falls to the ground, spins and grabs the football out of thin air.
Those were the days pro football was filled with Titans: childhood, when teams appeared larger than life, wielding more than athletic prowess and divine timing, conjuring the when’s and where’s of destiny. In the 70s, none had more prowess or better timing than the Pittsburgh Steelers, my childhood idols, who won back to back titles in 75 and 76 and four of six Super Bowls between 75 and 80; for all of you who are wondering if I was a bandwagon fan to pick the Steelers, I guess the answer is yes. I was five. Watching Swann work made me want to learn more about football.
I also quickly became a fan of hard hits as much as acrobatic catches, none harder than those of the “Steel Curtain,” a vicious bunch made up of “Mean” Joe Green, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White. These four made the black and gold seem all but unstoppable. Combine their stifling defense with the deft touch of Terry Bradshaw, the blue collar approach of John Stallworth and the bruising running style of Franco Harris, along with an offensive line who opened gaping hole after gaping hole, and its a wonder the 70s Steelers didn’t win six out of six Super Bowls.
1979: Organized Football
In 1979 I had my first opportunity to play organized football. When asked what position I’d like to play, without hesitation I said wide receiver. Tough to tell some 30 years later, but that’s the way I remember it. On defense I was thin, momentum challenged and a tad goofy. I could, however, catch anything thrown my way, a skill landing me in one game that season. I caught a five yard pass, stumbled out of bounds and fell into the water coolers. It was Pee Wee football. We all sucked.
Two seasons later I switched my allegiance to the Washington Redskins, seeing the increasing unlikelihood of convincing my family to make the 500 mile trip to Three Rivers Stadium. It was a tough decision seeing how the Steelers had just won their fourth title.
If I remember correctly, I drafted a letter to my mother outlining the possibility of a fall family vacation to Washington D.C. My sales pitch centered around an “educational” trip whereby my sister and I would obtain vastly superior levels of knowledge having visited the nation’s capital and the outlying monuments and museums. My plan was to have a cab driver swing us past RFK Stadium where I would jump out of the cab and run into the stadium and hide until I was able to beg or convince a janitor to let me into the Redskin’s locker room. Once there, I planned to immediately display my football prowess and sheer determination to Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs, who being utterly dismayed at both my knowledge of the game and savvy fortitude, would be compelled to offer me two tickets to an upcoming game of choice.
Lucky for me the Redskins were about to embark on a dynasty of their own. Under Gibbs precise tutelage and behind “The Hogs,” the greatest offensive line in the history of the game, the maize and gold managed to win three Super Bowls in less than a decade, the first coming in the strike shortened 1982 season, when the Skins ripped off six of seven wins on their way to defeating the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII.
The next came in 1987 when Doug Williams, the only black quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl, engineered a 42-10 rout of John Elway’s Broncos. The Redskins set an NFL record by scoring five touchdowns in the second quarter; Williams completed 18 of 29 passes for 340 yards, with four touchdown passes, and was named Super Bowl XXII MVP. Most of those passes were caught by members of “The Posse,” the dynamic threesome consisting of my second hero, Art Monk, and Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders. To this day they are the only three receiver combination to ever have 1000 yards each.
But it’s been a long time since 1987. And neither my love of the game, nor another Super Bowl victory by my Redskins—not even my affection for Feets—have prepared me for what I’m about to say. I’m thinking about giving up on football. Thirty one years after it all began I’m considering doing away with my Santana Moss #89 jersey, my 1983 NFC Championship hat, my Art Monk 1989 Topps card and my Supper Bowl XXII Official Program Guide. I’m considering tossing it all in the trash.
I’ll get into why in the next segment of my football evolution.