Sports Nut

What Curtis Painter and North Dallas Forty tell us about the real NFL.

What Curtis Painter and North Dallas Forty tell us about the Real NFL.

Peyton Manning's backup's backup, Curtis Painter, being tackled versus the Buccaneers
Peyton Manning’s backup’s backup, Curtis Painter, being tackled versus the Buccaneers

Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images.

I watched most of the Buccaneers’ 24-17 win over the Colts on Monday Night Football, mostly because I wanted to see how the Greenest Quarterback in the Year of the Quarterback would perform. As a cap-wearing backup to Peyton Manning (the Greatest Quarterback) for two seasons, Curtis Painter was an easy target of ridicule. In his rookie season, 2009, he played only when Indianapolis, sitting on a 14-0 record, decided to pass up the chance to finish a perfect 16-0. He didn’t throw a pass in 2010. But then Manning had neck surgery, and his gray-bearded replacement, Kerry Collins, was concussed, and the cherubic Painter started his first game as a pro. 

Painter’s two touchdown passes to wide receiver Pierre Garçon covered 146 yards on your stat sheet but just 17 yards in the air (from the line of scrimmage). He completed just 13 of 30 throws. Many of his misses weren’t close by NFL or intramural standards. But by more nuanced measurements—background, circumstance, observation—Painter did well. Afterward, Indianapolis Star football writer Bob Kravitz recognized and acknowledged what fans didn’t: that Painter never before had practiced with the starters for a full week; that he hadn’t even taken a few snaps in blowout games because Manning refused to remove his hands from beneath Jeff Saturday’s backside. 

I liked watching Curtis Painter get on-the-job training. (To be honest, I fast-forwarded through most of the Bucs’ plays; the Yankees-Tigers baseball game was far more compelling.) Not because it was beautiful, certainly, but because it was real. Fans surely know, even if they don’t really care, that there are far more Painters and Carpenters trying to make it in the NFL than there are Mannings and Bradys and Rodgerses buffing their rings and posing for their Hall of Fame busts. If you’re a Colts fan, stop tweeting that Curtis Painter sucks and appreciate how lucky you’ve been for 13 seasons—and how hard it is to play football professionally. 

If I’m feeling a bit ornery about callous disregard for NFL players, it might be because Peter Gent died last week. Gent (with a soft g) played wide receiver for the Cowboys for five seasons in the 1960s before writing the bestselling NFL novel North Dallas Forty in 1973. Along with nonfiction exposés like ex-linebacker Dave Meggyesy’s Out of Their League and ex-baseball pitcher Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, both published in 1970, North Dallas Forty introduced the public to actual life inside the locker room and on the field. Gent and Meggyesy supplied more searing critiques because football was more depraved and crippling than baseball. NFL trainers dispensing steroids, painkillers, and barbiturates “do more dealing in these drugs than the average junky,” Meggyesy wrote. In a foreword to a 30th-anniversary edition of his roman à clef, Gent wrote: “Anyone who makes it as a professional football player has survived the horror of real violence, facing the monster that lives in his heart—these men were true gods in ruins. Whether he stays a man is still a question of fate because the monster is always straining to be loosed again.”

Gent received a writing credit on the 1979 film version of North Dallas Forty, which starred Nick Nolte as wide receiver Phil Elliott of the North Dallas Bulls and country singer Mac Davis as his quarterback, Seth Maxwell (loosely modeled on Gent’s former teammate and future MNF legend Don Meredith). I watched the movie online yesterday. Once you get over the wide lapels, lumpy bodies, porn-staches, and over-the-top caricatures (a deranged offensive lineman, a “young, Christian stud” quarterback—OMG! It’s Tim Tebow!—a Maalox-swigging assistant coach), the message is as relevant today as it was then: Football is a cruel and cynical master. “Christ, how often do you put this shit in the coaches’ hearts?” Phil says as a team doctor twists a syringe filled with painkiller inside his wrecked knee.

When ownership hires an investigator to tail the philandering, pot-smoking Phil so it can void his contract, the humorless Tom Landry-esque coach B.A. Strothers lectures him about discipline and giving back to the game. “My nose is busted. I can’t even breathe through it,” Phil replies. “I can hardly stand up. I haven’t slept more than three hours at a stretch in two years. Now isn’t that giving something back? For crissake, B.A., there’s pieces of me scattered from here to Pittsburgh on these football fields! Now isn’t that giving something back to the game? Isn’t it?”

Almost 40 years after North Dallas Forty, the NFL is richer, the equipment is fancier, the stadiums are nicer, the players are wealthier, and they don’t smoke cigarettes while lifting weights. But retirees are suing the league over pensions and, twice in the last two months, head injuries. They also continue to die at young ages; former Browns and Ravens lineman Orlando Brown is the latest to go, at age 40. And, new protocols and new scientific studies or not, current players are still probably sent back onto the field too soon after suffering concussions

I don’t mean to bum you out, Nate. So let me add two things I loved about North Dallas Forty: the tiny kicker with the vowel-stuffed last name, and former No. 1 NFL draft pick John Matuszak’s demonic postgame tirade: “All you coaches are chickenshit cocksuckers! You’re all chickenshit cocksuckers!” I wish I had seen you lose it like that in the locker room, Nate. That would have been far out.