The Hester play was a joy to watch, but the season’s most dumbfounding moment of mass confusion had nothing to do with a trick play or good acting. On Monday night in San Francisco, a Candlestick Park transformer exploded and the entire stadium went dark, save for the lighting in the press boxes, the popping camera flashes in the stands, and the glint on the 49ers’ cheerleaders’ smiles. The Monday Night Football blimp’s cameras recorded the whole thing from above: There was a turquoise flash off to the left and suddenly, the show lost its light. The announcers started to worry about what might happen in a crowd like this.
And even as relative chaos reigned around them, the Gold Rush cheerleaders somehow kept on dancing.
“That’s not supposed to happen, is it?” a friend said after Candlestick went dark.
“Did you see the new Batman trailer?” I responded.
The Joker would have enjoyed the moment. The NFL is a totalizing workplace, coordinated and produced to a mechanical polish. The usual football broadcast requires just as much mindless repetition as the typical football play. A telecast without lights is as disconcerting as Devin Hester circling under a nonexistent football or Cam Newton’s pirouette on Sunday, but the confusion about what to do extends far beyond 11 professionals.
The brief chaos on Monday night, inconvenient and potentially dangerous as it may have been, brought a halt to the routine. The result was surreal, a mood that the NFL doesn’t always get or embrace. It was also fleeting. We like watching those trick plays on repeat because they’re so very rare. Even when the spell cast by the NFL’s meticulous control does break, order will be restored. The lights will come back on soon enough.
It’s not easy to step outside the context of the NFL. The spell is powerful enough to keep players rattling their own skulls, after all.
Who can resist? Long ago, there was an Oakland Raiders linebacker named Ralph “Chip” Oliver—a man that the late Al Davis once called “one of the very finest young prospects in football.” Oliver played in the late ‘60s and left pro football in 1970, at age 26, when he disrupted the machine to join a commune. He said he was tired of being treated like “another slab of beef.” When a May 12, 1970, story in the Bend (Ore.) Bulletin was published, Oliver had dropped 50 pounds on a vegetarian diet and was working at the commune’s organic restaurant in Mill Valley, Calif. He lived in “an old Victorian mansion with about a dozen other persons” and had in his room, “just for the memory,” an old pair of cleats:
“Pro football is a silly game. I don’t need it any more,” Oliver was quoted as saying in a copyrighted story in the Oakland Tribune.
“Football dehumanizes people. They’ve taken all the players and made them into slabs of beef that can charge around and hit each other. But where is their esthetic soul, the feeling they can accomplish high things?”
“The world I was living in, the world of making money, was leading me nowhere. You make money, you die at 70 and it goes in the form of inheritance. In pro football, I was only a machine. I don’t want to be a machine.”
Oliver was a serious hippie, a member of the One World Family of the Messiah’s World Crusade, which only really asked that the entire world adopt communism, and he was a rare example in a very specific era (Dave Meggyesy and Rick Sortun also quit football that year). But he also had a basic appreciation of both reality and absurdity.
Play-fakery and a blown transformer remind us that there is a “silly game” underneath the carefully prepared program. “This is crazy,” Ben Roethlisberger said to a teammate after Candlestick darkened again in the second quarter on Monday and the crowd buzzed, drunk, confused, and impatient. Brief as it may have been, I loved it, and I’d like to think Chip Oliver would have, too. It can be refreshing when the machine breaks down.