My favorite team | By Alan Grant

On those rare occasions when art does what it's supposed to do, when it successfully imitates life, capturing an aspect of reality, forever encasing it like a snapshot -- or better yet, a still-life painting -- the effect is nothing short of moving. And when such a scene represents a particularly poignant part of your professional life, you cherish it. The final scene from "North Dallas Forty" is the still-life equivalent of an inside view of professional football. At least that's what it is to me, a former player in that league.

You've probably seen it: Nick Nolte's character, Phil Elliott, has been called into the owner's office to be informed that he's being suspended for some improper actions. The evidence is a photo of Elliott, at a party, taking a hit from a joint. But his real transgression is much more severe than that -- though he plays like hell and gives every ounce of his body to the game, he somehow retains his soul. In other words, he never pretends that his entire self-worth is tethered to being a professional football player. Of course, the suits hate this about him.

Nick Nolte
Phil Elliott knew what he was talking about in "North Dallas Forty."

At one point in the meeting, Elliott's coach (a loose caricature of the late Tom Landry) utters some refuse about "making sacrifices for the team." The beauty of this scene, and the essence of what the scene represents, lies in Elliott's response.

A perfectly sardonic Nolte asks, "The team? "We're not the team."

Motioning to the owner and general manager," he says, "They're the team. We're just the equipment."

Those particular words and that particular sentiment come to mind every time someone asks me who my favorite team is. When they ask, I usually refer to that scene. But most folks still don't get it and that nagging question becomes a question of my sanity: "How can you not have a favorite team?"

Perhaps I need a therapist to help me get to the root of this. Maybe professional intervention can help me communicate my feelings to a sports-hungry people who constantly ask for my perspective but never seem to digest it.

I've often wondered how such a session would go. I think something like this:

* * * * *

Hello doctor, I have this problem.

"Have a seat."

I'm besieged by the question of who my favorite football team is. How can I possibly have a favorite team? I played in the NFL for five years and I was employed by four different organizations, each of which, if I'm not mistaken, has managed to stay in business long after my departure. I mean, I played for these teams, but I was never actually the team, you know?

"I don't really buy that. Continue."

OK, perhaps I'm not being completely honest. Perhaps it isn't simply my view of football as occupation that precludes me from loyal fandom. No, doc, I think it started in childhood.

"Go on."

My parents raised my siblings and me in Altadena, a small suburb of Los Angeles. The local team was the Rams. The rule was: If the game wasn't sold out in advance, it would be blacked out in our area. Well, the games were never sold out, so instead of the Rams, any number of teams inhabited our television on Sundays. Actually, it was two televisions. In our family, football was a social event and my dad would routinely stack one small TV. set on top of the big one, and a bunch of his friends would come and spend Sunday afternoons watching football and eating. Thanks to the lack of blackouts and "the stack," each Sunday became a smorgasbord of 'ball.

But there wasn't one team of choice. The whole league came into our den on Sundays. For me, it wasn't the teams, it was the players who captured my interest -- especially the running backs. Chuck Foreman with that smooth-ass spin move; Tony Dorsett running low to the ground, as if on roller blades; Payton stiff-arming one cat, then running through another; and, of course, the sheer speed of O.J.

"So which one was your favorite?"

Charles White
Heisman winner White led USC to a national title -- but that's not what made him so great.

Oh, none of those guys. My favorite player was a tailback at USC, a cat named Charles White. He wasn't the biggest, fastest or most dynamic. But I instantly identified with him.

Why was that?

Charles White was quite simply the toughest player I'd ever seen. In those days, the S.C. tailback carried the ball damn near every play, and White took so many hits, so much punishment and abuse. But no matter how many shots he took, he never stopped, he never slowed down, and he never backed down. He just kept running.

"Did his team win all the time?"

I think so. Actually, I think they won a National Championship one of those years, but you know, I didn't really care about that.

"Why not?"

Because it wasn't about the team he played for. In fact, I didn't care whom he played for. I just wanted to watch the guy run. The other aspects of the game, including the final score, just didn't compare to what he did with the rock, you know?

"And you still feel that way about football, even though it's a team sport?"

Well, yeah. There are still guys I love to watch. Take Michael Vick. In my opinion, the most explosive entity on the planet. Dante Hall is liquid. And Marvin Harrison. Hell, there are some leopards that wish they had that kind of body control.

"I know you appreciate all that, but football is not an individual sport."

Ever read that book, "Candide"? In the final scene, Candide says to his friends, "Each of us must cultivate his own garden."

"Voltaire, right? And what does that have to do with this?"

Yeah, Voltaire. And it's actually pretty simple, doc. See, football may be a team sport, but it's about individual matchups. And each matchup is independent of everything else happening around it. For instance, the cornerback trying to lock down the receiver can't worry about the linebacker trying to cover the running back, or the o-line protecting his quarterback. I mean, they might be his boys and he supports them and all, but it ain't like that corner can actually do anything else other than his own job, you know?

"OK, I get that. But there's something else, something you aren't telling me."

You're pretty sharp, doc.


Well, it was in the winter of '93 while I was still with the 49ers. I had just finished a workout and I was sitting at my locker when I saw Bronco, the equipment manager, performing a task that, for me, would come to define pro football. He was holding up jersey No. 92, which had belonged to Tim Harris, a defensive end. Harris had led the team in sacks that year, with, like, 16 or something. But Harris' contract was up, and he wasn't likely to return the following season.

This was about the time Reggie White, embarking on what I believe was the first ever NFL free agent world tour, was scheduled to make a stop in Santa Clara. I remember watching Bronc, with a quick rip, tear HARRIS off the back of the jersey, preparing to replace it with White's name.

"How did that make you feel?"

It's not so much what I felt right then. I mean, I had already been cut by one team, and I knew I was gonna get cut by the Niners at the next training camp. See, three years earlier they had drafted this guy named Dexter Carter in the first round. They wanted him to return punts, but he couldn't catch. I mean, the cat could run, but he couldn't catch a cold, you know?

So they signed me to return punts that season. But as soon as Carter learned to catch, I was gone. So I already knew the deal. I mean, I no longer believed in fairy tales, and the game, though exhilarating and, how do I say it, "pure," on Sunday afternoons, was just a f------ job the other six days of the week. But when I saw how that detached interchangeability of players applied to every single man in the league, my perspective changed. And I began to really appreciate the guys who played the game.

"Guys like this Harris person?"

Well, yeah, him. But there was one individual in particular who really defined it for me.

"Who was that?"

Joe Montana
Not even Joe Montana was bigger than the "team."

Just a few feet from the equipment room was Joe Montana's locker. Just a few weeks from that day, the Niners traded Montana to the Kansas City Chiefs. Ah, man, I remember listening to all the local talk radio shows. For an entire fortnight, the Bay Area was awash in some serious weeping and gnashing of teeth. The best line came from one particularly wounded guy whose hysteria got the better of his judgment. "Now the 49ers will never win another Super Bowl," he cried.

You know what, doc?

"What's that?"

They didn't win another one. Not until two whole years later.

"So what's your point?"

Simple. Not even Joe Montana was the team. Oh, that reminds me of another thing Nick Nolte's character says in "North Dallas Forty." Same scene, if I recall. Phil Elliott rips the curtain that shrouds the truth much like Bronco ripped the name off that jersey that day. At that moment, his football career is over and he's free. He's free to be honest, not only with the suits in the room, but finally free to be honest with himself. He looks into the eyes of these men who have absolutely no point of reference for the visceral, mental or spiritual aspects of football; the ones whose names appear on his paychecks, the ones who accuse him of caring only about those paychecks, and he tells them: "The only thing that's real about this game ... is me."

"But come on, it's just a movie."

Not to me.

"Well, I think I know who you'll be rooting for on Super Bowl Sunday."

Yep. Same ones I root for every Sunday. Every man out there, doc.


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