The Wound and the Bow: A Long Prologue
I know that Howard Cosell was childishly self-absorbed and petulant ("It's hard to describe the rage and frustration you feel, both personally and professionally, when you are vilified in a manner that would make Richard Nixon look like a beloved humanitarian. You can't imagine what it does to a person until you've experienced it yourself, especially when you know that the criticism is essentially unfair"); that he would obsess upon, say, the Des Moines Register's critique of his performance; that too soon after he achieved prominence, the beautiful balance between righteous anger and comic self-importance got lost and he was left only with anger and self-importance; that he once said that he, along with Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson, was one of the three great men in the history of American television; that he mercilessly teased his fellow Monday Night Football announcers, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith, but pouted whenever they teased him; that he was certain he should have been a network anchor and/or a U.S. senator; that the very thing he thought needed deflating -- the "importance of sports" -- he was crucially responsible for inflating; that after hitching a ride on boxing and football for decades, he turned around and dismissed them when he no longer needed them ("The NFL has become a stagnant bore"; "I'm disgusted with the brutality of boxing"); that, in an attempt to assert his (nonexistent) expertise, he would frequently excoriate any rookie who had the temerity to commit an egregious error on Monday Night Football (dig the Cosellian diction); that he was a shameless name-dropper of people he barely knew; that he said about a black football player, "That little monkey gets loose," then, regarding the brouhaha that ensued, said, "They're conducting a literary pogrom against me"; that the New York Times sports columnist Red Smith once said, "I have tried hard to like Howard Cosell, and I have failed"; that the legendary sportswriter Jimmy Cannon said about him, "This is a guy who changed his name [from Cohane to Cosell], put on a toupee, and tried to convince the world he tells it like it is"; that David Halberstam said that Cosell bullied anyone who disagreed with him; that he frequently boasted about Monday Night Football, "We're bigger than the game"; that he once told a Senate subcommittee, "I'm a unique personality who has had more impact upon sports broadcasting in America than any person who has yet lived"; that he once wrote, "Who the hell made Monday Night Football unlike any other sports program on the air? If you want the plain truth, I did"; that at the height of his fame, when fans would come up to him on the street to kibitz or get an autograph, he liked to turn to whomever he was with and say (seriously? semiseriously?), "Witness the adulation"; that when Gene Upshaw, the head of the NFL Players Association, said about Cosell, "His footprints are in the sand," Cosell corrected the compliment: "My footprints are cast in stone."
I know all that and don't really care, because during its first four years (1970-1973), when I was in high school, Monday Night Football mattered deeply to me and it mattered because of Cosell. I haven't watched more than a few minutes of any MNF game since then, and at the time, I had no very coherent sense of its significance, but looking back, I would say it's not an exaggeration to claim that Howard Cosell changed my life, maybe even -- in at least one sense -- saved it. MNF was "Mother Love's traveling freak show" (Meredith's weirdly perfect description), a "happening" (Cosell's revealingly unhip attempt to be hip); it was the first sports broadcast to feature three sportscasters, nine cameras, shotgun mics in the stands and up and down and around the field. Celebrities showed up in the booth: Nixon told Gifford that he wished he'd become a sportscaster instead of a politician; John Lennon told Cosell that he became a troublemaker because people didn't like his face (Cosell's comment afterward: "I know the feeling"); Cosell stood next to Bo Derek and said with pitch-perfect mock self-pity that here was a classic case of Beauty and the Beast; Cosell told John Wayne that he was a terrible singer, and the Duke agreed; after Cosell interviewed Spiro Agnew, Meredith said that what no one knew was that Agnew was wearing a Howard Cosell wristwatch. This was all cool and droll. It was all finally just showbiz, though. What wasn't was Cosell's relation, as an artist, to his material (I use the terms advisedly): "By standing parallel to the game and owing nothing to it, by demystifying it, by bullying it and not being bullied by it -- by regarding the game as primarily an entertainment, though realizing also the social forces that impacted on it -- I was able to turn Monday Night Football into an Event, and I do mean to use the capital E. Now it is part of American pop culture, and if it sounds like my ego is churning on overdrive for taking the lion's share of credit for it, then I'll take the mane."
I grew up in the '60s and '70s in suburban San Francisco, the son of left-wing Jewish journalist-activists. My mother was the public information officer for one of the first desegregated school districts in California. One day the human relations consultant informed her that the revolution wouldn't occur until white families gave up their houses in the suburbs and moved into the ghetto. My mother tried for the better part of the evening to convince us to put our house up for sale. One Easter weekend at Watts Towers, my mother looked smogward through some latticed wine bottles with a positively religious sparkle in her dark eyes. When my cousin Sarah married a black man from Philadelphia, Sarah's mother wasn't able to attend, so my mother substituted and brought the temple down with an a cappella finale of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." My father held dozens of jobs, but perhaps the one he loved the most was director of the San Mateo poverty program during the late '60s. He sat in a one-room office without central heating and called grocery stores, wanting to know why they didn't honor food stamps; called restaurants, asking if, as the sign in the window proclaimed, they were indeed equal-opportunity employers. Sometimes, on weekends, he flew to Sacramento or Washington to request more money for his program. Watts rioted; Detroit burned. My father said, "Please, I'm just doing my job." He got invited to barbecues, weddings, softball games. The salary was $7,500 a year, but I never saw him happier.
No one ever had his or her heart more firmly fixed in the right place than did my father and mother, with the possible exception of Howard Cosell. Traveling in a limo through a tough part of Kansas City on the way to the airport after a game, he saw two young black men fighting each other, surrounded by a group of guys cheering for blood. After telling his driver, Peggy, to stop the car, Cosell got out and instantaneously was the ringside announcer: "Now I want you to listen here. It's quite apparent to this observer that the young southpaw doesn't have a jab. And you, my friend, over here, you obviously do not have the stamina to continue. This conflict is halted posthaste." Handshakes, autographs. When Cosell got back in the limo and Peggy expressed her astonishment at what she'd just seen, Cosell leaned back, took a long drag on his cigar, and said, "Pegeroo, just remember one thing: I know who I am." Which, according to himself, was "a man of causes. My entire professional life has been predicated upon making the good fights, the fights that I believe in. And much of the time it was centered around the black athlete. My real fulfillment in broadcasting has always come from crusading journalism, fighting for the rights of people such as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, and Curt Flood. The greatest influence of my life was Jackie Roosevelt Robinson and [the inevitable name-drop] certainly one of my closest friends." My father rooted for the Dodgers because they were originally from Brooklyn and then moved to Los Angeles, just as he was and had, but we as a clan stayed loyal to them because they hired the major leagues' first black player (Jackie Robinson), retained the first crippled black player (Roy Campanella), and started the highest number of nice-seeming black players (Johnny Roseboro, Jim Gilliam, Tommy Davis, et al.). New York Post sportswriter Maury Allen said, "The single most significant issue in the twentieth-century was race, and Howard Cosell was unafraid about race."
Cosell's access to causes was through black bodies; without them, he wouldn't have been semi-dangerous, reviled. He defended Ali when the fighter refused to serve in Vietnam following his conversion to Islam. When Cosell died, Ali said, "Howard Cosell was a good man and he lived a good life. I can hear Howard now, saying, 'Muhammad, you're not the man you used to be ten years ago.'" Ali was referring to Cosell standing up at a prefight press conference and saying to him, "Many people believe you're not the man you used to be ten years ago." Ali had replied, "I spoke to your wife, and she said you're not the man you were two years ago." Cosell giggled like a schoolboy. Asked once what he stood for, Cosell said, "I stood for the Constitution, in the case of the U.S. versus Muhammad Ali. What the government did to this man was inhuman and illegal under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. Nobody says a damned word about the professional football players who dodged the draft. But Muhammad was different. He was black and he was boastful. Sportscasters today aren't concerned with causes and issues. Can you see any of those other guys putting their careers on the line for an Ali?" According to Cosell's daughter Jill, he frequently said that if people didn't stand for things, they weren't good for much else.
Music to my parents' Marxist ears. As was this: "The importance that our society attaches to sport is incredible. After all, is football a game or a religion? The people of this country have allowed sports to get completely out of hand." Or this: "The sports world is an ever-spinning spiral of deceit, immorality, absence of ethics, and defiance of the public interest." And this: "There's got to be a voice such as mine somewhere, and I enjoy poking my stick at various issues and passersby." And this: "For myself, I wondered when someone other than me would tell the truth." And this: "What was it all about, Alfie? Was football that important in this country? Was it a moral crime to introduce objective commentary to the transmission of a sports event?" -- after he'd been pilloried in Cleveland for saying that Browns running back Leroy Kelly hadn't been a "compelling factor" in the first half of the first MNF game (he hadn't). "If so, how did we as a people get this way? In the spoon-fed, Alice in Wonderland world of sports broadcasting, the public was not accustomed to hearing its heroes questioned." When, following his eulogy of Bobby Kennedy on his Speaking of Sports show, fan after fan called in to complain ("Don't tell me how to live -- just give us the scores -- that's what you're paid for"), Cosell said, "I began to wonder if that kind of thinking is one of the things that makes us so prone to assassination in this country. Maybe there is such an absence of intellect and sensitivity that only violence is understandable and acceptable." "The 'fan,'" Cosell pointed out, "is a telephone worker, a transit worker, a power-company worker, a steelworker, a teacher, whatever. He has never given up the right to strike and often does. When he does, the public is inconvenienced and sometimes the public health and safety are threatened. When a ballplayer strikes, the effect upon the public health and safety is nil. Nor is public convenience disturbed, for that matter. Yet the ballplayer and the owner are called upon to each give up their individual bargaining rights because the 'fan' wants baseball and 'is entitled to get it.'" "I never played the game with advertisers, with my own company, or with the sports operators," Cosell said. "And of course, I never played the game as a professional athlete."
This is where it gets complicated, because I was a monomaniacal, 5'4", 120-pound freshman basketball player at Aragon High School in San Mateo who, somehow, was supremely confident that he was destined to become a professional athlete.
From kindergarten to tenth grade all I really did was play sports, think about sports, dream about sports. I learned how to read by devouring minibios of jock stars. I learned math by computing players' averages (and my own). When I was twelve I ran the fifty-yard-dash in six seconds, which caused kids from all over the city to come to my school and race me. During a five-on-five weave drill at a summer basketball camp, the director of the camp, a recently retired professional basketball player, got called over to watch how accurately I could throw passes behind my back; he said he could have used a point guard like me when he was playing, and he bumped me up out of my grade level. I remember once hitting a home run in the bottom of the twelfth inning to win a Little League all-star game and then coming home to lie down in my uniform in the hammock in our backyard, drink lemonade, eat sugar cookies, and measure my accomplishments against the fellows featured in the just-arrived issue of Sports Illustrated. Christ, I remember thinking, how could life possibly get any better than this?
In junior high I would frequently take the bus crosstown, toss my backpack under my father's desk, and spend the rest of the afternoon playing basketball with black kids. I played in all seasons and instead of all other sports. In seventh grade I developed a double-pump jump shot, which in seventh grade was almost unheard of. Rather than shooting on the way up, I tucked my knees, hung in the air a second, pinwheeled the ball, then shot on the way down. My white friends hated my new move. It seemed tough, mannered, teenage, vaguely Negro. The more I shot like this, the more my white friends disliked me, and the more they disliked me, the more I shot like this. At the year-end assembly, I was named "best athlete," and my mother said that when I went up to accept the trophy, I even walked like a jock. At the time, I took this as the ultimate accolade, though I realize now she meant it as gentle mockery.
My father didn't particularly mind my mindlessness, since, in addition to being director of the poverty program, he was also a lifelong athlete (runner, swimmer, trophy-winning tennis player) and sporadic sportswriter who, even now, at 94, still writes an occasional sports column for his local suburban California weekly. My mother, on the other hand, disapproved. Once, she said to me, "Sometimes when people ask me if all you ever do is play sports, I want to tell them, 'At least he's devoted to something. At least he has an activity at which he excels,' but other times I wish you were obsessed with something a little more permanent."
"Yes, I know," I whispered; it was very late on some Sunday night.
"Sometimes I just want to tell those people: 'Leave me alone. Leave him alone. He's like a dancer on that damn playfield or ballyard or what have you.' But what I usually tell them, what I really feel, and what I guess I'm trying to tell you now, is that I wish you'd dedicate yourself with the same passion to a somewhat more elevated calling."
"Yes, I know," I whispered again, turning and trotting off to sleep.
Sports and politics have always been, for me, in curiously close conversation, alliance, overlap, competition. None of the kids I played sports with were Jewish. They called me Buddha Boy (I never quite understood this moniker -- Judaism was as unfathomable to them as Buddhism?) and Ignatz (my body was small and my ears were large), asked me why anyone would want to be Jewish. When Sandy Koufax refused to pitch during the World Series, I suddenly felt proud to stay home on Yom Kippur. My father derives his identity at least as much from Hank Greenberg and Jewish boxers of the 1930s as he does from his P.S. 149 schoolmates Danny Kaye and Phil Silvers.
In high school I was athletic and thus, to a certain extent, popular. However, I worked unduly hard at it, at sports, with very little sprezzatura, which made me extremely unpopular among the really popular, really athletic people. Why? Because I made popularity or grace look like something less than a pure gift. Only the really popular, really athletic people knew I was unpopular, so I could, for instance, be elected, if I remember correctly, vice president of the sophomore class and yet be, in a sense, underappreciated.
Cosell knew the feeling, amplified. "I remember going to school in the morning," Cosell said in his Playboy interview. "A Jewish boy. I remember having to climb a back fence and run because the kids from St. Theresa's parish were after me. My drive, in a sense, relates to being Jewish and living in an age of Hitler. I think these things create insecurities in you that live forever." As if in proof of these insecurities, he said, "I am the most hated man on the face of the earth."
Still, he did have a point. He was voted the "most disliked sportscaster of the 1970s." One sign at a stadium said "Will Rogers Never Met Howard Cosell." Another sign said "Howard Is a Hemorrhoid." A contest was held: the winner got to throw a brick through a TV set while Cosell was talking on it. Buddy Hackett told Johnny Carson, "There are two schools of thought about Howard Cosell. Some people hate him like poison, and some people just hate him regular."
One Saturday morning, two medics carrying a stretcher stormed my family's front door, looking for someone who had supposedly fallen on the front steps. Later that afternoon, a middle-aged man, slightly retarded, tried to deliver a pepperoni pizza. A cop came to investigate a purported robbery. Another ambulance. A florist. An undertaker from central casting. Vehicles from most areas of the service sector were, at one point, parked virtually around the block. I was certain (though I could never prove) that my popular, athletic friends, who always gathered together to watch the proceedings with binoculars in one of their houses at the top of the hill, had orchestrated this extravaganza. Every Halloween I cowered in my basement bedroom with the doors locked, lights out, shades down, and listened to the sound of eggs hitting my house.
I had company. "Cosell, the Mouth, why don't you drop dead? There's a bomb in Rich Stadium. It will blow you up at 10 PM, Monday." "If he comes to Green Bay on October first, I'm going to kill him, and your sheriff's department can't stop me." "You will die now, because your government lies. I will be out in October and will be there to get you and all ABC government cheaters." The death threats always came from smaller, less cosmopolitan towns or cities -- Buffalo; Green Bay; Milwaukee; Denver; Deer Lodge, Montana -- to residents of which Cosell must have seemed like Sissified Civilization itself.
Every plot needs a villain, as Bill Cosby told Cosell. Cosell says that when he, Gifford, and Meredith were struggling through the first rehearsal for MNF, he reassured Meredith: "The Yankee lawyer and the Texas cornpone, putting each other on. You'll wear the white hat, I'll wear the black hat, and you'll have no problems from the beginning. You're going to come out of this a hero. I know this country. There's nothing this country loves more than a cowboy, especially when he's standing next to a Jew. Middle America will love you. Southern America will love you. And there are at least forty sportswriters in the country who can't wait to get at me. You'll benefit thereby. Don't worry about me, though. Because in the long run it will work for the old coach, too." Which it did, at least for a while, for longer than anyone thought possible.
Gifford was the fair-haired Hall-of-Famer. "People always looked for things in me they'd like to see in themselves," Gifford claimed. "I've never known what to think of it." Ah, but he did. "Look at him standing there, girls," Cosell liked to say within earshot of Gifford at meet-and-greets before MNF games. "A veritable Greek god. America's most famous football hero. The dream of the American working girl. The single most sexually dynamic man in the chronicle of the male sex." Cosell was up for this jocularity; so, in a way, was Gifford (in his memoir The Whole Ten Yards, he gleefully quotes his then wife Kathie Lee calling him a "love machine").
"Anyone who looked like Ichabod Crane and spoke with a nasal Brooklyn accent didn't exactly fit the sportscaster mold," Gifford said later about Cosell, in retaliation. "On top of that, Howard was Jewish."
"Of course there are critics," Cosell sighed one night on MNF. "There will always be critics. 'The dogs bark, but the caravan rolls on.'"
Meredith -- good ole boy with a slight sideways wit -- said, "Woof."
Another time, a receiver muffed an easy catch, and Meredith said, "Hey, he should be on Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell," which had tanked after twelve shows. Cosell glowered.
Gifford, Meredith, and Cosell couldn't find anywhere to eat after one game, so the limo pulled into a McDonald's in a slum. Meredith urged Cosell to exit: "Ha'hrd, they want you. It's your constituency. You know, the poor, the downtrodden. You're always talking about them. Shit, Ha'hrd, here they are!"
When the Giants were playing the Cowboys on MNF, Cosell said, teasingly, that he wasn't impressed by the play of Meredith's and Gifford's (former) respective teams, and Meredith replied, "At least we have respective teams."
Cosell should have laughed, but he didn't. I should have laughed when my faux-friends made fun of me, but I didn't, I couldn't (and so they made more fun of me). Cosell was/I was everything they weren't: Jewish, verbal, performative, engagé, contrarian, pretentious but insecure, despising (adoring) athletics and athletes.
Instead, Cosell would tattle to MNF executive producer Roone Arledge: "They're doing it again. The two jocks are out to get me. They're after me again."
Instead, Cosell said to Meredith, "Don't start it, because you don't stand a chance. Get into a duel of words with me, and I'll put you away."
Instead, he said about Gifford, "He admired my command of the language, my ability to communicate, and he was shrewd enough not to engage me in a debate. He had to know he couldn't win."
Witness the adulation of words. For Cosell, language was everything, as All-American Heroism was/is for Gifford (this all blew away in a storm when Gifford's marriage and career came undone; we're in Cheever country -- the perfect Connecticut home is no bulwark against the crooked timber of humanity) and Texan joie de vivre was/is for Meredith (this, too, was a crock; Meredith came to despise the "Dandy Don" mask that was his meal ticket). Once, on the air, Meredith kissed Cosell on the cheek, pretending to gag on Cosell's toupee. Cosell immediately responded by saying, "I didn't know you...cared." The way he paused before saying the word "cared," and the pressure that he put on the word, thrilled me to the bottom of my 15-year-old toes. "You're being extremely...truculent," he admonished Muhammad Ali once, and, again, what I loved was the way Cosell paused before "truculent" and the extraordinary torque he put on the word so that he seemed to be simultaneously brandishing the word as a weapon and mocking his own sesquipedalianism. In The Whole Ten Yards, Gifford -- surely leaning more than a little on his co-writer, Newsweek television writer Harry Waters -- says about Cosell: "His genius lay in turning his liabilities into assets. He gave his voice" -- thick New Yawk honk, full of Brooklyn bile -- "a dramatic, staccato delivery that grabbed you by the ears." I, too, wanted to turn my liabilities into strengths. I knew what my liabilities were; only, what were my strengths?
I had been aware since I was 6 or 7 that I stuttered, but the problem would come and go; it never seemed that serious or significant. I'd successfully hid out from it, or it from me. Now, as a sophomore in high school, with my hormones trembling, my lips were, too. In class, I'd sit in back, pretending not to hear when called upon and, when pressed to respond, would produce an answer that I knew was incorrect but was the only word I could say. I devotedly studied the dictionary and thesaurus in the hope I could possess a vocabulary of such immense range that for every word, I'd know half a dozen synonyms and thus would always be able to substitute an easy word for an unspeakable one. My sentences became so saturated with approximate verbal equivalents that what I thought often bore almost no relation to what I actually said.
One day I was asked whether the origin of the American Revolution was essentially economic or philosophical. I wanted to say, as my mother and father had taught me, that revolution arises from an unfair distribution of wealth, but instead I replied: "The Whigs had a multiplicity of fomentations, ultimate or at least penultimate of which would have to be their predilection to be utterly discrete from colonial intervention, especially on numismatical pabulae." The teacher looked down at his desk. The class roared. By the end of the week, I'd been scheduled to meet with the school's speech therapist.
Miss Acker was very pretty but not especially my type: a little too cherubic to be truly inspiring. She knew I was a basketball player and proved to be surprisingly knowledgeable about the game, so for the first half hour we talked about how it doesn't matter if a guard is short if he knows how to protect the ball; what a shame it was that the high school had no girls' basketball team; how A Sense of Where You Are was good but The Last Loud Roar was probably even better.
Then she had to turn on the tape recorder, hand me a mimeographed memorandum, and say, "You've been speaking really well, Dave -- only a few minor disfluencies here and there. Let me hear you read for a while."
"Oh, I read fine," I said and wasn't being intentionally insincere. I saw myself as a relatively articulate reader.
"That's funny," she said and started rummaging around in her drawer for something or other. "Almost all stutterers have at least a little trouble when it comes to oral reading."
I, on the other hand, disliked the label. It sounded like atheist or heretic or cat burglar.
"I don't see myself exactly as a stutterer," I said. "It's more just a case of getting nervous in certain situations. When I feel comfortable, I never have any trouble talking."
This wasn't true, but I felt pressed.
"Well, you feel comfortable with me, I hope. Why don't you read aloud that memo? We'll record it, play it back, and you tell me what you think."
At the time, my particular plague spot happened to be words beginning with vowels. This text, for one reason or another, was riddled with them. I kept opening my mouth and uttering air bubbles, half-human pops of empty repetition. Miss Acker didn't have to play the tape back for me to know it had been the very embodiment of babble, but she did, and then, raising her right eyebrow, asked, "Well?"
I explained that the whirring of the tape recorder and her ostentatious tallying of my errata had made me nervous. The proof that I wasn't just one more stutterer was that I could whisper.
"But, Dave," she said, "that's characteristic of stutterers."
"That's not true," I said. "You're lying. I know you are. You're just saying that. Stutterers cannot whisper. I know they can't."
"Yes, they can," she said. "Virtually all stutterers can whisper. You're a stutterer. I want you to admit that fact. It's an important step. Once you acknowledge it, we can get to work on correcting it. When you're a professional basketball player, I don't want to see you giving hesitant interviews at halftime."
The flattery tactic didn't work the second time, not least because she was wrong: as Howard Cosell well knew, the athletic aesthetic is always to assert that the ecstasies experienced by the body are beyond the reach of words, whereas to some cerebral people, unfortunately, the primal appeal of a warrior-athlete is nearly bottomless. I'd regularly distinguished myself from the common run of repeaters by the fact that I could whisper; now, informed that I was one among millions, I was enraged -- at what or whom I didn't quite know, but enraged.
I stood and said, "I don't want your happy posters or your happy smiles or your happy basketball chitchat. I don't want to be happy. I want to be u-u-unusual." Then I did something I thought was very unusual: I tore down a poster of a seagull and ran out of the room. Having never before confronted myself and found myself in any real way wanting, I returned to her office the next day and began what still -- thirty years later -- feels like my life: a life limited but also defined by language.
Within a week, Miss Acker got me switched out of Typing into Public Speaking. The speech teacher, Mr. Roshoff, much the most charismatic teacher in the school, had been the object of my older sister's (and many other girls') crush for years. He was tall and lean and witty and brutally ironic in a way that seemed not entirely dissimilar to Cosell's manner. Every week or so, we had to present a new speech, and with those I suffered predictably, but then I hit on the idea of doing a speech imitating Cosell. This was 1972 -- fall, the first month of my sophomore year, the third year of MNF -- and so I went to school on "The Mouth" the only way I could, without the aid of a VCR, which was more than a decade away. I simply watched him and thought about him as much as I could, even more than I had before.
"The Mouth" was a good nickname for him. He was such an insatiably oral guy, talking nonstop -- the way my mother and sister and Mr. Roshoff did -- and always pouring liquor down his throat and jamming a huge stogie in his mouth. Dick Ebersol, now president of NBC Sports, said about Cosell, "He was defined by what he said, not how he looked or spoke." As with virtually everything Dick Ebersol has ever said, this is exactly wrong. How Cosell looked and how he spoke were everything. With his pasty skin, his stoop-shouldered walk, his ridiculous toupee, his enormous ears and schnozz, he always reminded me of nothing so much as a very verbose and Jewish elephant. The sportswriter Frank Deford's paean to him nicely conveys this quality: "He is not the one with the golden locks [Gifford] or the golden tan [Meredith], but the old one, shaking, sallow, and hunched, with a chin whose purpose is not to exist as a chin but only to fade so that his face may, as the bow of a ship, break the waves and not get in the way of that voice." The things he could do with that voice: the way, every week at halftime on MNF, he'd extemporize the NFL highlights in that roller-coaster rhetoric of his and, in so doing, "add guts and life to a damned football game," as he said, or as Chet Forte, executive director of MNF for years and years, said later, "It's not a damn football game. It's a show. That's what those guys [Gifford and Meredith] never understood. They never appreciated what Howard did. He could make two 85-year-olds playing a game of marbles sound like the most exciting event in the history of sports." He'd found a way to be better than what he was reporting on, to bully reality, to make life into language.
After a week of practice, I had my Cosell imitation down. Stutterers often don't stutter when singing, whispering, or acting, and when I did my Cosell imitation, I didn't stutter. I was melodramatically grandiloquent and entertaining in the Cosellian vein. Everyone in the class loved my performance -- it ended with the football purportedly landing in and thereby shutting my/Cosell's mouth -- and Mr. Roshoff loved it, too. For the next three years, he rarely passed me without saying softly, out of the side of his mouth, "HEL-lo, every-BODY, this is HOW-wud Cos-SELL." It was easy to see why my sister and several of her friends had crushes on him. Still, I could imitate Howard Cosell; so what? So could and did a lot of other people. Where did that get me, exactly?
Toward the end of my sophomore year -- Mother's Day, actually -- I went to the beach with my mother. After a while she dozed off, so I walked along the shore until I was invited to join a game of Tackle the Guy with the Ball. After I scored several times in a row, several of the other guys ganged up to tackle the guy with the ball (me), and down I went. Suddenly my left leg was tickling my right ear, the water was lapping at my legs, and a crowd of a hundred people gathered around me to speculate as to whether I was permanently paralyzed. Bursting through the throng, my mother threw up her hands and wailed at me, "See? See what sports will do to you?" She was very sympathetic later on, but her first reaction was, approximately, "I told you so."
I had a badly broken leg -- my left femur -- and was in traction the entire summer, but when the doctor misread the X-ray and removed the body cast too early, I had a pin inserted in my leg, and I used a leg brace and crutches my entire junior year. I still stutter slightly, but in high school my stutter was so severe that it effectively defined who I was. My whole life was structured around the idea of doing one thing so well that people forgave me for, and I forgave myself for, my "disfluency" (Miss Acker's term). With the jockocracy newly closed to me, I became, nearly overnight, an insanely overzealous chess player, carried along by the aftermath of the Fischer-Spassky World Championship. I got to the point that I dreamed in chess notation, but I was certainly never going to become a chess whiz, and I rationalized to myself that if one could be, as Bobby Fischer was, the best chess player in the world but still a monster and a moron, then the game wasn't interesting, and so I abandoned it after several months and joined the school paper.
By my senior year I'd recovered well enough from my broken leg that I was twelfth man on the varsity basketball team and second doubles in tennis, but sports no longer meant much to me. All that physical expression had gone inside; language was my new channel. I suddenly loved reading; I became the editor of the paper; my parents (especially my mother) were thrilled; it was sickening. I spent no more time on my studies than I had before, but now instead of six hours a day playing sports, it was six hours a day working on the paper, writing nearly every article, taking every photograph, attending journalism conferences around the Bay Area, submitting my work to every possible high school journalism competition, submitting the paper and my work (they were virtually synonymous) for competitions. My bible was New Journalism, an anthology of pieces edited by Tom Wolfe, which I read over and over again. I thought I'd become a new journalist, à la Hunter Thompson or Joan Didion.
In college, though, writing for the weekly, weakly student magazine, I got in trouble for making stuff up. Also, I was trepidatious -- still -- about calling people on the phone (I couldn't imitate Cosell), and so I crabwalked into creative-writing courses. I'd become a fiction writer. I'd make stuff up, and that would be okay. The only problem, as I discovered in graduate school, was that compared to other fiction writers, I'm not very interested in making stuff up. I'm much more interested in contemplating the so-called real world, including, alas, the world of sports.
I've now written several books of fiction and nonfiction, and to my astonishment and horror, half of them deal more or less explicitly with sports. My first novel concerns a sportswriter's vicarious relationship with a college basketball player. My book Black Planet is a fan's diary of an NBA season, with particular focus on how race is the true and taboo topic of the sport (hi, Mom and Dad!). I recently compiled a book of koanlike quotations uttered by the Japanese baseball player Ichiro Suzuki. And now here is Body Politic. As my daughter says, "Daddy writes about exercise."
In The Wound and the Bow, Edmund Wilson analyzes how various writers, such as Dickens, Wharton, and Hemingway, used the central wound of their life as the major material of their art. Throughout her entire childhood, a writer I know worked fiendishly hard in the hope of becoming a professional ballet dancer. She entered the Harkness Ballet trainee program at eigh-teen, but she left after less than a year. It's only right that her first book, published a couple of years ago when she was in her mid-forties, is a collection of stories set in the world of ballet and that her novel-in-progress is told from the point of view of George Balanchine. In Rocky, asked what he sees in dowdy Adrian, Rocky says, "She fills gaps." I was a great child athlete, and I just assumed this play-paradise would last forever. It didn't. Writing about it fills gaps.
I wish I could say instead that the material I keep returning to is seventeenth-century Flemish painting or the Cold War or unified field theory, but it's not. I keep coming back to sports, of all things. Much of what I write seems to feature an exceedingly verbal person contemplating an exceedingly physical person. I return over and over to the endlessly complex dialectic between body and mind. Whenever we talk about the body, we inevitably lie, but the body itself never lies. Our bodies always betray us -- always tell us what we're really feeling (desire, fear, hatred, rapture). The body-in-motion is, for me, the site of the most meaning. At a deep spot in the river, Howard Cosell showed me the way across; he showed me where to look and, looking, how to stand.
Copyright © 2004 by David Shields