Monday, August 10, 2015

Vanishing era

The image comes to us from the dawning of pro football's eminence, when the violence that would become both its appeal and its cross was still a raw and primitive thing. It is late November of 1960, and Chuck Bednarik of the Philadelphia Eagles stands on a chewed expanse of turf, right fist cocked above his head in an attitude of animal triumph. At his feet, stretched out and motionless, lies Frank Gifford of the Giants, the very epitome of the felled knight.

You can tell, without being told, that Gifford is out cold. And you can tell, without being told, that it was Bednarik who knocked him cold. It is one of the most iconic sports photos of all time, capturing a moment so primal you can almost taste the blood in your mouth.

And now it neither bleeds nor breathes anymore.

It stopped doing that yesterday, when word came down that Gifford, peerless star of the 1950s Giants and one of the faces of the game that has become our national obsession, had passed away. Bednarik went back in March. And now there is a curious melancholy to that photo, because it is simply bloodless history now, with no more connection to the living present than a Matthew Brady image of the dead at Gettysburg.

A whole era is vanishing, and those of us who grew up with it feel it most acutely. Last week Mel Farr died, and I reflected that one by one the pieces of my childhood Sunday afternoons were disappearing: Mel and Doug Buffone and Chuck Bednarik and Charlie Sanders. All gone this year.

And now Gifford, a wholly different piece.

With his passing, all three men who gave the NFL its primetime face are now dead. It was Frank and Howard Cosell and Dandy Don Meredith in the booth every Monday night, the first time pro football became an actual happening. It was great sport but also great theater, and you tuned in not just for the football but to see how Dandy Don was going to deflate Howard's legendary pomposity this week.

Gifford was the play-by-play man and steady tether in that booth, the hall monitor who kept the kids from taking over the classroom.  Now they are gone, all three of them, and Monday Night Football is just another night of football. What made it history is just history now, words on a page without a living witness to make sure the words get it right.

It's hard to imagine how outside the box MNF was at its inception, because now the NFL plays on Monday nights and Sunday nights and Thursday nights, and even Saturday nights late in the season. But in 1970, no one knew if it was going to fly. I was in middle school when they floated a trial balloon of sorts one Monday night (or it might have been a Sunday night). I have some extremely vague memories of that, of going to school the next day and hearing a couple of my teachers talking about it. Green Bay and St. Louis was the matchup, I seem to recall. Or maybe it wasn't.

In any case, it was revolutionary -- Football? On Monday night? -- and there were no guarantees it was going to work. But it did. More than any other single thing except the AFL-NFL merger that produced the Super Bowl, it made the Shield what it is today.

And now all of its primary witnesses are gone. And Chuck Bednarik is gone. And the primitive violence that photo of him and Gifford epitomized has become a slickly packaged TV show whose producers pretend the violence can be controlled, and that it's not still pro football's bedrock appeal.

But it is. Gifford was always a reminder of that, even as he and Howard and Dandy Don took the NFL to its future.

As legacies go, that's not a bad one.    

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