Tackling a cyclone: Grantland Rice, the internet, and the death (and rebirth) of sports writing

From the poem “Alumnus Football,” by Grantland Rice:

Grantland Rice

Grantland Rice

For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks — not that you won or lost —
But how you played the Game.

This most famous line of famed writer Grantland Rice’s career — “how you played the game” — is frequently invoked but, more often than not, not attributed to him, or anyone else for that matter. It has achieved a status limited to those phrases, aphorisms, or observations, that are so inevitable that, rather than imagine them having been concocted by a writer and made real by pen and paper, typewriter, or computer, instead simply exist somewhere within ourselves. No one can create something so true. The aphorism itself of course refers not just to sports but to life as well, and thus applies to writers who write about athletes as well as the athletes themselves. Anyone with the audacity (or egoism, as Orwell put it) to publish their words in any form will not be judged only by their readership numbers, their entitlement to column space, or any of the old metrics. It’s how they played the game.

And, as Spencer Hall cogently explains for the Sporting Blog, the internet is finally breaking down some of the old barriers.

[Regarding the death of the 800-word columnist at newspapers.] The internet exploded this framework in a few critical ways. First off, it turns out people think in bits both shorter and longer than 800 words. Shocking, but sometimes people could read thousands and thousands of words at a time without passing out due to dehydration. Astounding, I know, but somehow the long distance runners of the reading world made Bill Simmons a very wealthy man, and the sprinters turned Deadspin in the face-eating, thousand-tentacled beast it is today. Like it or not, readers don’t just think in 800-word snippets.

Also, it so happens that sports fans were both far more eclectic and choosy than anticipated. . . . The model for many young bloggers, for instance, is not someone like a Vecsey, a Bill Plaschke, or anyone else you might see aping away on Around The Horn. It is a devoted specialist like Paul Zimmerman, or even a tangent-hopping single-topic writer like Gregg Easterbrook, or heaven forbid, writers who didn’t write about sports at all.

Sportswriting in that sense is dead, and perhaps has been dead for a long time. For that, raise a huzzah: trapped in the column, mobbed by the dueling schools of maudlin sentimentality (call it the “Albom school”) and knee-jerk antipathy generators like Jay Mariotti (creatively referred to here as “the Mariotti school,”) sportswriting on the whole has been uninteresting for a long, long, long time. There’s little point of treating the columnist like he’s something to be missed: good writing is good writing, and good writers will survive any transition between technologies.

. . . .Good ingredients work no matter the treatment, something that may not be true of generalist columnists who learned that single sentence paragraphs and easy moralizing about athletics and their place in society were a great way to stuff column space for paychecks.

The problem for them is that the audience is no longer captive. They can roam the internet looking for whatever they like, and if they’re under 40, they’re not waiting for it to come to them on their doorstep. They are still prisoner to one constant, however: the hunger for quality. If the general columnist dies out, it’s not because the audience lost the taste for something necessary. It is because they were making do all along with what they had, and left the instant they got a better offer.

In sum: Without the structural impediments and bottlenecks that propped up a certain brand of sports writing, it will be, as is true in most endeavors, the combination of ability and industry that will win the prize.

To illustrate how strange this sports writing bottleneck has been, it is helpful to look back to guys like Grantland Rice. He wrote at a different time: Typically, the only people who might read his recap of a game who had actually seen it were people who were in attendance. Maybe they had also listened on the radio, but that’s not certain. The form too was more free-flowing. It was known as the golden age of myth-making in sports, something derided later, but are we not moving back in that direction in the Tebow-era?

But this freedom allowed him to flout convention — or at least he wasn’t constrained by the conventions concocted by the later oligarchy that came to rule the sports writing world. Take his famous “The Four Horsemen,” article, written about a game between Notre Dame and Army in 1924, ostensibly a recap of that game. (This should go without saying, but this article — and this blog post — have little to do with Notre Dame. This is about a game that took place seventy-five years ago, and thus has little to do with whatever Notre Dame, or Army for that matter, has going on now. Were this article written about Syracuse or Michigan it would be just as good.) The article begins:

thefourhorsemen

Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.

A cyclone can’t be snared. It may be surrounded, but somewhere it breaks through to keep on going. When the cyclone starts from South Bend, where the candle lights still gleam through the Indiana sycamores, those in the way must take to storm cellars at top speed.

Although this article is oft-mentioned, it is forgotten that the entire Four Horsemen motif began as an elaborate joke (“These are only aliases,”) which is more a harbinger of the Deadspins and Orson Swindles of the world than anything churned out by the Albom or Marriotti school of pseudo-moralizing and blatant antagonism. This is, of course, to say nothing of the prose’s elegance, about which there is little to add. Rice continues:

Yesterday the cyclone struck again as Notre Dame beat the Army, 13 to 7, with a set of backfield stars that ripped and crashed through a strong Army defense with more speed and power than the warring cadets could meet.

Notre Dame won its ninth game in twelve Army starts through the driving power of one of the greatest backfields that ever churned up the turf of any gridiron in any football age. Brilliant backfields may come and go, but in Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden, covered by a fast and charging line, Notre Dame can take its place in front of the field.

Coach McEwan sent one of his finest teams into action, an aggressive organization that fought to the last play around the first rim of darkness, but when Rockne rushed his Four Horsemen to the track they rode down everything in sight. It was in vain that 1,400 gray-clad cadets pleaded for the Army line to hold. The Army line was giving all it had, but when a tank tears in with the speed of a motorcycle, what chance had flesh and blood to hold? The Army had its share of stars as Garbisch, Farwick, Wilson, Wood, Ellinger, and many others, but they were up against four whirlwind backs who picked up at top speed from the first step as they swept through scant openings to slip on by the secondary defense. The Army had great backs in Wilson and Wood, but the Army had no such quartet, who seemed to carry the mixed blood of the tiger and the antelope.

Rockne’s light and tottering line was just about as tottering as the Rock of Gibraltar. It was something more than a match for the Army’s great set of forwards, who had earned their fame before. Yet it was not until the second period that the first big thrill of the afternoon set the great crowd into a cheering whirl and brought about the wild flutter of flags that are thrown to the wind in exciting moments. At the game’s start Rockne sent in almost entirely a second-string cast. The Army got the jump and began to play most of the football. It was the Army attack that made three first downs before Notre Dame had caught its stride. The South Bend cyclone opened like a zephyr.

And then, in the wake of a sudden cheer, out rushed Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden, the four star backs who helped to beat Army a year ago. Things were to be a trifle different now. After a short opening flurry in the second period, Wood, of the Army, kicked out of bounds on Notre Dame’s 20 yard line. There was no sign of a tornado starting. But it happened to be at just this spot that Stuhldreher decided to put on his attack and began the long and dusty hike.

 

Where are the mindless statistical recaps? Where was the “We played hard and prepared hard all week” quote followed by “They were the better team today. We’ll get em next time”? Rice wasn’t telling you about a football game. He was telling you about football. He then recaps some of the specific plays — partially this is because people hadn’t actually seen the game — but also to bring what was concrete to his larger themes. Rice concludes:

One strong feature of the Army play was its headlong battle against heavy odds. Even when Notre Dame had scored two touchdowns and was well on its way to a third, the Army fought on with fine spirit until the touchdown chance came at last. And when the chance came, Coach McEwan had the play ready for the final march across the line. The Army has a better team than it had last year. So has Notre Dame. We doubt that any team in the country could have beaten Rockne’s array yesterday afternoon, East or West. It was a great football team brilliantly directed, a team of speed, power and team play. The Army has no cause to gloom over its showing. It played first-class football against more speed than it could match.

Those who have tackled a cyclone can understand.

I bring all this out to show the parallels between sort of post-modern (for lack of a better term) sports writing on the internet, twitter, blogs, and the like, and the greatest sports writing ever, which has very little to do with the alternatively obsequious or bellicose 800 word columns and maddening boilerplate recaps we have become accustomed to.

The Four Horsemen” would not have been published by a reputable institution anytime in the last fifty-years. By modern standards, it is not a very good sports story.

It is merely the greatest sports story of all time.

  • Spy Scheme

    Sports Writing used to be about who could write the best. Grantland Rice, Red Smith, Edwin Pope, Furman Bisher.

    Now it is about who can shout the best. Woody Paige, Tim Colishaw, etc, etc

  • http://www.collegefootballtopten.com Todd E. Jones

    You can read much about Grantland Rice’s writing and such by reading Gary Andrew Poole’s The Galloping Ghost. Gary draws on the writings of Rice and other great sports writers to describe the play of Red Grange. Good stuff Chris! I am waiting to see if anyone will write in this kind of narrative prose again. Then again, I probably have the opportunity to also!

  • Art

    I wish I could write stuff like this…thanks for the read. I love the classic Rice piece. I miss Jim Murray as well out here in Los Angeles. But I like your stuff as well Chris. The educational well informed opinion is always worth the time to read.

  • Jon

    Rice’s writing is a little flowery for my tastes. That said, he was better than many of his peers. There was a lot of pedestrian stuff written in those days, too.

    Check out Leonard Koppett if you are interested in baseball and/or basketball and if you get a chance, Chris. He wrote Dr. Z like books on both sports.

  • mlc808

    I think you hit on something important when you said Rice was telling us not just about a football game but about the game of football.

    There is too little of that today.

    In our collective desperate hunger for fantasy stats and/or the curious need to glom on to a winner so we can woof loudly and longly (i.e. front-runners syndrome) much has been lost in true knowledge of the game — not only the nuts and bolts (which this site does an admirable job of describing) but, more importantly, the heart and soul of it.

    And it is the heart and soul of football that draws young men to play and un-young men to coach this greatest of games from generation to generation. Football IS great. Writers like Rice could articulate that in a way that must be respected.

    Great aritcle.

  • Dave

    The questionable proposition that the human race is essentially good is buttressed by the fact that on most days Jay Mariotti is allowed to walk his small corner of Earth free of physical molestation.

    Mind you, I find the guy entertaining.

    Is there any larger significance to be divined from the knowledge that both Albom and Mariotti practice/practiced their trade in Detroit(roughly translated from the French “slouching towards Gomorrah”)?

  • James Dugan

    Great article and thanks for the Rice writing. I truly didn’t know where the saying of four horsemen and “how you played the game” came from. I hope the internet will allow more and more voices from all levels of sports can contribute to the entertainment. But most of all, I hope new writers challenge and new readers expect high writing standards. Thanks again.
    http://www.thelunchbreakblog.com

  • Ted Seay

    ND sux, dood.

    ;)

  • Nora Kassidy

    Maybe it’s me, but isn’t the whole Grantland thing a bit of a mixed metaphor?

  • http://www.facebook.com/judy.nielsen.96 Judy Nielsen

    I am trying to find a poem written by Grantland Rice called Cheering, Music and the Player that starts off like a Kipling poem…from the legions of the lost ones to the cohorts of the damned as a Mr. Rudyard Kipling said before us. When a halfback is dashing forward and is quite violently slammed….that’s all I know. I have searched high and low and have not found anything. Can anyone help? Thanks.

  • Guest

    Here it is. From the Bridgeport Telegram, October 26, 1923.

  • stubborntomato

    Here it is. From the Bridgeport Telegram, October 16, 1923.