In his hit single “Got Yourself A. . .,” the rapper Nas reps his hood by saying, “The QB don’t stand for no quarterback.” For all his boasting, however, the rapper from the world’s most notorious housing project, Queensbridge, is dead wrong. As the NFL has replaced baseball as America’s true national pastime, the quarterback has become a dominant metaphor in our society, managing to connote talent, leadership and experience in a single breath.
There’s a distinct possibility that this ties into America’s other great passion and over-used metaphor: war. Go ahead and trace the parallels between football plays and military maneuvers, between coaches and strategists, between quarterbacks and field generals and countless other aspects of the sport. Football is clearly far more like war than it is, say, tennis.
George Carlin isn’t exactly Bob Costas (and thank God for that), but the comedian’s take makes the situation even more clear: “Using precision bullet passes and long bombs, the quarterback attempts to punch a hole in the front line of the enemy defense, while avoiding the blitz even if he has to use the shotgun.” With a reasonable head on your shoulders, it’s not that big of a stretch to see that pro football is merely a (somewhat) less violent extension of our love of war.
The past several days of NFL action got me thinking about the role of quarterbacks, and the fact that everyone (myself included) treats them no differently than we do war heroes. For me, few weekends could have encapsulated that Marino-as-MacArthur spirit as did this one, with the most obvious culprit being the ceaseless tributes to the recently-deceased Johnny Unitas, perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time.
There’s no denying the importance of Unitas in the scheme of all things football. The man revolutionized what has become the most important position in all of sports, cutting up Hall of Fame defenses while compensating for the many deficiencies of one of the most overrated receivers of all time, Raymond Berry, all the while calling his own plays. One of my old NFL Films tapes from Sports Illustrated has a breakdown of the 1958 championship game, where Unitas absolutely shreds the Giants defense with pinpoint passing â€“ I still get chills when I hear the voiceover guy call it “the game that put pro football on the map.”
The Sunday tributes themselves were fitting and appropriate â€“ a Baltimore Colts # 19 jersey was emblazoned on the Ravens sideline, while QB Chris Redman accomplished what Peyton Manning was not allowed to and pulled on a pair of trademark black high top cleats. The Marching Ravens played the Colts’ old fight song as a montage of Unitas highlights played on the big screen â€“ all in all, a bit of class from the new Baltimore franchise and owner Art Modell, who may have never before had his name and “class” in the same sentence.
Excess, however, is rarely denied, and this phenomenon manifested itself Thursday morning in pretty much every sports section in every newspaper in the country. A look around various websites revealed pretty much the exact same column from the eldest writer-in-residence. This column invariably contained phrases or sentiments along the following lines: as a young boy, watching Unitas as I grew up, hero worship, the reason I love sports, a giant among men, and so on, and so forth. Even the big shots (and I use that term loosely) like John Clayton and Joe Theissman fell into the trap, turning out some of the lamest, clichÃ©d discourse I’ve seen in a long time. It was like they were 10 years old again, drooling over their idol.
Of course, after yesterday’s game, I now feel the exact same way about one Drew Bledsoe. I’m still a little choked up â€“ 35 of 49 for a franchise-record 463 yards (463? He must have been channeling Willie Beamen) and a trio of TDs while leading the Bills to a glorious OT win over the hated Vikings. The Buffalo News literally had kittens this morning, which is a clever way of saying they were overly effusive in their praise, and I fully sympathize â€“ this win was one for the ages, and it’s definitely going to cement Bledsoe’s position as The Man in the B’Lo.
As if I wasn’t already glowing inside, I had the additional bonding experience of watching the game with a group of Patriots fans, disgruntled souls like Benny Coffin that couldn’t stop screaming for Bledsoe’s head. They, of course, had just finished watching the Patriots blow out the Jets (Can’t believe Bills lost to the Jets. . .must stay calm. . .), yet were vocally rooting for the Vikings to injure our beloved leader. Get ready fellas â€“ Nov. 2 is coming up awfully soon, and we’ll then see what Bledsoe’s made of.
This is the sort of reaction that challenging my quarterback provokes: outright hostility, bitterness and a burning desire to prove any doubters wrong. Nobody else engenders this sort of devotion and love â€“ I’ve never run around Carter House banging on doors and windows because of Colin Powell, and I’ve never called home six times in one night to talk about Dominik Hasek. Sunday night, I was unable to breathe for roughly 20 minutes after the Bills’ win.
Is that wrong? Is that what all these columnists felt, what all those Colts fans loved about Johnny U? Is that what other generations felt like about Ike and Patton and Pershing? Has football replaced war as the dominant metaphor in America?
We’ll see. For now, I’m dreaming of past and future Super Bowl glory, as visions of the K-gun float alluringly in front of me. It may be just one game, but fans have long memories: I’m already back in the early ’90s and listening to “Illmatic.” It ain’t hard to tell. . .