A League of His Own

Of the major sports, I have always found football the most difficult to love. I do follow the game (in part because my job requires it), and I have a nominal hometown rooting interest in the Jets. And though I know it only from grainy highlight reels, I have a certain affection for the old N.F.L.–those guys with multi-consonant surnames, one foot out of the slaughterhouse or coal mine, waging war in the driving snow. The televised glare of the modern game has none of that romance.

Every sport has gone down this path in one way or another, but in football, the players seem to have been completely robbed of their personalities. It has become a sort of micromanaged frenzy of men wear ing masks; the only figure you can really identify with is the quarterback, and I have to admit, I can’t stand quarterbacks. The great passers of recent years–John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Steve Young–are idolized by millions. But for me these guys do little more than arouse old high-school prejudices. Rightly or wrongly, I can’t shake the idea of them as stereotypical schoolyard bullies, big men on campus, clean-cut Golden Boys tapped for success early and ushered effortlessly to stardom via big col lege programs, extravagant signing bonuses and all the other royal trappings of the modern athlete. In short, jocks, in all their haughty, entitled splendor.

This season, however, the reign of the jocks has tak en a hard hit. Montana is long gone; Elway is off hawking Coors Light; Young and Marino still make the pa pers, but in connection more often to M.R.I.’s than to TD’s. And the players who have replaced them in the headlines aren’t the new blue-chippers kicking around the league. Instead, we see the delightfully unglamorous likes of Damon Huard and Jon Kitna, Brad Johnson and Kurt Warner. These are nobodies, survivors of scrapheaps like the Arena Football League and N.F.L. Europe. Jocks, yes, but also underdogs: lunch-pail quarterbacks. One step closer to all of us.

On paper, it’s easy to spot a great quarterback. But performance on the field comes down to what every body in the business refers to as the “intangibles” the mental abilities that determine how a young man is going to react on Sunday afternoon with a world wide TV audience watching and several 250-pound linebackers charging toward him with the express purpose of ripping his head off his shoulders. The mysterious value of intangibles was neatly illustrated last year when the quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were taken one-two in the draft. They had similar can’t-miss credentials: all the physical tools, big-school pedigree, success at every level. But whereas Manning has been a coolheaded success in Indianapolis, Leaf has been an unmitigated train wreck for San Diego.

Part of Leaf’s problem may be that he was thrown out there on the field before he was ready. Years ago, that almost never happened. Once upon a time, a young coach named Tom Landry posted five consecu tive losing records–and was rewarded with a 10-year contract extension. He went on to develop his young Dallas Cowboys into one of the most dominant foot ball dynasties of all time. But by 1997, when two ex pansion franchises, Jacksonville and Carolina, made it to the conference finals in just their second seasons, few team owners were willing to tolerate a single losing season, much less a string of them.

As a result, the traditional, paternalistic systems of nurturing talent in the N.F.L. have been thrown into disarray. Enter the new lunch-pail generation. Even in the midst of the baseball playoffs, a time when foot ball recedes to a remote corner of my consciousness, it was impossible not to be drawn to the astonishing story of Kurt Warner, the no-name quarterback who, through late October, has led the St. Louis Rams to the only unbeaten record in the N.F.L. He played for an obscure school (Northern Iowa University), and managed to win the starting job only in his senior year. The Packers gave him a quick once-over in training camp, and then cast him off. Not so long ago, Warner’s N.F.L. dreams would almost certainly have died there; instead, he hooked up with the Arena Football League, where a spatially disorienting facsimile of the game is played on a 50-yard diorama of a field. Some gaudy stats helped him land a better job with the Am sterdam Admirals of N.F.L. Europe–and finally he made it to the Rams, and took over this season when the starter went down. Veteran N.F.L. watchers figured the Rams were sunk, but Warner quickly lit up the league with 18 touchdown passes in six games.

Warner is not the only one. Huard, the ex-Barcelona Dragon, stepped in for the battered Marino and won two games for the Miami Dolphins; Kitna, another N.F.L. Europe vet, has the starting job in Seattle and, under the tutelage of Mike Holmgren, has a shot at becoming one of the league’s next big stars.

I, for one, won’t be happy until Mike Perez, the Arena Football League’s all-time leading touchdown passer, makes it. I was curious to know Perez’s view of Kurt Warner, so I called him in Denver, where he runs a mortgage company in the Arena League off-season (which, by the way, is now). He answered the phone himself, and we chatted about what Warner’s success has meant to attention-starved Arena Leaguers. He added that he may not return to his team, the New England Sea Wolves, next summer. “I’m thinking of calling the Jets for a tryout,” he said. He sounded as if he was joking–and he must be, since he’s 34 and even the Arena League defensive backs have started to figure him out. But, hey, the Jets do need a quarter back, and a guy like that, playing in my hometown, could make a real football fan of me yet.

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