Column: Experiencing the game
I have a confession to make.
I’ve been writing this column for a semester now, but something’s missing. I know it. You know it. Louie knows it. I stretch my imagination across a salt water taffy puller every time I sit down to write it, but my creations aren’t anchored in the palpable. It’s all just dust in the wind once you clip out my article and use it as kindling.
If only my pen was sharp enough to write the right words. If only I could pluck the day dreams that float around my car like skyward Chinese lanterns on my drive home from work out of the air, and pin them down to paper with a fistful of thumb tacks. If only I could make my visions real.
But I’m no George Plimpton, father of participatory journalism and patron saint of Walter Mitty sport writers. I’m not even Plimpton imitator, Ben Malcolmson, USC sport editor turned Rudy. Type “Pete Barrows” into Google, and you’ll find my Baseball Reference page at the top of your search. It claims I’m a 6-foot-5, 205-pound outfielder that batted .283 with the Independent League Sioux City Explorers last season. It’s a great conversation starter, only (shhh, don’t tell) it isn’t me.
It’s not that I haven’t covered plenty in my time with the Lanthorn worth covering. I trekked down to Augusta, Ga. to watch the Grand Valley State University girls soccer team take home a title. I’ve traveled to the Breslin Center in East Lansing to cover the lady Laker basketball team, and sat alone on Tom Izzo’s bench as I wrote under dimmed stadium lights. I was there when the Grand Rapids Griffins set up their Calder Cup victory at Van Andel Arena against the Syracuse Crunch. But I’ve never made the Plimpton plunge.
Not that I was a notable athlete in high school, but Malcomson hadn’t played football since fifth grade before earning a spot on Pete Carroll’s dynasty. Plimpton wasn’t much of an athlete either, but that didn’t stop him from working through the bucket list of all bucket lists, tailored explicitly for sports fans.
He went three rounds with Archie Moore at Stillman’s Gym in 1959, earning himself a bloody nose, and spared with Sugar Ray Robinson in the ring. He threw the hook to Jackie Robinson in a NL/AL exhibition game, and managed to pop up Willie Mays before exhausting his untried arm. He put his 18 stroke handicap up against Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus (who at 75 years of age, knocked in a hole-in-one at Wednesday’s par-3 contest), and was outdueled badly. He challenged pro Pancho Gonzalez in tennis, Oswald Jacoby in high-level bridge, tried out as an aerialist with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus and never made the cut. He trained with the Boston Bruins as goalie, slicing open a pinky in a preseason game, engineered the preeminent Aprils Fools gag ever concocted when he detailed Buddhist Sidd Finch’s 168-mile per hour heater in Sports Illustrated and famously walked-on to the Detroit Lions as a “professional” third-string quarterback in 1963.
His quarterback career concluded as he lost 30-plus yards in a scrimmage against Alex Karras and company, just as mine had with an interception in an IM game against a rival fraternity (alright, it isn’t quite apples to apples). He consistently got knocked around in his bouts against the best in the business, but where most Mittys envisage away their afternoons with visions of grandeur, Plimpton lived the gritty realities while chronicling his forays in his works.
Plimpton opined that he could not write accurately or vividly about a sport unless he experienced it first-hand. Who am I to disagree? If anyone has ever better encapsulated the essence of sport better than him in this excerpt from the Paper Lion, I haven’t read it.
“The pleasure of sport was so often the chance to indulge the cessation of time itself – the pitcher dawdling on the mound, the skier poised at the top of a mountain trail, the basketball player with the rough skin of the ball against his palm preparing for a foul shot, the tennis player at set point over his opponent – all of them savoring a moment before committing themselves to action.”
The trick for me in taking my next step in sports journalism was determining where to begin.
I considered going for the Mark Titus, author of "Don’t Put Me In, Coach," but every time I play a pickup game, I’m reminded that my jump shot is more broke than my bank statement. It’s safe to say that I won’t be riding Ric Wesley’s bench any time soon.
I also deliberated following the Plimpton/Malcomson/Ruettiger model directly by trying out for the football team. Although last I heard, Chad Pennington arms aren’t in vogue. I think I’ll pocket that venture for another column.
Amid my brainstorming, somewhere between asking Moriah Muscaro to train me and throwing on some Harry Potter to brush up on my Quidditch, it struck me that I might be more Plimpton than I originally presumed. All that was left for me to do was to write about my experience.
Ever since I enrolled at GVSU eons ago, I have coached in a Panhellenic sanctioned powder puff football tournament known as Battle of the Valley Girls that pits sororities against each other on the gridiron in a single elimination bracket.
The official premise of the contest is to promote Greek unity while raising money for charity, and both ends have been dependably met. Tournament host Sigma Kappa raised $1,858 for Alzheimer’s research last year, while an additional $300 went to the communal Panhellenic philanthropy fund. There’s also an underlying, unspoken secondary purpose.
The tournament title sounds a bit like a promotion for an underground slap fight between Julie Richman and Shelly Darlingson, but my disillusions promptly disappeared in my very first practice when I witnessed one of my girls eagerly continue to play with a bloody nose after taking an elbow to the face. Make no mistake; this was football, and I’ve always dreamed of being a coach.
Many of the participants attend practices without much of a background in sports, while others could easily best me in a 40-yard dash (which admittedly, isn’t saying much). It makes no difference where they start. Year after year, I’ve watched girls that couldn’t pick any NFL player except Tom Brady out of a lineup transform into fearsome, flag-pulling linebackers and fearless, turf-cutting running backs.
Teaching powder puff football wasn't a skill in my wheelhouse and I don't always know what to leave in or out of my instructions, but when I watch a player master a new skill or celebrate a touchdown, I can’t help but grin. I have yet to win the whole thing – I might never – and this might be as close to being a college football coach as I’ll ever come. But every time I step on the field to with a whistle around my neck and a Steve Spurrier visor on my head, I’m overwhelmed with joy that isn’t just experienced vicariously. As much as I enjoy watching sports from my Lazy Boy, the hairs on your back only stand on end during a breakdown when you're in the huddle.
That’s the power of immersion, and the thrill that must have hooked Plimpton. I can understand why. The next time you jump in to something entirely new with no regard for your comfort zone, to do instead of dream, you will too.
The tournament will kick off at 9 a.m. Saturday at the turf fields, and is open to the public. The forecast predicts an idyllic 60-degree afternoon. Wish me luck.