When the cheering stops, the silence can be deadening. A grim prelude to the forced euphoria of Super Bowl XIX, "Disposable Heroes: The Other Side of Football" looks at the fate of those who leave the game limping and forgotten, even by the boys in the booth. The one-hour documentary, a melancholy essay on the wages of fame, begins its run on Home Box Office Sunday night at 10:15.
Jon Else and Bill Couturie, the directors, previously made "The Day After Trinity," a stunning anecdotal reconstruction of the research that produced the hydrogen bomb. This film is less somber but, from a different angle, comparably affecting. It concentrates on two players whose flash of glory in the NFL was followed by years of physical and emotional angst: Jim Otto, former center for the Oakland Raiders, who went from the Hall of Fame to the operating table, and Roger Stillwell, the Chicago Bears defensive end who retired six years ago at the age of 26 after an injury on the field that left him a legacy of constant pain.
He can't bend over far enough to put on his shoes.
The average career in the NFL is 4 1/2 years, according to this report; after that, pro football players, handsomely paid or not, must fend for themselves in a world for which many are patently unskilled, even at the art of making decisions for themselves. Stillwell sells insurance by telephone and reminisces about "the old me." What he misses most, he says, is not the roar of the crowd but the comradeship of other players. He is near sobbing when he says, "I miss that so bad. I miss having Mike as my roommate. I miss having him to talk to."
"An iron man pays for it later," John Madden says of people like Otto, and O.J. Simpson says the "cruelest thing" about football is that "it has to end." What the players get from this peculiar, almost Faustian bargain, is essentially that they can prolong a state of boyhood for a few more years. Boys will be boys and men, given the chance, will be boys, too. Iron man Otto paid for this adventure with 30 concussions by his count, a detached retina and ruptured disks. He undergoes a spinal operation in the course of the film.
The story is told in more than words; there is such deft imagery as a shot of the Goodyear blimp flying over a silent, hollow stadium prior to the entrance of the gladiators and the fans. It's not a hate-football piece, nor a scold; it isn't showing the dark side of the American dream, just the dark side of an American dream, and it shows it without histrionics or melodramatizing. It understands the problem it describes, and a viewer is made to understand, too, why these men who suffered so much from the game they played are both teaching it nevertheless to their eager young sons. This is one of the best documentaries ever made about the sociology of sports, in part because it's about a lot more than that.