In a week or so the Redskins and all the other pro football teams will be making their final cuts, and the game will be over for some players. Being treated like children, being told to be at lunch, in bed at a certain time, all those things will be over. And so will be the sheer joy and absolute freedom of play. If the cut players haven't grown up yet -- a lot haven't -- they will have to in a hurry. Pro sports is a suspension of time, but there is no chance for decompression.
Athletes put their identities on the line in a way most of us don't. They are taught to compete, that only winning counts, that failure is like dying. So what happens when they do fail? When they have to move on?
Three friends had to confront that failure. I know them because I coached them. Once almost 90,000 people watched a team where I was an assistant, Tulane University, play LSU. We won 14-0. I remember how the stadium shook when we scored, how one part of the stadium was absolutely still. I remember everything about the game, from running out for warm-ups in the brittle December air to how the lights made it all seem surreal, how we designed the option so Foley would keep the ball, how... everything. Maybe I haven't exactly moved on myself.
Ted DeMars could run very fast, cut and bowl people over. Thick legs and wide shoulders belied his grace. Once in high school (where I coached him) against a good team, he carried the ball just five times and scored on runs of 25, 60 and -- the first play of the game -- 75 yards. In track he sprinted, put the shot 60 feet and set a state record in the hammer. He was All State in three sports, All American in one, with good grades. His initials spelled T.D.
He never made a big deal about scoring. He never made a big deal about anything. He just accepted his own ability and used it, never worked with weights, never trained in the off-season. But if he seemed to lack the kind of direction or determination usually associated with success, he had an extraordinary sense of self.
He was not a leader, not a follower, not a loner. He was simply himself. It was a passive trait. If he didn't want to do something, neigher logic nor pressure could make him do it.
When he was a high school junior he began dating a 27-year-old woman. They held hands after games, and he would chuckle, as he always did. People pressured him to break up. His teachers took him aside. His coaches took him aside. His friends took him aside. At least, they said, don't be so public. He just shook his head and shook off their interference. He and the woman still are together.
Football nurtured that sense of self, too. He says, "I just loved the thrill of the game. Not even the game. Just running with the ball and having everyone chase me. The fact they were after me, I liked it -- that I was the center, the focal point, and nobody else. It's just a great feeling."
He could have gone to any school in the country. He chose Harvard. In the fourth game his sophomore year he went 75 yards for a score against Dartmouth. Every game after that he started. His junior year he made first team All Conference. His senior year he did that again, and finished as Harvard's number two all-time leading scorer and rusher. And he was captain.
To captain a Harvard football team gives one a tremendous entree -- business, law, even politics. The doors were there. DeMars never went through them, because of, he says, "Uncertainty. I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do."
So while essentially marking time he played more football, on a minor league pro team. Six members of his team made the NFL the next year, and he was named the team's, and he league's, Most Valuable Player. The next year saw the emergence of the World Football League, which seemed legitimate. NFL stars and signed. The New York Stars offered a good contract. DeMars signed.
He was full of surprises -- the second fastest back in camp. He caught the ball very, very well and ran good patterns. His power broke tackles and his cuts found open space. Up and up he moved on the depth charts. So he surprised everyone again when he walked out of camp.
He says simply, "I always like the informality of football, the freedom of the sandlot. The more it got structured the less I liked it. Of course, the farther up you go, the more structured it gets. It was inevitable that I wasn't going to make it."
So he went into the woods alone and looked for something to want. When he came out he said he wanted some land. Or a boat. Yeah, a boat he could live on. That was what he wanted.
I was coaching a high school team in Florida and asked him to be my assistant. He asked, laughing, "Is it near the water?" Whenever I tried to talk about split-six defenses or loaded options, he said. "Whatever you want, you're the head coach." Then he'd borrow one of the player's surfboards and hit the beach.
He didn't like coaching -- structure again. He did like to run pass patterns. It got to where the players would double- and triple-team him, interfere illegally, but he always got open and if the ball was anywhere near, he caught it. And once when we worked on punt coverage he returned it. With no blockers and the first string, some good players, coming after him -- not to tackle him, just touch him. Not one could. He scored.
I had coached both small and major college ball by then, and he looked as good as anyone I had ever seen. I told him to go back to the pros. He glanced off somewhere and a second later just said, "Nah."
After that year he quit coaching and returned to New England. In the Rhode Island state lottery he won $25,000.
He thought he'd buy a neighborhood bar, just a place to hang out. But there wasn't enough for that, so he ended up buying a house and a couple of acres halfway between Hartford and Providence. He lives there, with his girlfriend.
For a year he worked for the lieutenant governor of Rhode Island. For two years he worked in an alternative sentencing program. He felt he was accomplishing something and liked it, but finally got fed up with bureaucracy and lies and quit. He got a boat, finally, to dig up quahogs commercially. But that didn't pay as well as he expected. In the winter he sells firewood off his land, but there isn't a whole lot. He makes Tiffany lamps and sells them. For awhile he talked about law school, but he's 31 now and doesn't talk about it anymore.
I visited him not too long ago. We talked about old times. He chuckled about the punt return in Florida: "I felt like Jim Thorpe." Then we took a whiffle ball and bat into the yard.
I had never beaten him in anything athletic and wouldn't anything athletic and wouldn't give him a strike now. He swung and missed, and laughed. Swung and popped the ball up, and laughed. Then he concentrated. The next pitch was no better, but this time when he swung the ball took off, sailed, landed way back in some bushes.
We went looking for it and he warned, "Watch out. There's poison ivy in there. I remember worrying about poison ivy when I was a kid."
He paused then, kicked around in the brush, and said, "Of course, I'm not a kid anymore, am I?"
Brian Weeks seems kind of stolid, and slow. He considers his own football career like "the Protestant ethic. I always figured I worked harder than the other guy, so I deserved to win."
But Weeks is easy to underestimate. He got where he was going, almost always. And he has a way of saying things -- even if crudely -- that pierces. About his former coach at the Patriots, Chuck Fairbanks, he snorts, "He's so slick his s -- doesn't stink."
Weeks is 6-foot-5. He used to weigh more than 230 and played defensive tackle at Providence College, where I was defensive coordinator. The Patriots wanted him to play linebacker and signed him to a free-agent contract the day after the draft in 1975, while elsewhere they were introducing their No. 1 draft choice and later All Pro, Russ Francis, to a room packed with media folks. Weeks wasn't mentioned, not even as a footnote in a press release. On the field, he and Francis would be lining up head to head. No doubt Francis was unaware of that. But Weeks was aware.
Brian Weeks wanted to make it more than most people dare to want anything. He explains why: "You don't get many weak egos on the field, though you do find an occasional coward. You line up your face masks and one guy says, 'I'm gonna kick your a--.' My approach was, let the other guy start it and I'llfinish it. I liked it. That, and you bleed with other guys. You build bonds. I would enjoy a sweep on my end, and I'd hit the guy high and Brady would come in low, then we'd pick each other up. That feeling, there's nothing like it on earch."
He wanted it to continue so he worked. Handball two or three times a week, for months; weights three or four times a week, for months. He ate, and ate, and ate. And he ran, and ran, and ran. Then there was nothing more to do. Before leaving for training camp he told me, "If it comes down to me or another guy, one on one, I can't conceive of not making it." He shook his head. "I just can't conceive of it."
The first full-go scrimmage, he was lined up on Francis and Shelby Jordan, still a starting tackle. Weeks remembers, "I wanted to get ready for a good crack. I whacked myself on the helmet a couple of times." The play came right at him. Francis exploded on him, driving, driving. Weeks rammed his shoulder under Francis' chin and tried to get free. Then Jordan was on him. "Then the ball carrier. It was boom-boom-boom."
His voice resonates with satisfaction. "I got him for a couple-yard loss. God! God it felt good! I got up and saw the coach. He was looking straight at me. Didn't say anything. Then he sort of nodded."
Brian laughs. "Goddam, it felt good."
But he had played defensive tackle all his life, not linebacker. He was cut. The Toronto Argonauts signed him.
He was in the Toronto training room one day soaking in ice when someone walked by with his jersey. He went out on the field to find out why, though he knew why, and says, "I was crying when I walked off. Getting cut by the Patriots was traumatic, but I knew I'd get another chance. This time, though, I knew it was my last time on the field as a player. It's the worst feeling on earth."
Today Weeks sells wallets to department stores and lives in Harvard, Mass. His football is limited to reminiscing -- his eyes fire up then.
Brian Weeks was 28 the last time I saw him, two years ago. He made more than $50,000 then as a salesman, and now he manages sales for the entire Northeast. He had just married a woman he had loved for years. But he said some bothersome things. Football had done something to him.
"I think it's colder than business and I think business is colder than hell," he says. "But I love it. Playing football was clearly the best time of my life. The best time I'll ever have.
"I don't dwell on it. It doesn't pay the bills. It doesn't make the dog happy. It doesn't make Tricia happy. But I feel I let my parents down. I feel I let you down. I feel I let the program at Providence down. I feel I let myself down. I feel those things. I don't dwell on it. But I can still taste it."
Tom Thibodeaux played tight end at Tulane and was drafted by the Saints. He was once described by a sportswriter as "a brute of man, often accused of savage instincts on the field." Neither description was true, although he was a hitter and played football with intersity.
He seemed dark and brooding and had a sharp, intolerant tongue. He did not suffer fools lightly, wanted to know why if a coach told him to do something, and liked to thumb his nose at rules. On sweeps he often held his man illegally, but he had devised a technique the refs could not detect. It wasn't so much cheating, just his private game, a way of saying, "Ha! Try and catch me!" He was not enamored of either authority or coaches, nor they of him. His ability forced them to tolerate him.
The Saints train in Florida, not far from where I coached with Ted DeMars. We went to visit him. When Thibodeaux opened the door, he practically hugged me. But it wasn't me so much he was glad to see -- it was more that I represented the outside world. Things weren't going so well for him, and he was glad to be reminded of another reality.
Ted and I and Tom and his roommate traded stories for a time. Then all of a sudden Thibodeaux got up, walked over to the door, and said, "The coaches don't like me."
His voice sounded weary, like that of a man who was tiring of the battle. There was confusion, and bitterness.
"They never have before," I reminded him. "Why should they start now?"
He laughed at that and seemed to feel better. "Yeah," he said. "I guess." Then he sat down on the bed and said, "This isn't like college. They beat the hell out of you here."
He rolled up his pants leg. The flesh of his calf was discolored and gashed. Stitches held the flesh together. He probed it with his finger the way a small boy might test a flame's heat, and snorted, "Hey. It hurts."
He was angry, and angriest at himself, that he was taking things now that he would never have taken before. I knew his contract was a good one, and I knew he had said he was playing only for the money. But he wouldn't take those things for money. And it was pointless. He was good, maybe good enough, but not so good that coaches needed him. And they didn't like him.
Just the day before he had thrown a terrific block. Thibodeaux snorted, "The coach went crazy. He was jumping up and down screaming, 'Great lick, Gilbert! Great job, Gilbert!' I turned around and said, 'That wasn't Gilbert. It was Thibodeaux.' He just called the next play. Didn't say a word."
Neither did we for a minute. Then DeMars chuckled and said, "I guess it wasn't such a great block after all."
Thibodeaux got cut later that season. The only time I've seen him since was five years ago at Tulane. Spring practice was ending with what was billed as a Varsity-Alumni game. The "Varsity" was the first two varsity strings, the "Alumni" really the third, fourth and fifth varsity strings, with just about 11 alumni on each offense, and defense thrown in. But every alum had been on the Tulane team that won 9, lost 2, and beat LSU 140, the best team Tulane had since 1948. It was good to be back. One of them said, "This game may be a joke, but I'll tell you, we're ready. We'll give it our best shot."
But the coaches want a practice, not a game, even though 7,000 people watch. Except for some cameo alumni appearances, third-stringers play for the alumni team. The Varsity scores a few times. No one cares.
But then one alum makes a great play, smashing the ball-carrier for a six-yard loss, and another alum shorts, "All right! All right! Trapani's kicking a-- again!"
So the alums start to watch with interest after all, and one after another go into the game. And suddenly an all-alumni, no third-stringers, defensive line hits and hits and hits and the Varsity cannot handle them.
The third-stringers pick up on it and play over their heads Thibodeaux is on offense now and the alumni... score! Then a first-stringer cheapshots a third-stringer, and the alumni sideline erupts. Thibodeaux storms the field, is pulled back, shouts, "We got your number! We got your number! We'll get your a--!"
Suddenly this joke has become a game, a real game, and practice be damned. The hitting crackles in the April sun, and both sides are out therefor one reason: to win.
And then, in the fourth quarter, there comes a moment when it seems the alumni have a chance to do just that. And the one coach remaining from when these alumni played sends in an alumni offense, untainted by third-stringers. Eight minutes left and it is their game.
But while they are huddling, another coach waves them back to the sideline, and yells, "Student play! Student play!"
As a gimmick to attract a crowd, four students who have nothing to do with the football team, two of them girls, are sent in. The boy and girl in alumni uniforms run a pass play against the boy and girl in varsity uniforms. The quarterback throws -- intercepted! -- and it counts. The alumni have never touched the ball but lost their chance to win.
"Can you believe this crap? Can you believe it?" an alumnus snorts, as he watches. But Thibodeaux is not watching.
He is already on his way to the locker room. He had played for two reasons, to see his old teammates and share that closeness once again. And because, no matter what he said, he loved the game. There was still a little kid in him who loved to play. He was walking off before they killed that kid completely.
Ted DeMars wants to play but only on his terms. He still won't be bullied or pressured. He doesn't even play in any touch or flag football leagues, because, he says, "I don't like the arguing." He still won't compromise, even if that means most people would say the world has passed him by. He's content, sitting out in the woods making Tiffany lamps, or quahoging. I always thought he was an odd choice for a Harvard captain. I believe his selection had always sort of amused him too.
Brian Weeks has always given himself tasks, missions, responsibilities. His brother plays on a flag team that claims to be national champions, but Brian won't play. He says if he did he'd be making a farce of all the work and dedication and caring he put into the game. Still, this time of year he even thinks of coaching, just to be on a field again. But he doesn't. He says if a pro team offered him a contract now, "My responsibility is to the people I work for. But if I could be sure they wouldn't be hurt by my leaving, I'd be gone tomorrow."
Tom Thibodeaux lives in New Orleans and is doing all right. He used to work as a salesman. Now he's married and works construction. I talked to the secretary at the Tulane football office the other day. She's been there for 18 years, through five coaches. "Miz Fitz," everyone calls her. A lot of former players stop in to visit occasionally, especially those in New Orleans. But, she says a little sadly, not Tommy.