We’re not going to notice it at first.
We’re going to be a few innocent hours into the Tom Brady docuseries in 2021, satiated by a few lame, approved-by-Brady-Inc nuggets about the divorce from the Patriots and Bill Belichick and all of a sudden we’ll land here …
SCENE: Clips of Brady in practice at the University of Michigan, throwing an incomplete pass next to Drew Henson. Brady, clearly frustrated, shakes his head wondering why he’s struggling mentally despite having prepared so hard.
BRADY: And that’s when I realized my body was low on a signature alkaline found only in Himalayan sea salt. And here at TB12, we harvest our own on site, which results in a saving that we pass on directly to you!
The truth is that we’re all marks now. A sucker used to be born every minute but is now born at five times the speed. No matter our hobbies, interests, beliefs, wants, fears or desires, there is someone trying to jam the approved aesthetic of said personality trait down our throats for an exorbitant amount of money. Love the environment? Here is a $95 pair of biodegradable Allbirds you must purchase for when it’s too cold for Birkenstocks. Do you “support law enforcement?” Here’s a black and blue flag burned into teak wood you must mount over your fireplace and a pair of tactical military sunglasses that make you look like a member of the Guy Fieri Special Opps.
Our resistance to accepting that fact is dangerous and it also invites a bull rush of scam artists into our consciousness at every second. Brady, whose company began suspiciously hocking a $45 canister of “immune response” gummies during a pandemic that has killed close to 100,000 Americans, is not at the head of the table. Not even close. Most of his advice is relatively harmless, if a little tone deaf (What, you mean not everyone has access to safe, pesticide free, locally grown produce at a moment’s notice?). But make no mistake, this long infomercial is meant to sell you something. Brady is no more interested in sharing the nitty gritty details of his past than he is talking about that red hat in his locker. (Belichick, by contrast, for as much as we tweak him about his secrecy, submitted to have a biography done by David Halberstam, arguably the most unflinching truth teller of his time.) This is a way to slip into the wallet. Brady wants to get your credit card on file and sign you up for something you don’t need that charges you inconspicuously once a month for eternity.
So, it is my proposal here today that we nominate a few other people to be subjects of lengthy football documentaries. People who can teach us something about living life, competition, resilience, the way the world and game was before it was stripped for gold. People who don’t care to assert complete control over the project in order to feed us a pre-planned meal.
1. FRITZ POLLARD
In an NFL Network special on Pollard, Damion Thomas, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture’s curator of sports, said that Pollard’s talents were “so undeniable that [the world] had to recognize them. He was so exceptional that they could not deny him the opportunity to compete at the highest level.” Pollard is widely recognized as both the first African American player and coach in the league, though his accomplishments run far deeper than that. Pollard was a guide for the next wave of African American talent to hit the NFL and change the league forever. When bigoted teammates ripped holes in his uniform, he would stay up late sewing it together before practice. When the players that he coached didn’t have equipment, he bought them shoes. Pollard dabbled in music and film production. He distributed the first ever black-owned tabloid in New York City. He lived a truly fascinating life that made the game what it was today.
2. ANDY REID
I don’t see how anyone could have read the beautiful Super Bowl game story by our Greg Bishop and Jenny Vrentas and not come away with an increased fascination of, and sympathy for, Andy Reid. Vrentas also penned a phenomenal profile of Reid back in 2018 for our Future issue that dug at the heart of his perpetual creativity. This is a 62-year-old former offensive lineman at BYU, who landed on Mike Holmgren’s legendary ’90s coaching staff, now holds all of the league’s institutional secrets in his back pocket and has a vision—and avatar in Patrick Mahomes—to use it as a tool to wreak havoc on the future. The Chiefs were running college football plays from the 1940s in the Super Bowl. Offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy told me a few days before the game that you wouldn’t believe what they’re watching on a daily basis. Texas high school football. (Apparently) black and white projector film. Sprint option from the early 2000s. Who wouldn’t want to spend a few hours cozying up to the league’s most lovable head coach to learn more about what makes him tick?
3. WARRICK DUNN
To date, Warrick Dunn’s Home for the Holiday charity has furnished, stocked and supplied homes for more than 170 at-need single-parent families. You may have heard about this a few years back when some puzzle pieces were put together and people realized that Texans star quarterback Deshaun Watson was one of the many beneficiaries. I would spend every Sunday for a month learning more about Dunn’s drive to change lives, spliced in with a look at a fascinating career that doesn’t get enough attention. Dunn, a former star at Florida State, was drafted into the NFL at 5′ 8″, 187 pounds during a time when the three-down hybrid receiving back was less a feature of modern offenses. Dunn logged five 1,000-yard seasons in 12 years, three of which came after his 29th birthday, and was a critical piece of Atlanta’s backfield during the early Michael Vick era.
4. KEN STABLER
While his freewheeling nature gets a lot of the headlines, a Stabler documentary could be a fascinating look at one of football’s true Forrest Gump types. He backed up Joe Namath in college, played for the legendary Bear Bryant, was drafted by both New York baseball franchises in the late 1960s, starred for John Madden and Al Davis and then finished his career with Bum Phillips. He found his way into professional action as a backup in the Immaculate Reception game. Of course, we’d like to hear about everything else, too. How he used to party like between-marriage Don Draper before games. How he’d rage until all hours of the morning. How he looked, as author Peter Richmond recalled, like Duane Allman in football pads. Unfortunately, Stabler was taken long before his time, but his friends and teammates would have so many incredible stories to tell.
5. RANDALL CUNNINGHAM
Cunningham went from thrown-to-the-wolves backup (sacked 72 times in one season) and half-cocked Buddy Ryan third-down game plan to cultural icon in Philadelphia. He revolutionized the sport, dated Whitney Houston, left the Eagles third all-time in passing and sixth in rushing, ran a granite business, hopped back into the NFL to pilot an insane 15-1 Vikings team with Randy Moss and Cris Carter, then became a minister and turned around a woebegone high school football program, and had a daughter qualify for the Olympics as a high jumper. There are more intriguing plot lines in those few sentences alone than in the entire series arc of Friday Night Lights. And this is actually true!
6. TERRELL OWENS
T.O. is another player whose deep history and boundless talent made him a fixture across so many NFL seasons. Owens always lived life by his own set of rules. He was incredibly dominant on the field: third all time in receiving yards, third all time in touchdowns. He was emotional. Impulsive. Demanding. He gave the middle finger to the Hall of Fame, busted out sit-ups in his driveway with a gaggle of press on hand and played in the Super Bowl with a broken ankle. For years, a press corps that was in desperate need of a new perspective told Owens’s story through a very particular lens. It would be great to give him the space to tell it on his own.
7. BERT BELL
Bert Bell was one of the most consequential commissioners in NFL history (1946-1959), and it would be a wonderfully worthwhile experience to examine his era, the decisions he made and the path he took there. This was a time when owners meetings more closely resembled bareknuckle fight night at the local ale house. High minded ideas were debated and arm wrestled over. It was a period of time that produced tent-pole events like the draft, and saved the league from becoming a top-heavy sinkhole.
8. CHRIS BERMAN
There is undoubtedly a treasure trove of Chris Berman footage out there. Stuff that has literally nothing to do with football and everything to do with Canadian tylenol. I would watch footage of Berman about to go on air completely free of context and commentary for hours on end. On a serious note, I think we realized how integral Berman had made himself to the football experience every Sunday and how good it felt to have him and Tom Jackson return to television after a brief hiatus. I would enjoy hearing more about the formulation of that time, and what life was like for the man without football.
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