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Gristmill: As Seen on TV

Thu, 08/24/2023 - 10:59
Joe Theismann’s 1985 Topps card.

I’ve never had a false memory before. That I can remember. I could’ve sworn that I saw the infamous compound snapping of Joe Theismann’s leg live, while watching “Monday Night Football” with my older brother in our parents’ living room.

But something I read set me straight. That Redskins-Giants game and injury that so riveted and revolted a sporting nation was played on Nov. 18, 1985, when I not only was no longer at home, I was lost in some freshman dorm, no television in sight.

I wouldn’t have seen it, I couldn’t have seen it, and yet I had memories of seeing it — Theismann’s leg between knee and ankle momentarily parallel to the turf as the rest of him remained upright.

What I’d read on this subject was Chris Bachelder’s “The Throwback Special,” a 2016 novel that made the final cut for a National Book Award but which I’d only recently stumbled across, a funny, poignant dissection of American male folly and inadequacy, neediness and loneliness.

“Marriage — Jeff saw it so clearly now — what marriage does is at least guarantee that one person is watching. There’s one person who knows you got the oil changed today, or that you waited over an hour for your dentist appointment, or that you’re trying a new shave gel, or that the running shoes you’ve worn for years got discontinued.”

The compromises and disappointments are temporarily alleviated, for this particular group, when they get together to re-enact the Theismann sacking at the hands of Lawrence Taylor, a type of linebacker the N.F.L. hadn’t seen before, a menacing superathlete so gifted he even eschewed the weight room. To his credit, at the gunshot sound of the break he immediately waved medical personnel onto the field before placing his palms atop his helmet in horror and disbelief.

This is all painstakingly reconstructed by the men in this novel, who’ve gathered, as they do every year, at a nondescript hotel in a dreary strip of Anywhere, U.S.A. The play is diagrammed, jerseys and gear are donned, and every one of them assumes the role of one of the players, offense or defense, on a middle school football field under dimming lights.

Now, you tell me, humor or pathos? Because I apparently can’t trust what I’ve seen.

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