Forty years ago, George Plimpton pulled off what the rest of us have only dreamed about. In the Detroit Lions' 1963 training camp, Plimpton posed as a 36-year old rookie quarterback from Harvard, chronicling his experiences into the best selling book Paper Lion. The book became a timeless legend in the world of literary-sport, and spawned a 1967 movie by the same name. In the process, Plimpton became the everyman Lion fans vicariously live through as they imagine what it would be like to suit up with their gridiron heroes.
George Plimpton passed away this past Thursday, September 25. His death coming just four days after a reunion of Plimpton with 40 of his fellow Lions, from the 1963 book and 1967 movie rosters, was held in Detroit to commemorate the 40th anniversary of George's Lion training camp. While Plimpton is now gone, his book and movie remain, giving future Lion fans a glimpse into the past, at a game and time likely never to be seen again.
The book is a must for not only Lion fans, but for football fans everywhere. Plimpton was able to capture what it was truly like to be a part of a professional football team. From the doldrums of dorm life and the drudgery of classroom sessions, to the tension-easing pranks and highjinks of men earning a living playing a boys game, Paper Lion brings the reader into uncharted waters. The fact that Plimpton was able to pull this off while having very little knowledge of the game beyond that of the most casual observer only served to add to the charm of the story.
His conversations and interaction in the book with legendary defensive back Dick "Night Train" Lane are priceless. In addition, Plimpton's time with the Lions came at one of the most turbulent and memorable times in their history. With the franchise is in the midst of the Alex Karras' gambling suspension, and still recovering from the wounds of a disappointing 11-3 finish in 1962 which gave them their third-straight second-place finish behind Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers, the Lions provided Plimpton with plenty of avenues for the author to venture down.
The aging rookie from the Ivy League did just that, as Plimpton captured all the tension, excitement and adventure of a veteran team trying desperately to access their rapidly closing window of opportunity and reclaim the glory of their 1950's dominance.
I am in the midst of writing a book about the Detroit Lions' 1950's dynasty. Being that many of the players of the championship era were also part of the Paper Lion years, it is inevitable that during my interviews with those crossover-players that the name of George Plimpton would come up. In my conversations with players like John Gordy, Yale Lary and Joe Schmidt, it is clear that while they initially looked upon Plimpton's Walter Mitty-esque attempt at quarterback with skepticism, they ultimately were won over by George's charm and genuine attempt to in his words, "not to represent the skilled performer but the average weekend athlete."
It is impossible to imagine anyone today doing what George Plimpton did in the summer of 1963. The relationship today between NFL teams and the press that covers them has become, in many cases, frosty at best. Couple that with the fact that Plimpton was venturing into the inner sanctum of training camp as a member of the roster, and it becomes even more unlikely that the feat will be repeated in the multi-billion dollar, win-at-all-cost NFL of 2003.
What must not be forgotten through all of this is that George Plimpton was a gifted author. It was his skill for storytelling, not just the idea itself, which has made the book a classic. His engaging and thought provoking style made his forays into the athletic realm all the more enjoyable. I will leave you with an excerpt from his most famous book, which captures the Paper Lion at his best:
"Everything fine about being a quarterback -- the embodiment of his power -- was encompassed in those dozen seconds or so: giving the instructions to ten attentive men, breaking out of the huddle, walking for the line, and then pausing behind the center, dawdling amidst men poised and waiting under the trigger of his voice, cataleptic, until the deliverance of himself and them into the future."
Book excerpt taken from internet site GeorgePlimpton.com.
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