Friday night, NFL Network debuted the most recent installment of the series “A Football Life.” Its subject matter was Vikings Hall of Famer Alan Page and perhaps, in this one instance, the successful network series should have changed its name to “A Life That Included Football.”
For anyone who has seen the acclaimed NFL Network series, the stories are often cut from the same general cloth. There is often a difficult upbringing in which the ability to excel in sports was a golden ticket to a new and better life. There are typically hardships along the way, but, for the most part, the stories come with a happy ending.
Under that definition, Page’s “A Football Life” episode wasn’t, at its essence, all that different than the rest. But, like the man himself, it was the content contained within that differentiated him from the rest.
Too often, with the unmatched level of stardom and public recognition that elite athletes enjoy, it becomes the singular trait that defines them.
In their golden years, they are still remembered for achievements made as young men in their 20s and 30s. Many went on to become successful in their post-NFL endeavors, but, almost to a man, by choice they remained cosmically linked to that small window of their lives that it came to define them.
Page isn’t one of those people.
He wasn’t at the time he played. He isn’t now. He never was.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Page wasn’t profiled earlier than he was, because his life story doesn’t fit the template for the standard player profile. His life peaked after football, despite having one of the most dominant NFL careers of any player who ever donned shoulder pads.
What follows in the 60 minutes devoted to Page is nothing short of inspiring. His NFL career was merely an early chapter in his life journey. It wasn’t the shining moment of his life that is remembered fondly in the rearview mirror, like so many episodes of “A Football Life” are. He could be as nasty between the white lines of a football field as any other player chronicled in the series. But his was a life that transcended football. To Page, football was the foundation of the house. The rest he built himself.
On a personal level, there are only two things I’m a sucker for – kids and dogs. They share an unconditional joy for life that, when nurtured properly, lasts a lifetime. Page is the same way. It’s safe to say that no other episode of “A Football Life” includes a book reading to second-graders by the author or dogs dragging their owners toward a relative stranger offering nothing more than a scratch behind the ears, a treat and unconditional love.
Those were part of Page’s episode.
For a player who was so dominant, the entire 60 minutes of the documentary (or 42 minutes for nitpickers who fast forward during commercial breaks) could have been devoted to his groundbreaking achievements on the gridiron.
To adequately tell the Page story, even a Hollywood film editing genius would have a difficult chore in cutting it down to two hours. He was a pioneer. He was an activist when activism wasn’t cool. He and his wife Diane faced racism at a base level of intolerance. He saw the NFL as an opportunity that, by definition, had a finite shelf life. Every NFL player, no matter how great, has an expiration date.
He was aware of that. Most try to ignore it.
It’s what he accomplished after his football career that has defined Alan Page.
His judicial career began as part of the injustice he saw that was so pervasive in the NFL. If you think The Shield and the NFLPA are at odds now, it was on Page’s watch that the player’s association took its first formative steps in the long fight for equity. In his own way, Page was James Meredith and Rosa Parks packed into a very large frame.
In an ironic twist, those in charge of making “A Football Life” saw that they had to change the show’s formula to accurately tell Page’s story. It wasn’t all about the gridiron. Long before Bo Jackson referred to a professional sport as a hobby, Page had lived it.
He wasn’t the most popular teammate in his era. Surrounded by players who ate, drank and slept football, Page was able to get out of the eight-week, six-game preseason that was the NFL of the 1970s – so long as he could do what he did at such a high level when winning and losing mattered. There was some legitimate resentment among his teammates at the time. Bud Grant granted a pass to one player to pursue academics long after his undergraduate college days had ended.
There was envy. There was jealousy.
Page didn’t care.
In order to qualify as a sports documentary, NFL Network did its best to splice enough on-field footage to qualify. But, it can be argued, to effectively tell the Page story, despite his monumental on-field achievements, it required the least game footage of any episode in series history.
If you have NFL Network and haven’t seen it, do so.
If you don’t have NFL Network and have a friend with DVR capability, hit that person up to make it happen.
In doing so, you will witness the episode of “A Football Life” that has very little to do with football.
More appropriately, but with copyright infringement litigation likely to ensue, it should be called “A Wonderful Life.” Page’s contribution to society as a jurist far exceeds his accomplishments as a football player. So do his roles as a husband, father and grandfather.
Page lived a football life, but it was merely a portion of his life.
The NFL promulgates that the collective is more important than the component pieces.
Page’s football life proved otherwise.
That in itself may be his biggest contribution to the game and the legion of fans who worship their gridiron heroes. Page lived a football life, but the 22 years he lived before his NFL football life and the 34 he had lived since are testament to the man.
The 14 in between? A really cool chapter that helped define “A Life That Included Football.”