Football Short Story
Psychological
Out of Bounds, Jim Brown with Steve Delsohn (1989)
The Bronx, New York. Yankee Stadium. October, 1963. Winter is moving in. So are the New York Giants. And they're attacking my eyes.
I wasn't happy, wasn't quite surprised. Though you'll always find scared individuals, the preva­llent nature of the professional football player is that of a soldier of fortune. He's trained and willing to bust people up.
The Giants were sophisticated assassins. Maybe it was living in New York: guys like Frank Gifford, Jim Katcavage, Andy Robustelli, seemed hipper, classier, than the average guy in the NFL. I had big respect for the Giants. They were football intellectuals, the smartest team in the league. Also the most calculating. Other teams would have one or two thugs who'd randomly jump you, hit you in the head. New York did nothing helter-skelter. The Giants would determine, as a unit, who they were going to get, then go out and get him. I used to envision them in their dressing room: "Look, today we're gonna fuck up Jim Brown's eyes. And here's how we're going to do it."

Jim Brown runs against the Giants.
Loose rules. Hard men. Not a lot of cash. It made the old NFL a primitive place. I accepted the standard rough stuff, knew it was part of my sport. Still, the first time I carried the ball against the Giants, I knew something was up. We used to wear those two-bar masks; the bottom of the nose to just above the eyebrow was exposed. As I was going down my first carry, a guy stuck his hand inside my helmet, scraped my eyes. Next carry, my eye got hit by a forearm. As the first half went on, I guess the Giants got pretty blatant. Rosey Grier, their huge defensive end, started screaming at his own teammates: "WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING THAT FOR?"
Me and Rosey were real friends, the Giants knew it. I don't believe they sent him that morn­ing's memo.
Rosey even confronted the officials, told them his teammates were after my eyes. The offi­cials didn't call anything. I'm not singing the blues: in our era, that was not unusual either. The game was not remotely as commercial, the refs weren't out there to protect careers. Guys got away with serious mayhem.
For me that particular day, that presented a problem. In boxing, guy hits you in the groin, ref is dreaming about his chick, it's simple: you crack the other guy in the groin. To keep it semi-clean in football, you need the official, especially if you're a guy on offense, particularly a runner. A runner can't really retaliate, all he can do is go nuts, start a fight. Then his ass is ejected, the defense is grinning.
I came in at halftime against the Giants, sat by myself. It was a strange, memorable mo­ment. Time diffuses memory, and people today think it was all power, speed, and instincts. I did have those talents, but a major part of my edge was psychological. Normally, I was the one who messed with people's mind. Now the Giants had penetrated mine.
Sitting alone, I was thinking, Damn. Do these guys have me? Do I complain? Do I start a fistfight?
Have they broken my will?
I was scared. Not physically. You can't play in the NFL, not for long, if you're frightened of taking punishment. No way you can play running back.
What scared me was the Giants' tactics. Specifically, I was afraid that those tactics would stop me from performing. In my entire life, fear of not performing is the greatest fear I have ever felt.
I wasn't alone. Bill Quinlan, a defensive end, was one of the roughest, toughest guys on the Cleveland Browns. He would throw up violently before every single single. Quinlan's boogie­man was inside his stomach, tearing away.
Being the star of my team, perhaps the most scrutinized man in the league, my boogieman was twenty feet tall. The pressure on any big star is somehow unique. You're in the dressing room before the game, younger guys are glancing at you, veterans depending on you, 60,000 people want to be entertained–brother, you can't have an ordinary game.
That shit would scare me to death. I'd be trying so hard to concentrate, start thinking, Wow! I think I would rather not be here.
At first when I had those thoughts I was miserable. I felt so damn guilty. Then I talked to other people, not my teammates or opponents, but men I respected in other professions, and learned that fear is perfectly natural. It's essential–if men didn't blink when you threw something at their eyes, if they had no fear, they wouldn't survive. I learned that fear is a gift from God.
I was set free! Once I admitted I had fear, I used that sucker. Made it my ally. Okay, I have a contest this afternoon, and I am Fucked Up. By gametime, can I take this totally messed up feeling, pull my stuff together? Can I come face to face with the Devil–and still perform? When I discovered I could, it was a hell of a piece of knowledge. By kickoff, I could grip my fear, transform it into power.
Unfortunately, during halftime against the Giants, I forgot all that. I didn't have a clue. Not only had they rattled my mind, the Giants had messed up my eyes. I felt like I was looking through a thick curtain. Then halftime ended. End of soul search. I thought, Man, I got a game here. They go for my eyes again, I'll deal with it then.
I never discovered what I would have done. First time I got the ball, I broke a long one–touchdown.
Next time we got the ball, I scored another strong TD. That was that: the Giants stopped going for my eyes. I think I know why. I've always felt that competition, stripped to its essence, is a battle of will. Skills, conditions, even luck may vary. Only one thing is constant: break an opponent's will, you'll beat him every time. Control a man's mind, his body will follow.
The Giants probably didn't know it, but on that day, they came close to breaking me. When I wouldn't succumb, I think they lost their will. And we beat them, 35-24.
There was still the matter of my eyes. Two days later they were still blood-red and blurry. I pulled aside one of our coaches just before practice.
I said, "Coach, my eyes haven't cleared up. Maybe I should go see the doctor."
He said, "Yeah ... can you go after practice? I don't want the other guys to think you're hurt. It would screw them up."
So I practiced, then I snuck to the doctor that night.