In anticipation of football’s “Wild Card Weekend,” which begins today, I see that a sports writer has invoked Herman Melville’s masterpiece. Dan Graziano believes that Indianapolis Colt quarterback Peyton Manning has become Rex Ryan’s Moby Dick.
He has beaten the New York Jets coach so many times that Ryan has become obsessed with him. Manning started defeating some very good Ryan-coached defenses when Ryan was with the Baltimore Ravens, and he defeated him again last year when the two met in the conference championship game.
The reference left me to wondering whether I could find a literary analogy for each of football’s playoff games this weekend. I decided to have fun with the project and came up with the following:
Rex Ryan as Ahab, Manning as Moby Dick
On first glance, one would be tempted to cast the 350-pound Rex Ryan as the whale in this drama rather than the athletic Manning. Furthermore, Manning doesn’t seem to have Moby Dick’s brute malevolence. But he has indeed metaphorically chewed off Ryan’s leg (a symbol of emasculation), beating him all four times that they’ve met, including twice in playoff games. (I don’t count a meaningless fifth game where Peyton was pulled early and the Jets came back to win.) The Jets’ coach has said that their battle has become “personal,” which it certainly is for Captain Ahab.
In fact, following last year’s defeat, Ryan went out and hired free agent cornerbacks specifically to stop Manning (and presumably Tom Brady of the Patriots as well). Perhaps we can think of them as Ahab’s South Sea harpooners—one of them is nicknamed “Revis Island,” which has a nautical echo—and as a Colts fans I’m glad to report that they go down with the ship when Moby Dick rams it. Manning has sunk many such ships over his career.
Of course, in the novel the whale is killed along with the Captain. Maybe the equivalent to that would be that both teams beat each other up so much that whoever emerges triumphant is in no state to take down the next opponent. Not an ending I would want for either team.
News update: Captain Ahab has killed his whale 17-16 and his ship remains intact. (I, on the other hand, feel like Ishmael, an orphan treading water in a “wide, wide sea” until I am rescued by the Rachel (time?), a ship searching for her lost children.
The Seattle Seahawks as Kipling’s “Fuzzy-Wuzzy”
Seattle is the only team ever to have made it into the NFL playoffs with a losing record. This year, however, the National Conference’s West Division was so weak that the Seahawks won it with a 7-9 record and now must face the defending Super Bowl Champions, the New Orleans Saints. Needless to say, many are expecting a slaughter.
Which brings to mind Rudyard Kipling’s poem about imperial troops fighting the Sudanese, told through the vantage point (often the case with Kipling) of a common soldier:
Then ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an’ the missis and the kid;
Our orders was to break you, an’ of course we went an’ did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an’ it wasn’t ‘ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin’ you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.
The “Fuzzy Wuzzy” are the black Dervish warriors, especially the Hadendowah, who were famous for their flamboyant hair and who broke down a British square at the battle of Abu Klea in 1885. “Martinis” would be Britain’s breechloading service rifles that the center of the square fired into the attacking enemy. In other words, the fight wasn’t fair.
Similarly, the Saints have too many guns. The question is whether the Seahawks will be able to put up a fight worthy of the Fuzzy-Wuz. Or will they be like “the Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese,” other teams that the Saints slaughtered on their way to one of the best records in the National Football Conference:
We’ve fought with many men acrost the seas,
An’ some of ‘em was brave an’ some was not:
The Paythan an’ the Zulu an’ Burmese;
But the Fuzzy was the finest o’ the lot.
We never got a ha’porth’s change of ‘im:
‘E squatted in the scrub an’ ‘ocked our ‘orses,
‘E cut our sentries up at Suakim,
An’ ‘e played the cat an’ banjo with our forces.
So ‘ere’s to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your ‘ome in the Soudan;
You’re a pore benighted ‘eathen but a first-class fightin’ man;
We gives you your certificate, an’ if you want it signed
We’ll come an’ ‘ave a romp with you whenever you’re inclined.
Incidentally, while the poem reflects the unexamined racism of the time, I suppose one can defend it somewhat by pointing out that Kipling’s speaker breaks through working class prejudice to acknowledge the manhood of his opponent. It is a theme that one also finds in “Gunga Din” and in Kim, Kipling’s masterpiece. It’s a trait that one sees in the National Football League as well, where the best players acknowledge the heroism of the “enemy.” If you want to have your certificate signed, come have a romp with us.
Late Breaking Scoring News:
Against all predictions, Fuzzy-Wuzzy not only broke the British square but won the entire battle: Seattle 41, Saints 36
Kansas City Chiefs as Mowgli, the Baltimore Ravens as Ulysses
Since I’m quoting Kipling, I’ll also apply him to the Kansas City Chiefs, who stunned the football world by going from last place in 2009 to first.this year. Not everyone believes in them, so I imagine them (a tip to my son Toby for the idea) as the youthful Mowgli going up against the tiger Shere Khan in the second Jungle Book.
Mowgli basically beats Shere Khan with a superior running game. He has returned to his village and is sent to watch the water buffalo. This gives him the idea of luring the tiger into a trap and then stampeding the buffalo so that they will trample him to death, which is what occurs.
Think of Mowgli as the seemingly young and untested Matt Cassel. The hungry Baltimore Ravens descend upon him, licking their chops, only for him to unleash his “water buffaloes,” stud running backs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones.
Of course, the Ravens must have their own classic, and I’m not talking about the one that they are named after. (I do, however, think it cool that their name pays homage to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” Poe being a native of Baltimore.) Because many of their defenders are wily veterans who once made up the best defense in football (but who now have lost a step), I invoke instead Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” where the aging hero insists he has one more fight left in him:
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
These lines could apply to Ray Lewis, the middle linebacker who plays with a ferocity and a passion that one doesn’t expect from one who is 35 (old by football standards). Or to Ed Reed, the safety who almost retired in the off-season, who missed the first ten games following invasive hip surgery, and yet who led the league this year with eight interceptions.
It may well be that the gulfs will wash them down (which is what the Chiefs hope). After all, they are not now that strength which in old days crushed the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV. Then again, they may also touch the Happy Isles (which I guess would be Dallas, where the Super Bowl is being played this year). One thing is for certain: they are “strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Green Bay Packers vs. Philadelphia Eagles: John Steinbeck’s East of Eden
Since I’ve written a lot about Michael Vick of the Eagles (here, here, here and here), I’m going to turn my attention to a drama that has been occurring within the Packer organization for a long time. For years quarterback Aaron Rodgers labored quietly and patiently under the shadow of the flamboyant, melodramatic, and publicity-hungry Brett Favre. Even after Favre left the Packers, he joined a team that then proceeded to beat up on the Packers.
Until this year. Rogers finally stepped into the sun and his team has the potential to go far in the playoffs. Compared to Favre, whom everyone has become tired of, there seems a kind of innocence to Rodgers. He throws the ball beautifully and is an exciting runner.
All of which has brought to mind the big brother-little brother drama in Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, which also features an Aron (albeit this one spelled with a single “a”). Redoing the Cain and Abel story, Steinbeck has the slightly older Caleb (they are twins) mess with his younger brother’s mind. Aron is shattered when Caleb reveals to him that their mother runs a brothel.
Unfortunately for Packer fans (if the novel foreshadows their future), Aron runs off to join World War I, is killed, and their father (Adam) has a stroke when he hears the news. Will Aaron Rodgers, who has already sustained two concussions this year, suffer a third? Will the citizens of Green Bay, who own the Packers as Adam owns the farm where Aron grows up, have their hearts broken?
As I think about it further, however, the novel applies more to last year’s Packers, when Favre did manage to defeat Rodgers twice, thereby denying him home field advantage so that he had to go far away (to the Arizona desert, home of the Cardinals) where he metaphorically died. Maybe we need a different story for this year’s playoffs. Packer fans can breathe again.
And of course, if we shift to the other side and talk about Michael Vick as the Ancient Mariner or as Hester Prynne (as I do in my posts about him), then we can see him having his own reversals.
Literature is not going to allow us to predict the outcome of these games. If you want comforting reassurance, choose a story that has the ending you desire.
But be aware as well that a sad narrative can console if your team ends up losing. Last year I wrote this post with the intention of consoling fans of the losing Super Bowl Team. When I wrote it, I didn’t know that my Colts would lose in heartrending fashion and that I would need consoling. I was well aware, however, that literature can rise to the occasion. So if your team loses this weekend, this post will alert you to passages in Beowulf that express your pain.