Football's team spirit as a sanctuary for young men

October 24, 2004|By Michael MacCambridge | Michael MacCambridge,Special to the Sun

State of Grace: A Memoir of Twilight Time, by Robert Timberg. Free Press. 293 pages. $26.

Trying to explain to a civilian the incredible pull that the game of football exerted on its participants, the retired Colts' All-Pro center Bill Curry once recalled the savage fatigue that can set in by the end of the fourth quarter, and the motivation that he felt in those dire times: "All the other exterior motives don't work, at some level all you really want to do is quit. So, then, there is some little flame ... and it says you're not quitting and it comes from inside. Then you look at the guy next to you and because you love him -- you may not particularly like him off the field -- but on the field you know what he is and you know what he's going to do. Then, you can't let him down, cannot let him down. That's how great teams happen."

Curry's eloquent explanation of the gritty truth of team chemistry might have served as an epigraph for Robert Timberg's State of Grace: A Memoir of Twilight Time. Timberg, the deputy chief of The Sun's Washington bureau, explores many of the same heady emotions in his account of his early college years spent on a Pop Warner sandlot team in New York. In so doing, he also evokes a period before television's dominance had been fully felt, before John F. Kennedy's assassination altered the national psyche, and before the trauma of Vietnam rent families and a nation. If the guys in Diner lived in New York instead of Baltimore and played football instead of watching it, they might have been Timberg's teammates on the Lynvets, a rough-hewn but well-drilled outfit that dominated New York's sandlot leagues for much of the '50s.

State of Grace is really two stories, not always easily compatible. One is the story of the Lynvets, the slangy camaraderie they enjoyed, and the fiercely compelling coach, Larry Kelly, who ran the team with a hand every bit as autocratic as Vince Lombardi's. Timberg faithfully tells the story of this team and some of its key players, and parts of the book read like a heartfelt homage to friendship forged on football fields and beyond. As a Vietnam vet, he knows well how ludicrous it is to equate football to war.

But he also understands and respects the esprit de corps that binds the players in this violent, compelling sport. What comes across less well in the occasionally discursive narrative is the way the individual personalities on the team meshed. (There are points in the book when one wishes for a few more pictures, beyond the unidentified team photo in the front of the book.)

The other story, at times darker but undeniably more intimate, is that of Timberg himself. His father, Sammy, was a composer of some note, whose best-known work came in scoring classic cartoons of the '30s. His mother, Rose-marie, was a dancer, actress and, significantly, an alcoholic, whose bouts contributed to the dissolution of her marriage and placed an incredible strain on her three children, Timberg the eldest.

In response to this haunted adolescence, we see the young Timberg pouring himself into a series of life experiences -- first with the Lynvets, then at the Naval Academy, later a courtship -- that will shape the adult he becomes. The book is well-written throughout, but it's in some of these stretches that Timberg's prose soars. And though his station in life was more fortunate than many of his teammates, his own story helps to underscore just how much of a sanctuary a football team can offer to young men still struggling with the obligations of adult life.

State of Grace lacks the crisply focused protagonists and irresistible narrative momentum of Timberg's best seller, The Nightingale's Song. Yet it is still a rewarding book about the ineffable process of how boys turn into men, and the lessons they take into adulthood about honor, responsibility, glory and self-reliance.

Michael MacCambridge is the author of America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation.

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