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With 'Paper Lion,' George Plimpton Played Pro Football So We Didn't Have To

Culture | March 18, 2021

George Plimpton on the cover of the paperback edition of 'Paper Lion.' Source: Amazon.com

In 1966, George Plimpton's book Paper Lion, recounting his attempt to play football with the Detroit Lions, allowed millions of Americans to vicariously live out their childhood dream of playing in the NFL. Well, perhaps it's more accurate to say that the book provided entertaining confirmation to millions of people that they -- like the author -- absolutely did not belong in the NFL.

Yes, the Detroit Lions actually authorized a 36-year-old sportswriter to participate during a real NFL training camp to experience life as a third-string quarterback. Plimpton’s journey from gawky sportswriter to QB under center began as a two-part article in Sports Illustrated, but eventually grew into a book. His attempt at the hardest position in sports wasn’t his first foray into participatory journalism. In 1960 he talked his way into pitching to professional baseball players during an All-Star exhibition (an experience that became the book Out Of My League). This is a story that could only happen in the Groovy era. 

A preview of Plimpton moving at a normal human's speed as professional athletes fly past him. (Pinterest)

George Plimpton wasn't your typical sportswriter -- in fact, his day job was nearly the antithesis of sports. In 1953, Plimpton co-founded The Paris Review, which would become one of the world's leading literary magazines, and for 50 years served as its editor. The Paris Review published some of the most notable writers of the 20th century, including Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth, Adrienne Rich, Jack Kerouac, Donald Barthelme, V.S. Naipaul, Rick Moody, Mona Simpson, and T. Coraghessan Boyle. Sneaking off to Detroit to spend weeks getting clobbered by brawny linebackers was not a logical project for such a literary luminary.

The Conceit Of 'Paper Lion'

A tale worth reading. (Abebooks)

Plimpton's idea was to show America how the average person would fare at the highest level of professional sports. After receiving refusals from the New York Giants, New York Titans (an AFL team that became the New York Jets), and Baltimore Colts, Plimpton finally found an NFL team crazy enough to accept, the Detroit Lions.

It’s worth noting that Plimpton never played college or high school football and looked about as athletic as a high school gym teacher. Plimpton described himself as “having a physique akin to a tall wading bird.” The coaches were in on the bit but players initially believed the undercover writer to be a former Harvard quarterback vying for the third string spot. Of course, the ruse quickly fell apart when Plimpton failed to properly receive a snap or even hand off with any success. 

Plimpton Had Never Played Football At Any Level (And It Showed)

Plimpton couldn't make it in sports but wrote a great book. (newyorker)

After a few days of the gangly Plimpton botching just every football act known to man and constantly scribbling into a notebook, players caught on. Naturally, the players ribbed and good naturedly ball-busted Plimpton endlessly. Over one of the whirlpools, they posted a sign, “reserved for Plimpton.” Wayne Walker, a massive linebacker for the Lions, told the football newbie, “Everything gets dark, like seeing everything from a dark tunnel."

Somehow, Plimpton talked head coach George Wilson into indulging him with five snaps during an intrasquad scrimmage. One of the Lion’s real QBs, Earl Morrall, left him with this sage advice, "Look. You don't need to worry tomorrow. Call plays that get the ball to the running backs. Make those people pick up the yardage for you." Spoiler alert, it was not that easy. 

Plimpton's Moment Of Gridiron Glory

He may not have succeeded as football player but Plimpton made some friends along the way. (IMDB)

The Lions' practice facility was sold out with ravenous fans as Plimpton trotted out to the huddle. Bud Erickson, the Lions' publicity man, announced to the sold-out crowd that “number zero” (Plimpton) was not actually a professional but a writer who had been training with the team for three weeks. Erickson further explained that “number zero” practiced five plays during his time with the team and would attempt them against the Lion’s first-string defense. 

Plimpton's First Play Was A Failure. Things Didn't Get Any Better

Plimpton after one of his five disastrous snaps. (SI)

The first play called for an easy hand-off that only required Plimpton to turn, take two steps before giving the ball to the running back coming from right to left. After successfully calling out a bunch of dummy numbers in his New England accent. Plimpton took the snap, made it a single step towards his running back before taking a hit and losing the ball.

Naturally, Plimpton assumed one of his offensive linemen blew a blocking assignment. However, it turned out the contact actually came from his lineman accidentally running him over. In football, running plays sometimes require certain linemen to “pull” toward a side and set up blocks. Unfortunately, for Plimpton, he took the handoff so slowly that he still occupied the space meant for his pulling lineman.

Funnily enough, linebacker Carl Brettschneider predicted such a collision during training camp. "The defense is going to rack you up one of these days—that is, if your own team would let you stand long enough for us defense guys to get at you. It's aggravating to bust through and find that you've already been laid flat by your own guys."

What's Easy For A Pro Is Challenging For An Average Person

Turns out professional athletes are professionals for a reason. (Nybooks)

Plimpton’s first attempt at a pass ended up with him on his backside, despite no one laying a hand on him. Apparently making a seven-step drop presents some difficulties for the average joe. His next snap called for a full fullback handoff, a very simple and easy play for the quarterback.

Sadly, that attempted handoff required the fledgling QB to make his turn in time for the sprinting fullback to receive the ball. Predictably that turn failed to happen in time which meant the fullback went barreling towards the line without the ball. In an attempt to salvage the play, Plimpton sought to follow his fullback instead. That brave move concluded with a 300-pound tackle, Roger Brown, known as Rhinofoot or Haystack, relieving him of the ball.

Plimpton’s next pass attempt, a short drop, sailed over his intended receiver's head. Nevertheless, the play actually resembled an actual attempt at gaining yards. His final snap, a pitch, ended in lost yards, thanks to the defense intimately knowing his five play repertoire. As he shuffled to the sidelines, the announcer chuckled, "Bud, that's one of the funniest damn—I mean that guy's got it."

Of course, Plimpton fared about as well as any average citizen would have. After all, it’s professional sports. At one point, the “rookie” quarterback was set to appear in an actual preseason game against real competition but NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle squashed that idea. Plimpton left with some bruises and an award that read "To the best rookie football player in Detroit Lions’ history." 

'Paper Lion' Was A Game Changer

George Plimpton with Muhammad Ali. Source: The Paris Review

Plimpton's story would have been an empty stunt if the book had flopped -- but the book did not flop.

A New York Times reviewer called it "a great book that makes football absolutely fascinating to fan and non-fan alike" and praised Plimpton for having "endless curiosity, unshakable enthusiasm and nerve, and a deep respect for the world he enters." Book Week called Paper Lion "possibly the most arresting and delightful narrative in all of sports literature." It was embraced as the greatest book ever written about football, if not the greatest sports book of all time. 

Fifty-five years later, it's still rated highly, although the field of serious, and seriously entertaining, books about sports is far bigger and more competitive. It's all very subjective, but the consensus best football book (if it's not Paper Lion) might be North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent, from 1973; Semi-Tough by Dan Jenkins, from 1977; Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger, from 1990; or The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis, from 2006. But all those books came after Paper Lion, and arguably benefited from Plimpton's achievement of writing about football with style, wit and intelligence. Paper Lion will always hold the distinction of being the first great book written about football.

Paper Lion: The Motion Picture

Alan Alda and Lauren Hutton in 'Paper Lion.' Source: IMDB

Paper Lion made it to the big screen in 1968, with Alan Alda playing the role of George Plimpton. Classic Film Guide judges it to be "not a great film but a curio of the early American (AFL) & National Football League (NFL) days." 

"I don't know what to make of Paper Lion as a movie -- it will not be immortal, I guess," wrote Roger Ebert, "but as wish fulfillment, it's crackerjack."

Paper Lion is notable for being the screen debut of Lauren Hutton, as well as that of Alex Karras, who was still playing professional football at the time. Karras went on to a successful acting career, playing Mongo in Blazing Saddles and George Papadopolis on the '80s sitcom Webster.

George Plimpton's Life After 'Paper Lion'

George Plimpton about to enjoy some Pop Secret microwave popcorn. Source: YouTube

Paper Lion made Plimpton the master of participatory journalism, and he milked it. He tried to play professional golf in The Bogey Man (1967), returned to football (this time with the Baltimore Colts) in Mad Ducks And Bears (1973), tried to box a real fighter in Shadow Box (1977), and tried to play professional hockey with the Boston Bruins in Open Net (1988). 

He may have been one of America's most prominent public intellectuals, with an aristocratic demeanor, but George Plimpton was anything but an elitist. He relished being able to connect with ordinary Americans, whether through his sports books, his commercials for Intellivision and Pop Secret popcorn, or his numerous TV and movie credits. Plimpton died in 2003 at the age of 76.

Tags: Books | Football | George Plimpton | NFL | Sports | Sports Illustrated

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!