In 1963, Sports Illustrated reporter George Plimpton embarked on an experiment to answer the world’s most important question: how would the average person fare in a professional football game?
Plimpton embedded with the Detroit Lions for their three week training camp, an adventure which culminated with him playing quarterback in their annual intra-team preseason scrimmage. You can read about it at SI, or in his book Paper Lion, or you can let me cut to the chase for you right here — he was terrible. He took four snaps in the scrimmage and lost yards on each one.
Plimpton could have done better, though, and I am here to tell you how. I want to make perfectly clear, however, that I don’t think I could have done better than Plimpton. I don’t relish admitting it, but I definitely would have been way worse and gotten extremely hurt, possibly before ever taking the field. The injury report would read something like, “She wore cleats into the cafeteria and slipped, hard, in an attempt to run towards the chocolate cake, while yelling “Yay! Cake!”.
That being said, I still think Plimpton himself could have put in an improved performance. let’s take a look at each of his four snaps, and see how he might have done better.
He got knocked down by his own guard. He lost the ball, but managed to recover it … five yards behind the line of scrimmage. It happened so fast, Plimpton didn’t even know how embarrassing this play really was, he assumed the defense had tackled him.
How could he have done better? Easy: Communication and Preparation.
Long before the scrimmage, Plimpton should have explained to his teammates that the average man topples over much more easily than the professional athletes they’re used to. Perhaps they could have done some drills where they experimented with how easy it was to knock him down. Once they knew, they’d surely give him a wider berth on the field.
Plimpton slipped in the grass and fell down by himself.
Gotta pretend there’s something wrong with his cleats at this point. Stare at them, stomp around, talk to everyone around about the broken cleats, go to the sidelines and get new cleats, etc.
While having messed up shoes is not technically doing “better” at football, it’s still doing better in the sense that he wouldn’t incite ire from all football fans, everywhere. Plimpton is supposed to represent how you or me would fare in a pro game, and he just fell down for no reason? We wouldn’t just fall down for no reason! I don’t want this loser representing me! Oh, oh, oh, his cleats were messed up. Alright, I’ll give him another chance.
Plimpton was supposed to hand the ball off to fullback Danny Lewis, but the Lewis was too fast and ran past him before he even turned around. Not knowing what else to do, Plimpton followed Lewis, hoping he’d made some sort of hole. The defense grabbed Plimpton, stripped him, and cast him aside.
Once again, this is a result of failure to prepare.
The whole three weeks Plimpton was at training camp, he took the strategy of befriending the other Lions. Seems like a fun, natural, thing to do … but it’s not gonna keep him safe! Did he think the defenders would say, “I can’t tackle him, he’s my pal?!”
Plimpton should have made himself intimidating to his teammates. He can’t be physically intimidating, of course, but he has other tools at his disposal to strike fear in their hearts — he’s a reporter after all.
All he had to do was spend training camp snooping for hot gossip and secrets about the other players. He should have rummaged through their bags, read their diaries, listened in on their phone calls, then threatened to write about what he learned.
A quick, “Story’s already written. You touch me, it’s tomorrow’s front page” could have protected Plimpton all the way to the endzone.
He was supposed to throw a slant pass to tight end, Jim Gibbons. He threw over Gibbons’ head.
This is as close as he got to a completion. I don’t know what he could have done to get the ball to Jim Gibbons’ hands, but I do know how he could have made it seem like the miss wasn’t all his fault: Get really mad at Jim Gibbons. Then, it’s not as clear who messed up. Sure, the pro athlete is going to have more credibility than Plimpton, but what if Plimpton really sold it? What if he screamed in Gibbons’ face, threw his helmet, stuff like that? It’d at least plant the seed that maybe Gibbons didn’t completely screw up.
With a little planning and strategizing, George Plimpton could have performed/seemed better in his football debut. But, let’s be honest, the whole situation would have gone better if he had pretended to get hurt right away and never played in the public facing intra-team scrimmage.
Just do the training, get the material for your book, the get outta there. The average football fan does not actually want a definitive answer to the question “How would I do out there?!” The average football fan wants to ask it, then, in their hope and hubris, believe that there’s a chance they wouldn’t totally blow it. Which they would.
And now I’d like to reiterate that I do not think I could play professional football better than George Plimpton. Please do not make me try.
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