When it comes to sports, the nerd community is not of one mind. Some regard certain varieties of hardcore-obsessive sports fandom – Bill James-style baseball “sabermetrics,” for instance – as specialty branches of nerdism in themselves. Others, citing the miseries of gym class, the traditional high school predator-prey relationship between jocks and nerds, and a simple mistrust of the sort of social conformity implied by rooting for a sports team, would see anything but eye-rolling contempt for sports as a disqualification from full nerd status.
Suppose, though, that you have no interest in The Big Game itself, but are still traditionalist enough – or, maybe, ironist enough – to want to mark the occasion with something pigskin-appropriate? When the Puppy Bowl just won’t cut it, here are some football-themed amusements that are still entirely nerd-acceptable:
12. Billy Cole’s Last Scoring Drive
With the exception of Halle Berry in an attention-getting early role as a stripper, not much sticks in the memory about The Last Boy Scout, a slightly nasty early-’90s Bruce Willis/Damon Wayans action movie from Tony Scott. Not much, that is, except for the horrific opening scene, in which juiced-up, desperate “L.A. Stallion” Billy Cole, threatened by gambling interests, chooses an unusual tactic to ensure that he reaches the end zone. Oddly, no one seems to throw a flag.
The suspicion that, in real life, football’s ratings wouldn’t suffer if mayhem like this broke out from time to time is regrettable but not dismissible. The role of determined receiver Billy Cole was played, by the way, by martial arts star Billy Blanks, of Tae Bo workout video fame.
11. The Bane Game
Not long ago, on a sports-talk radio show, I heard a host ask his listeners who they’d be rooting for in an upcoming playoff game in which both teams were loathed rivals in the radio station’s market. One response: “I’m hoping for a Bane Game.“
The listener was referring, of course, to the game between the Gotham City Rogues and the Rapid City Monuments in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, cancelled in no uncertain terms by the masked party-pooper Bane. It’s an epic version, perhaps, of the sort of deadly anarchy that The Last Boy Scout depicts on a small scale, and in either form it can give a weird satisfaction to the non-fan.
According to The Onion, however, Rogue spirit was indomitable in the team’s first training camp after the catastrophe.
10. Flash Gordon’s footbrawl:
You may recall that in the original 1936 Flash Gordon serial, the title character was a polo player. Indeed, with a rogue planet hurtling toward Earth, Our Hero ditches on the sport and catches a flight for home, causing his father Professor Gordon to admiringly note his selflessness: “He gave up his polo game just in time to catch the Transcontinental plane, hoping to be with us here before the end…” You mean he actually gave up a polo game with the destruction of the world imminent? What a guy.
Anyway, the makers of the 1980 feature version of Flash Gordon evidently thought that polo was too swanky for their Flash, and made him, instead, an NFL player: “Flash Gordon. Quarterback. New York Jets.“
Confronted with a blitz from Emperor Ming’s goons early on the picture, Flash (Sam J. Jones) takes them on while carrying, and lobbing, a green egg of just the right size and oblong-ish shape, so that before long the sinister Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) realizes that his foe in his element, and begins to coach his minions: “You fools, he’s playing some barbaric game!” About this time the lovely Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) just naturally assumes the role of cheerleader: “Go, Flash,go!” Who says there were no good movie roles for women in those days?
It’s possible, though, that the most trenchant line goes to Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow). As he watches Flash get the better of the goons – with some sly help from Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen (Brian Blessed) – Ming leans over to his henchman and asks “Klytus, are your men on the right pills? Maybe you should execute their trainer.” No doubt GMs always welcome this sort of input from team owners.
9. Eerie #79:
“See Page 43…For Chilling All-Star Football Action!“
The title of all-time greatest sports-themed horror comic story would almost certainly have to go to “Foul Play,” the gory Al Feldstein/Jack Davis baseball fable of 1953 from EC’s The Haunt of Fear that so upset Dr. Wertham and his fellow funnybook fretters. But the horror comics got around to football as well, with the November 1976 issue of the Warren favorite Eerie.
If you turned to page 43, you’d find “Sam’s Son and Delilah,” written by Bruce Jones and illustrated by Carmine Infantino and Al Milgrom, in which poor deaf Bubber Radley (just possibly the name was inspired by Boo Radley of To Kill a Mockingbird) is made to play football by his boorish father Sam, instead of being allowed to pursue his passion for fine art, as his gentle mother Delilah would prefer. Misfortune ensues.
This somewhat laborious yarn does not represent the finest hour of the estimable Jones, who later edited and mostly wrote the wonderful, short-lived Twisted Tales for Pacific Comics. But along with the good punning title, the story does have a nice sports-phobic conflict that has undeniable nerd appeal, and in any case issue #79 is hard to resist simply on the basis of its death’s-head-on-the-gridiron cover by Ken Kelly, with the legend “He was death on cleats!“
8. MAD‘s Rhyming Guide to Pro Football
MAD‘s prolific bard Frank Jacobs penned this verse cycle explaining the game from top to bottom, with sections on defense, offense, the coaches, the broadcasters and more.
Here, for example, is “The Linebacker”:
This crouching beast of grunts and growls
Commits the most disgusting fouls;
In truth, he merely vents his wrath
Like any Stone Age psychopath;
He’s fed raw meat, and coaches think
He may be Darwin’s Missing Link;
He should be caged, not running loose;
Let’s hope that he can’t reproduce.
Or, from the other side of the ball, “The Quarterback”:
Observe the big-shot Quarterback
Now screwing up his team’s attack;
He should be using all his wits
To plan his play and stop the blitz;
But now he’s such a business whiz,
His mind is on those bars of his;
I guess now he’s too big a name
To care about a silly game.
It ran in issue #148 (January 1972), with terrific illustrations by Jack Davis, and was reprinted and anthologized thereafter. I reread it until I knew many of the poems by heart, and while I loved it for its snark, I picked up much of what little I know about football from it. I doubt I can be only nerd of which this is true.
7. “Fight Fiercely, Harvard”
While we’re on the subject of Boomer-era rhyming snark, let’s not forget this Ivy League fight song by the great Tom Lehrer. It was the composer’s earliest recorded effort, written in 1945, because, as he would later explain “…the football fight songs one hears…have a tendency to be somewhat uncouth, and even violent,” thus “it would be refreshing, to say the least, to find one that was a bit more genteel.“
The tune appeared on Lehrer’s 1953 debut album Songs by Tom Lehrer, and again on his 1960 live album Tom Lehrer Revisited. The Harvard University Band still plays the song at games, and has recorded it. “Hurl that spheroid down the field/And fight, fight, fight…“
6. Mutant Football League
There is no shortage of football video games, of course, most notably the endless iterations of Madden NFL, in which the game is simulated more or less realistically. This insanely popular series has led to a “Madden Bowl,” an elimination tournament played annually since 1995 in the same city as the Super Bowl.
There are more nerd-friendly variations, too, like Atari’s Cyberball, in which the game is played by robots and the ball is in danger of exploding, or Blood Bowl, a video version of the board game in which Tolkien-esque teams of orcs and goblins play a football-like blood sport. But it’s doubtful that even these can claim to being quite as nerdy as Mutant Football League, a 1993 game set in a future in which aliens, trolls, skeletons and the like face each other on a crater-pocked field littered with hazards such as landmines. What a Harryhausen movie it could have made.
5. The GFL
There are some human creations which stand the test of centuries: the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China. With his GFL novels, author Scott Sigler asserts that American Football will be similarly durable. GFL stands for Galactic Football League, in which, some 700 years from now, “Aliens and humans alike play positions based on physiology, creating receivers that jump 25 feet into the air, linemen that bench-press 1,200 pounds, and linebackers that literally want to eat you.“
Sigler has followed his youthful hero, quarterback Quentin Barnes (note the initials?) from The Rookie (2009) through three sequels, The Starter, The All-Pro and The MVP. More adventures are promised.
4. The Texas Terror
Out of the odd, scrappy world of Arena Football comes the obscure story of the Texas Terror (1996-1997). The Houston-based club used the Frankenstein Monster in the team logo…
…so what else do you really need to know to be a fan? Who cares that they recorded only one win in their first season, against – no kidding – the Minnesota Fighting Pike? The team boringly redubbed itself the Houston Thunderbears starting in 1998, so who cares that they went out of business in 2001?
The Terror’s past-tense status makes them, I suppose, a rather feeble alternative to the Super Bowl. But there is, at least, some game footage available; though not, alas, of their triumph over the Pike.
3. Charlie Brown and Lucy Wacky Wobblers
While most of Charlie Brown’s sports-related agonies centered on the baseball field, he had a peculiarly fatalistic career on Special Teams as well. Again and again, in annual Peanuts Sunday strips, Lucy would invite him to kick the football she was holding, and again and again he would resist, knowing full well that she meant to yank the ball away at the last second so that he would sail through the air and land on his back. Again and again she would offer some elaborate reason why this year would be different. She would always persuade him to make the attempt, and every last time he would go flying.
“She’s always going to do that, you know,” Charles Schultz is reported to have said. “He’s never going to get to kick that football.” Elsewhere, he wisely observed, “Winning is great, but it isn’t funny.“
This classic recurring gag is enshrined in this Funko Wacky Wobbler tableau. Your own sensibility will determine if it’s a monument to eternal optimism or to the power of rhetoric over the gullible. The dirty-minded among us may wonder if it suggests some kinky, fetishistic bond between the two as adults, should that long-arrested growth-spurt ever kick in.
2. Bullwinkle’s Glory Days at Wossamotta U.
One of the most memorable adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, from 1963, involves the drafting of the latter as a star passer at that august institute of higher learning. It’s a frank and gritty tale of how colleges prioritize sports programs over academics, and enrich themselves at the expense of student athletes. In Bullwinkle and Rocky’s case, at one point this actually means ducking under gunfire, just like in The Last Boy Scout. Wossamotta’s opponent in the climactic big game, you see, is the Mud City Manglers, coached by Boris and Natasha’s boss Fearless Leader.
This saga, which includes everything from gambling fixes to football in drag to Civil War strategy, is an essential part of the American cartoon canon. But it wasn’t all bad for Bullwinkle – he managed, at least, to parlay his football stardom into an endorsement deal, plugging Cheerios.
1. Marvel’s NFL SuperPro
It was probably inevitable that a football player would, sooner or later, be used as a superhero. Marvel made the attempt in 1991 with this title, created in official partnership with the NFL, about star Notre Dame linebacker and NFL hopeful Phil Grayfield, whose pro career is scuttled before it begins by an heroically-sustained injury.
Poor Phil switches to TV sports journalism instead, then acquires a super-advanced protective football suit, and has one of those chemical accidents which, in comics, don’t kill or disfigure you so much as give you superpowers. All this puts him in good field position, so to speak – Phil uses football metaphors of this sort constantly – to root out the crime and evil which threatens the purity of his beloved sport, sometimes in the form of supervillains like Quick Kick or Instant Replay.
NFL SuperPro was launched with a thick collector’s edition “Super Bowl Special” origin story, scripted by Fabian Nicieza, in 1991. The title proper launched later that same year – Spider-Man had a guest shot in the first issue – and ran for twelve issues. This is a painfully dorky comic, no question, with hokey cameos by real NFL notables and cringe-worthy bantering dialogue: “I’ve been on the trail of an illegal steroid production ring…but this little play from scrimmage didn’t gain me much yardage, so…Arrivederci!“
But it’s sort of nicely drawn, by the likes of Jose Delbo and Mike DeCarlo, and on the whole it’s an amusing read. It probably could make an enjoyably campy movie – maybe a good vehicle for Tim Tebow, with a blond dye-job? If he turns out to be a bad actor, no harm no foul – Marlon Brando couldn’t improve this dialogue. Even Joe Namath couldn’t.
Previously by M.V. Moorhead: