February 1, 2007
Sweetness and the Super Bowl
— Christian Sheppard
The Bears are going to the Super Bowl, their first visit in over twenty years. This chance to perform before the nation's largest audience has been hard won and long in coming. An ancient Roman such as Julius Caesar would say the Bears had earned the favor of Fortuna, that fickle goddess who is not just and whose favor can be won only fleetingly. The Bears' return to the Super Bowl makes me recall Walter Payton, whom coach Mike Ditka called "the greatest football player ever, period." Walter Payton displayed a kind of physical virtuosity and spiritual strength that theology would not deem transcendent, but that classical poets and philosophers would have praised in religious terms -- and so may we.
Dance choreographer Mark Morris describes grace as "employing the most direct action to accomplish a task." Such grace implies straight lines, Euclidian clarity of the shortest distance between two points. As Walter Payton once observed, football is "a game of angles and seconds." The coaches' plans -- their abstract Xs, Os, and arrows -- are translated into the dimension of time by players who must practice in harmony as a team and find the game's rhythm. The football field presents a geometric grid of green grass and white chalk lines, a scale to measure a player's performance. Walter Payton's runs, his quick cuts and his long accelerating strides, expressed grace more eloquently than any words. So they called him "Sweetness."
Sweetness described football as "performing, like ballet, except with contact." His runs epitomized this added dimension of the fighting spirit. Walter Payton would not only break tackles, he would run into people, run over them. When chased to the sidelines, where most players would step out of bounds to protect themselves, Walter Payton would turn on his pursuer to offer his own parting hit, as if he were enraged to be driven from that sacred chalked-off space where he could run and so prove his grace. His motto was, "Never die easy."
At his final press conference, his once statuesque physique was visibly diminished by the cancer within him. The physical virtues he embodied passed so easily away. As Virgil said, "there are tears for passing things; here, too / things mortal touch the mind." Walter Payton knew this. It was the secret to his graceful running. It was why he never died easy, why he never wanted to run out of bounds. His time on the field, he knew, was precious. I see Walter Payton on the last game day of his career. He is sitting on the bench alone with his helmet still on, holding his head in his hands and weeping. Just as he never wanted to run out of bounds, so he wept then because he would forever be excluded from that free field of play.
The Bears going to the Super Bowl is a rare occurrence, something for fans to savor -- for football does not indicate eternity or transcendence; it intimates the transience of success and the vicissitudes of fortune. It focuses our attention upon an ever-fleeting present, wherein consolation comes amidst conflict. The game doesn't have to mean anything; after all, it's only a game. The "eternal field" is contrived, chalk lines measured out in English yards. Against the backdrop of life and death, war and peace, all the ado about a football game may seem perverse. But it is an opportunity we have made to exhibit what we hold to be virtues. One team will lose so that the other can win. Neither is assured another opportunity to play such a game again. We have contrived something at once ridiculous and sublime.
I'm thankful this new Super Bowl team has recalled Sweetness for me. May these new Bears be inspired by his spirit. The vagaries of fortune and the fleetingness of grace are often referred to as the sadness of the pagans. But the pagans acknowledged their sadness and developed an imperative from it, an imperative that Walter Payton embodied in his practice and play, in his life and in his death: Do not dwell on personal tragedy but recognize the tragic nature of reality -- and, as the Roman Stoics said, Carpe diem, "Seize the day." Or as we sing here in Chicago: "Bear down, Chicago Bears!"
Christian Sheppard, a Lecturer at the University of Chicago, is currently finishing a book about baseball and religion.
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