Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below.
— Grantland Rice, New York Herald Tribune, October 18, 1924
JERUSALEM — Saturday night before the Super Bowl, on the green plastic turf of Kraft Stadium in the middle of the city, two simultaneous six man flag football games are in play to determine who will advance to the next round of the Holyland Bowl. As a parent of one of the players, I am proud. However, I doubt that old Grantland Rice would have been as happy, because these boys on the field are undermining the import of his revered prose.
With what many acknowledge as the greatest journalistic lede of the 20th century, Rice’s lyric coverage of the 1924 Army-Notre Dame game transformed the country’s perception and expectations of a sport dominated by relatively elite college boys. By fusing the imagery of end times onto a simple contest of territorial domination, “the Dean of American Sportswriters” re-defined football to this day. Rice deftly morphed primal youthful scrum-running into a contest of quasi moral and spiritual dimensions. He gave the game its mythology, and thus its meaning. In a flash of blinding creativity, he anticipated every frame of every NFL Film that would ever be made.
Back then, the country’s reaction to Rice’s pop eschatology was visceral and immediate. So confident was the flack for Notre Dame that they had struck PR gold, he telegraphed from the train station ahead to South Bend to have four horses ready for a photo op for the newly-dubbed “Four Horsemen.” From that day forward, successful football promotion relied on finding the Manichean pivot point of every contest, the frame with which every match could either personify or at least preface a “final” (biblically predicted) showdown of good and evil.
Here in Israel, the home of the Granddaddy of all Apocalypses, they don’t need sport to offer any kind of ersatz life/death struggle. Many of the players are American boys who have just graduated high school and are spending a year studying here before returning to enter college. The Israeli participants, though, are beginning their Army obligation. No one here confuses football with war.
True grit and true tragedy are all too close. Last week, one of the league’s best players perished in a parachute training accident. Yossi Goodman and his father Marvin — an expatriate from New York — had actually played on the same team together for the last two seasons. Games were cancelled coinciding with the funeral last Friday. The grief is widespread and the parental anguish incalculable.
Because the challenges of existence here are so vivid, sport becomes what it should be — a release rather than a reality. Born out of an informal touch football league in 1988, the American Football in Israel association now fields 70 teams in four leagues. There’s even a women’s league, providing the young religious girls in seminary their only outlet for organized sports, in a context that does not compromise their codes of observance. Some of the boys have found their football “careers” so thrilling that they have signed up for a second year of rigorous Torah study so that they can participate in another championship season. All of the leagues are fulfilling the prescription of the medieval Jewish philosopher (and physician) Maimonides, who outlined a life of balanced physical and spiritual harmony.
JUST AS THE GAME has come from America, so have the resources to make it happen. A few years ago, one of the players spotted New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft in the lobby of the King David Hotel and educated him on the difficulties they were having finding playing fields. League President Steve Leibowitz then followed up — with the support of then-mayor Ehud Olmert — by going to Massachusetts to make an in-person presentation. From that meeting came the Kraft Family Stadium, actually a field with some modest perimeter seating. Last February, when Bob and Mira Kraft came here to dedicate the new Fieldturf surface to more than a thousand grateful players and fans, they lugged along the Super Bowl trophy, the first time the object had ever left North America.
Devoid of cheerleaders, bands, and sound effects, underscored only by the shouts and chants of small but sincere student fans, tonight’s game goes well. A wide receiver possessing my last name makes a momentum-shifting long catch. A 13-point deficit is erased in the final seconds, and by one point the underdogs survive to play another week.
Somewhere, Walter Camp is smiling. This is precisely the kind of game the “Father of Football” had in mind more than a century ago when he created an Americanized rugby to develop in youth the qualities of self-control, leadership, citizenship, and rugged individualism. As the victorious players scream and whelp on this cold late night, a hundred years of filth have been scrubbed off the game, and we see it as the master created it.
I’m told the Super Bowl will be available on television, but I feel no compunction to stay up until 1:30 in the morning for the kickoff. Watching the boys of Kraft Stadium has sated my sports lust. The spectacle on television would be like a bag of Cheetos after you’ve just enjoyed a perfect quiche.
In an imperfect world, people come to Jerusalem to pray for and await the Messiah. We ponder our personal imperfections, and wonder how it is ever possible to rise above our animalistic selves. In contrast, football has come to Zion and shed its materialism, its narcissism, its arrogance, its diasporic pretensions — even its pretentious roman numerals. Football, now purified, offers hope to fallen man. Football, that most unlikely of human activities, is showing us the way. Football has been redeemed.