On a tree-filled state university campus, amid the song of crickets in the bushes, and the notes of a distant bell-tower, and the sound of cleats tearing through grass, and the slaps of leather footballs against hands, I found the face of the National Football League this week.
Despite what the endless providers of sports news would have us believe, the face of the NFL does not belong to Michael Vick, recently of Leavenworth, or Plaxico Burress, heading for a jail cell of his own, or Brett Favre, who imprisons the fans and the cameras with his own endless soap opera. No, the face of professional belongs to Leger Douzable: a smiley, buoyant 305-pound 23-year-old defensive lineman from Tampa, the son of a worker for the local electric company. You’ve never heard of Leger Douzable, and possibly never will again. But right now, he is in uniform for the New York Giants, and like a thousand other borderline names playing the game in training camps under broiling suns from sea to shining sea, with no promise of a job or a paycheck or a living, he is in heaven. And as long as an NFL football team can still be seen from a few yards away, amid the scents and songs of summer, then so am I.
Summer-morning training-camp football is pure football, free of television, free of blaring stadium rock anthems, free of the jabber of self-serious talking heads babbling endlessly. Training-camp football is not a game played by millionaired entertainers. It’s a game played by eighty sweating guys who, like Leger Douzable, like to play their sport. In the summer, away from the lights, under a summer sun, they play it every day. And when they do, it really does feel like they’re playing.
“I had a dream when I was a little kid,” Leger Douzable told me, happily pausing on his way into Albany’s utilitarian college cafeteria for lunch. “I wanted to play in the NFL,” he said. “People told me, `You know hard that is?’ I said, `I don’t care. `I’m going to be there.’ This is the game I love,” he said.
For now, he’s playing that game, and is very happy to be doing so. And that happiness is infectious. Leger Douzable makes this game a game again.
On this day, the man who has been nicknamed Douzy was wearing a post-practice pair of gold University of Central Florida practice shorts, and a black tee shirt emblazoned with the legend, “Be The Change.” This was the slogan of the African American Student Union at Central Florida two years ago, when Douzable was an officer in that college union. In his case, that slogan, Be The Change, is still appropriate today, in a couple of ways.
To start with, if this large man makes this team, it will signify change indeed, for the odds are virtually insurmountable. The Giants are young Douzable’s second professional team. He was dropped from the Minnesota Vikings’ practice squad last year. His future is very much uncertain. But for the next few weeks, until the next cut, he will be playing the game he loves wearing Giant blue, on a quiet upstate New York college practice field, surrounded by fathers and sons and mothers and daughters who have come to Albany not just to glimpse the superstars, but to watch the ritual — the whole sea of faces, some recognizable, some anonymous — in an up-close, simple football practice, with its distinct rhythms, its athletic choreography, its balletic one-on-one drills.
August football practice is a special kind of theater. And that’s where’s Leger Douzable and his teammates are agents of another kind of change. Like the other eighty players in camp, he is, at least for a couple of weeks, turning a corporate, overproduced sport back into something you can smell and hear and taste and touch. Something personal. Something very, very close to its roots.
So it seems very fitting that, over on the next field, the University of Albany football team, the Great Danes, are also practicing in their garish purple and yellow uniforms. There are no doubt a few starry-eyed Leger Douzables among them. The Albany Great Danes are not all that different from the Giants – except, of course, in the quality of their play. But at some point in their past – playing in Pee Wee Leagues, in junior high – they were all Leger Douzables. Only at training camp at a faceless state university could it feel completely natural to have the two teams side by side, reminding us that there’s a game buried somewhere beneath the glitter. That underneath the frosting of the big game is nothing but a sport, played by big, smiling kids.
I think we need that reminder. The National Football League is becoming more distant from the feel of the sport itself. As its ratings climb and its prime-time presence expands, as the commentators ordain themselves as geniuses, the game is being eaten up by the show. More and more, the focus is on the athletes as celebrities, the game as spectacle – and business. Which is why a professional football training camp is an extraordinary thing in an age of overkill and pedestal worship. Training camp is the last place – the only place – where the game still reigns supreme. Where on the field, boys who have become men can be boys again and, in the little bleachers to the side of the field, fans can be just fans, instead of goonish players in a prime-time network entertainment show.
That morning Giant practice featured one special play. There were a lot of good plays, a lot of exciting plays that day. But this one was special on all sides of the ball. Eli Manning faded back and threw a lovely, arcing spiral all the way down the field. David Tyree, a veteran who once had a great moment but is now, too, struggling to make the team, reached up and caught the ball over his head, in stride, for a touchdown. And that was cool enough.
But what was even cooler was the fans’ response: not raucous screams or chants, not beery high-fives. No, the small crowd applauded, loudly, enthusiastically. It was more than an expression delight. It was an expression of thanks. It was almost…well, polite. It sounded like the bond between a team and its fans – a healthy, nurturing bond. Not a crazed one. The applause of normal, everyday people who were appreciative of the chance to see the team without frill. Playing the sport, not the show.
That civility didn’t end on the field. Back near the cafeteria, virtually all of the players signed autographs, one by one, and when they did so, superstar, rookie and also-rans alike, they were people interacting with people, and to a man, they really seemed to enjoy it. But no one as much as Leger Douzable. It so happens that, a few days earlier, late at night, on the very last play of a preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, in a stadium that was largely empty, Douzy turned a game around. He beat his man and hit the quarterback’s arm. The ball popped up and landed in the hands of another Giant rookie named Tommie Hill, who ran it in for the winning touchdown.
It was the kind of play that every kid dreams of making. It’s on tape, too. Tape that the other 31 teams will watch. So that if the Giants decide that Leger Douzable is expendable, and turn him loose, maybe another team will pick him up.
“I take each opportunity I see,” he told me, “and I go with it.”
August football, free admission, summer-morning men and boys at play. That’s the opportunity. If you want to be reminded that football can still be a game, you should take that opportunity. Leger Douzable would appreciate it.