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VOL. 40 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 8, 2016

It’s deja vu all over again for football reenactors

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“I didn’t set out to write about the melancholy bewilderment of middle-aged men,” says Chris Bachelder of his fifth novel, “The Throwback Special.” “But that’s where I ended up.” And, IMO, he ended up with a very special book.

Reading “Throwback” for the third time, I’m prepping to lead a four-week discussion of it. Structurally, the book is unique: It has no plot as such and no single protagonist. It’s about 22 guys who meet once a year to play football.

How does one write a novel with no plot and no main character? Think of a sporting event that made a huge impact on you and go from there.

OK, it’s a tad more complex than that. But Bachelder did start with a single football play – the one that, memorably, ended the career of Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann.

As witnessed by millions via Monday Night Football on Nov. 18, 1995, Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor leaped on Theismann as he dodged a potential tackler. The two bones in Theismann’s lower leg snapped. Joe’s 163rd consecutive NFL game was his last. ESPN would label the play the “most shocking moment in football history.”

The men in the book meet at a small motel on a Friday night; endure a “lottery” to see who plays what position and, on Saturday night, go to a middle school football field to re-enact this one play. Which, in 1985 real time, lasted five seconds.

Bachelder finds “density and power” in the play, “like some kind of astronomical event.” He saw it happen when he was 14. I saw it when I was 33. The injury was not visible from the regular camera angle.

The Throwback Special

by Chris Bachelder

213 pages

W.W. Norton & Company

$25.95

Frank Gifford prefaced the reverse angle replay by saying “if your stomach is weak … just don’t watch.”

I watched. And wished I hadn’t.

After taking an interest in this as a subject, Bachelder worked with it for a while – between two and 30 years. The injury morphed from subject to context.

“Throwback” is not about football. But about relationships and all that go with them: trust, mistrust, joy, sadness, elation, heartbreak and more.

It’s about meeting for a smoke out near the dumpster, sharing stories over continental breakfast, waiting in line for a bad haircut from Carl and (this year at least) dealing with Prestige Vista Solutions, a group who managed somehow to reserve the conference room in which the Lottery has taken place for 15 years.

I found the book to be LOL funny, poignant, moving and charming. I forced myself to read it the first time without pen in hand. I now have highlighting in three colors and more marginalia than I can shake a PaperMate Flair at.

So, who are these guys – Adam, Andy, Bald Michael, Carl, Chad, Charles, Derek, Fat Michael, Gary, George, Gil, Jeff, Myron, Nate, Peter, Randy, Robert, Steven, Tommy, Trent, Vince and Wesley – who reunite each year to spend one minute on a football field, in full gear?

“[M]en of a certain age, probably mid-40s,” Bachelder replies. “They’ve reached a point [where they’ve begun to see] they don’t have as much control over their lives as they thought.”

And “the play” has become a “dark, catastrophic potential underneath [their] plans.” So, in a “primitively religious” manner, they try to perfect and control an event, the meaning of which is that nothing can be controlled and perfected.

My favorite quotation, by a hair:

“The men had reached an age when they gained and lost significant things in relatively short periods of time, and it was not unusual for someone to show up … having acquired or divested weight, God, alcohol, sideburns, potency, fertility, cyst, tattoo, medical devices that clipped to the belt and beeped, or huge radio-controlled model airplanes.”

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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