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The most dangerous game (except for all the other games)

Mike Boryla’s Disappearing Quarterback’

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4 minute read
The courage to face linebackers — and a theater audience. (Photo: Steven M. Falk/philly.com.)
The courage to face linebackers — and a theater audience. (Photo: Steven M. Falk/philly.com.)

Mike Boryla, the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback, has a story to tell, even if he’s not much of a storyteller himself. The story is what professional football does to the men who play the game, and what happens to them after they retire.

Alex Karras, the former Detroit Lions guard, became a movie actor with a surprisingly deft comedic touch (Blazing Saddles, Victor/Victoria). Alan Page, a six-time All-Pro defensive tackle with the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, earned a law degree while still a player and now sits on the Minnesota Supreme Court as an associate justice. Boryla himself, now in his 60s, evolved into a lawyer, a mortgage banker, and then a playwright. But they are the exceptions. According to some reports, the average pro football player lasts just three seasons and dies at the age of 55. Former players “look and walk like old men,” Boryla says. “They all walk away with memory problems.”

Name dropping

Boryla was good enough to make it to the big time and wise enough to walk away after just five seasons. “For the next 30 years, I never went to another game,” he tells his audience in his one-man monologue, The Disappearing Quarterback. Yet this 75-minute show — a disjointed collection of miscellaneous memories (Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo “looked like a Mafia hit man”), name-dropping (Eagles owner Leonard Tose was called “Velvet Pants” by his players), and genuine insights about the damage caused by concussions — suggests that, for better or worse, Boryla never really let the game go.

As Boryla tells it, he was a fish out of water in the National Football League: a Stanford hippie among goons from football factories, a “skinny white guy” among huge African-Americans, and a thinker who survived by studying the Bible and George Orwell by himself “while everyone else was partying.” Boryla summarized the best of these insights more than a year ago in Broad Street Review. (Click here.)

Mother’s tears

Boryla clearly intends The Disappearing Quarterback as his contribution to recent revelations of the long-term damage caused by football concussions and the NFL’s efforts to conceal such reports from its players. Standing on a stage and trying to make sense of his violent but obscenely lucrative sport may require even more courage than submitting to the repeated batterings of NFL linebackers on a football field, and for that Boryla deserves our gratitude.

Unfortunately, Boryla the actor lacks the magnetic stage presence of, say, Rocky Graziano, Archie Moore, or Jersey Joe Walcott — boxers who practiced an even more violent sport than football and subsequently achieved credible if modest success as actors. And too often Boryla falls back on tired rhetorical analogies — for example, comparing the spectacle of pro football to the gladiatorial circuses of ancient Rome. His presentation offers a few genuine nuggets, like the time, after his third NFL concussion, when Boryla’s mother, a nurse, phoned him in tears and pleaded with him to quit the game. Yet ultimately he retired because, he says, “The Lord told me to quit.” This is not terribly useful information when you consider that the Lord also told Osama bin Laden to bomb the World Trade Center and advised John Brown to hack open the skulls of slavery sympathizers in Kansas.

Longstreth, by comparison

If I were Boryla —and God knows I’m not (I spent two seasons as a fourth-string varsity end at Penn and loved every minute of it) — I’d engage the audience in a talkback instead of a monologue. Their questions might elicit more drama and insight than The Disappearing Quarterback provides.

Boryla’s story isn’t all that different from that of Thacher Longstreth, the late Philadelphia City Councilman and two-time Republican mayoral candidate. After making All-America at Princeton, Longstreth in 1941 flirted briefly with an offer to play professional football for the Cleveland Rams for $100 a game. As Longstreth told it in his memoirs (on which I collaborated), he asked the coach — a tough old gladiator named Dutch Clark — whether he was good enough to play pro football.

“If I had a Princeton education and was married to a beautiful girl like you are,” Clark replied, “I’d get the hell out of here. Everyone on this team is either out of the mines or off the farms.” (The NFL had no black players in those days.) “If you’re going to play football, you’re going to be playing with guys who are inherently much tougher than you are. They’re not physically any stronger or quicker, but they’re tougher. And they have a much different attitude toward life, because they’re never going to improve themselves, except through the vehicle of football. You’ve got all kinds of ways to make it. I think the least of them is going to be football. Unless you’re trying to prove something, or unless you love the game, I’d take a walk.”

Less than a year later Longstreth was a naval ensign stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, enduring the genuine life-threatening terror of Japanese kamikaze attacks. So: Why do men play dangerous games like football? You’d do better to ask: Why do they go to war? And if you had to choose the lesser of these two nasty outlets for working off male aggressions, which would you pick?

What, When, Where

The Disappearing Quarterback. By Mike Boryla; Daniel Student directed. Through February 5, 2014 at Plays and Players Theatre, Skinner Studio, 1714 Delancey Pl. (866) 811-4111 or www.playsandplayers.org.

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