Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Seashells and EMTs

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the road to seashells and balloons in the NFL does not involve being a defensive lineman and the No. 1 overall pick.

The first name that springs to mind faster than he ever sprang in real life is Walt Patulski. Walt Patulski; even the name evokes onion farming in the mud flats of central New Jersey. But what can you say? The guy was a Notre Damer, and Notre Dame defensive linemen are famous for translating their college gridiron exploits into professional success. Except for Mike McCoy. And Kevin Hardy. And Paul Grasmanis. And Steve Niehaus. And Jeff Alm and Mike Fanning and Mike Kadish and Chris Zorich. [1]

There were exceptions to the linemen-No.-1-overall thing, namely Lee Roy Selmon and Bruce Smith. And we won’t be too hard on Bubba Smith, who was headed to Canton until his knees got in the way, forcing a career shift that netted him a special sort of fame that can only come from playing a token large black cop in a series of dumb-and-dumber movies.

But for every Lee Roy Selmon there were two Russell Marylands, and for every Bruce Smith there was a Kenneth Sims or a Courtney Brown. And for every Mario Williams (who is not a sure-shot Cantonian by any means) there is a Steve Emtman.

Steve Emtman was neither the guy who composed the music for the Batman movies nor the guy who snatched the foul ball from Moises Alou at Wrigley Field. He was a very active if not Mt. Rainier-sized defensive end from Washington who was chosen No. 1 overall by the Colts in 1992, at the very height of the Handful O’Landfill era.

A big reason why for so many years the Colts were the Colllllllts, just two small vowels away from colitis, was because when the Cowboys had the overall No. 1 they chose Troy Aikman, and when the Colts had the overall No. 1, they chose Steve Emtman. [2]

You can’t fault the Colts for not knowing that Emtman was a ticking time bomb of bodily breakdowns that would blow nine games into his rookie season, when he tore everything tearable in his left knee. The next year he shredded the patellar tendon in his right knee. The year after that he blew out a disc in his neck in a collision with a teammate. [3]

This particular card was the promo card, the high supreme collectible, of Courtside’s 1992 Draft Pix set.

There are a number of incongruities to consider here. The first is that there would be a series of football-draft-pick cards called Courtside. It’s a little like oceanfront property in Nebraska. The other is that something could conceivably be accomplished by shortening “Picks” to “Pix.” How does that make these cards more fun, more youthful, more dynamic, more collectible, or anything other than more dysfunctional? In the end, they kinda deserved Steve Emtman, and he them.

The combination of No. 1 overall and Colts and defensive lineman – and Courtside endorser – was lethal. Steve Emtman should consider himself lucky he got out alive.

The one true golden non-sport franchise regardless of manufacturer, time, date, place, cost, quality of cards, or quantity of cards was Star Trek. This was because the absolute best audience for non-sport trading cards was Trekkies, seeing as they were spending every waking hour, all five-and-a-half of them, hanging out at their local card-cum-comics stores throughout the entire span of the Handful O’Landfill era, Sundays and holidays included, arguing over why there weren’t more Klingons in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and playing marathon sessions of RuneQuest because Dungeons & Dragons just wasn’t hardcore enough.

(Okay, I realize I’m painting with a broad brush here. Many Trekkies overcame their essential gravity and went on to have productive careers as video-store clerks, RPG programmers, and Medieval Languages majors.)

The Star Trek license made many stops along the way, including Topps, SkyBox, Decipher, and the Rittenhouse Archives. All of them made money for the licensee and the licensor. But despite the wealth of material – remembering that you could done screen captures of the original episodes at one-second intervals, so you could have made flip movies with a complete set, and they would have sold like William Shatner hairpieces – SkyBox in particular always gave the impression with its cards that it was scraping the bottom of an extremely large barrel.

Case in point: This card from the 1991 Star Trek set shows cover art from one of the few Star Trek art forms that didn’t crush it at the box office, the Star Trek Pocket Books. The artwork is black-velvet quality – maybe that’s why the Pocket Books didn’t sell, huh? – and couldn’t be any less evocative of Star Trek or unseen enemies if it had featured golfing dolphins. [4]

Because it was Star Trek, this card sold along with all the others. But not on its merits. Because unless you’re naming a star, you can’t sell something you don’t have.

[1] We’ll give you Alan Page, and call it a draw on Justin Tuck, Bryant Young and Renaldo Wynn.
[2] This was not an isolated instance. Two years earlier the Colts had the No. 1 overall and chose Jeff George, just to get the taste of Art Schlichter out of their mouths. And back in 1983 when the Colts had the overall No. 1 they chose John Elway, but were forced to ship him to Denver in a blackmail deal involving Mark Herrmann, Chris Hinton and a couple of mismatched socks. Some people say the Colts should get a get-out-of-jail-free card because Elway wanted to play on the West Coast. I say if the Colts had been something other than the Colllllts Elway would have been happy as a clam in Baltimapolis. Uneasy lies the crown on Andrew Luck’s head.
[3] Having a name that started with “EMT” might have been a giveaway.
[4] Reference: Sometime during the Handful O’Landfill era we received in our office a copy of a kids’ book titled Arnold Palmer and the Golfin’ Dolphin. It wasn’t explicitly stated in the book or the accompanying materials, but I got the very strong impression that a significant quantity of Arnold Palmer Hard Half and Half was involved in the creation of this book. In the end, it was just another high-concept media project that fell flat. Like Cop Rock.

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